Weighing In: Fitness Films and Ordinary People

When fitness celebrities turn fat folks into fitness celebrities in their own image, self-preservation and betterment are eclipsed by the value of self-promotion. Remember the subjects undergoing these life-changing metamorphoses are “real” people.

I Still Want to Slap Somebody

Cross sets himself up as their prophet, pusher, and priest, first preaching the benefits of juicing, then having them drink his concoction, and finally listening as they confess their food sins. In a couple of cases, Cross and his crew try too hard to find stereotypical images of middle American life, creating an unneeded, ripped-from-the-Michael Moore-playbook scene of awkward comedy from a gun store owner and visiting a clearly non-juicy lunch hour at the “Cowboy Café” in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Here he basically accosts a family enjoying their comfort food and has them ponder sickness and death on camera, during their meal. As the gallery of people on the street continues to speed by, they are made to seem increasingly unsophisticated and definitely fatter, many frankly without any hope for living a healthy life.

But not all of the bystanders are portrayed as hopeless, and Cross’s film markedly improves when he steps aside and hands the controlling voice of the film over to ordinary subjects willing to follow his program. The first of these is Siong Norte from Waterloo, Iowa, who pledges to try a ten-day fast. She’s refreshingly straightforward but not without some vanity. She cares about her appearance, but she also wants to rid herself of migraine headaches. There’s much for a viewer to learn in her experience (for one, she reveals how she lost so much waste in the initial days of the fast -- an unpleasant reality Cross somehow seems above noting).

Indeed, Norte provides the money quote of the film, admitting, “I’ve meditated, I’ve stretched, I’ve chanted, I’ve prayed -- And I still want to slap somebody.” This reaction to a fitness regimen is one to which most viewers could relate. And whereas Cross presents his very controlled image in virtual separation, Norte appears with her husband, who is not fasting and in fact seems to enjoy indulging in all of the things his wife cannot eat. The lack of editorial intervention in these observed moments conveys the actuality of the transformation, and all of its attendant frustration and unfulfilled desire.

The real turning point of the film is Cross’s encounter with Phil Riverstone-- a trucker in Winslow, Arizona who, like Cross suffers from an overactive immune system. Cross seems genuinely shocked to meet someone with his exact condition and invites the obese Riverstone to drink some juice. He tells him, “This stuff will save your life.”

Cross and his film move on, but Riverstone lingers in the mind. We see rays of positivity from Norte who, after ten days of fasting, says she would probably do it again. Cross experiences his own milestone, breaking his fast in now-typical showboating fashion. He hires a hot-air balloon ride and says, “Up in that balloon, I renewed my commitment to eat nothing but micronutrient food until I was free of my medication and then the real test: Would I be able to achieve and maintain a life with balance?”

Eight weeks go by, and Cross appears to have achieved “balance”, but in truth he now exists completely outside of the great unwashed world he first infiltrated with his camera. Sure, he’s thinner, but he’s also wearing expensive clothes, investing his riches, and taking meetings with fashion designers who testify to his newfound clarity. This sequence -- in which he’s lost some belly fat but taken on all the stereotypically elite trappings of the privileged class -- resembles nothing so much as a Christopher Guest film. How is a lady like Norte, a guy like Riverstone, or the average viewer supposed to relate to this display of wealth?

Turns out it doesn’t matter, as Riverstone calls Cross to ask for help and ushers in the film’s meaningful core. Cross’s recurring tangents of self-promotion are barely blips on the screen next to the story of Riverstone’s self-preservation. The cynical view is to say that the production orchestrated Riverstone’s call to add some surprise to the proceedings. But his cry for help seems credible, as it is so genuinely rooted in his extreme condition. Even if he were encouraged to make the call, this is still a desperate man taking a very important step in preserving his life.

Riverstone’s plea causes Cross to rush to Iowa and set him up for a ten day fast. As in the early section of the film, the production consults doctors to approve the subject for the fast. In Riverstone’s case, he’s too large to endure some of their normal tests, but the physicians clear him. It should be noted that Riverstone is given some special considerations to which viewers at home wouldn’t necessarily have access. Cross sets Riverstone up in a waterside retreat where he can avoid temptation while fasting.

Yet it's in this isolation that the film’s most heartfelt moments occur. In a dimly lit night interview, Riverstone identifies his personal reasons for overeating. This interview is refreshingly absent of the kind of excessive manufactured emotion and editorializing found in The Biggest Loser. He says his life fell apart after a second divorce, and that he’s been a horrible father. His weight and shame have caused him to hide from his family.

When Cross comes back onto the narration accompanied by annoying animation, it’s like a different film has intruded. He unintentionally trivializes Riverstone’s story by using cheap animation (imagine a low-rent Osmosis Jones) in order to emphasize the power of micronutrients. From there, Cross’s appearances become even more egregious, climaxing in a sequence when he drives an expensive Jeep to the beach and strides along the water to INXS’ “New Sensation”.

Despite these increasingly bizarre detours, Riverstone’s tale is truly remarkable. Whereas Cross’s journey began with a desire to help others but appears to have turned into a progressively self-focused endeavor, Riverstone emerges from his closed-off existence to save the lives of others. After he completes a 30 day fast and loses 60 pounds, he begins a community juice fast at a local shop, and other stories like Riverstone’s begin to take shape in his town.

He reaches out to his brother, who is also very unhealthy, and whose heart attack during production provides the wake-up call to a catastrophe Riverstone narrowly avoided. The film treats his journey as a success story not only of individual transformation, but also one of interpersonal encouragement. At film’s end he is hundreds of pounds lighter and looks years younger. More importantly, he’s been able to positively influence others and reintegrate into his family.

While there is a puzzling disconnect between Cross’s social mission and his vanity, he is undeniably responsible for sparking the transformation in Riverstone. Likewise, although Cross frequently goes off message to highlight the superficial benefits of his big weight loss idea, he and/or his editors are wise enough to eventually hand over the voice of the film to the ordinary subject for whom the film is ostensibly being made. In the end, the film’s star is Phil Riverstone, a truck driver who couldn’t be further removed from the suave Joe Cross.

If only viewed as a portrait of these two men, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead is a film impossibly at odds with itself. However, when considered on ethical grounds, the film succeeds by celebrating the possibility of a heroic journey within a regular life.

Compared to similar programming, the film is much better than available alternatives. A recent episode description for Fat Families reads: “The D’Arciers try to shed their jelly-bellies.” Its star host, Steve Miller, is absolutely brutal in his commentary about the mother/daughter subjects, calling them “this pair of fatties” and suggesting that their home in Yorkshire is “more like Porkshire.” More than once, Miller calls them “wobblers”. His continuous stream of catty comments occurs entirely in the voiceover track, which means that he’s able to hurl these insults from a distance.

Then, during his sit-down interaction with the family members, he draws out their tears with cheap emotional appeals. Later, the reward for their exploitation is that he observes, “What a lovely family”, but only after he’s had his way with them.

Similarly, on an episode of I Used to Be Fat, high school student Daria is the seeming host of her own journey through weight loss, but she is at the mercy of the show’s rather merciless format. This means that she’s set up for awkward confrontations with her mother (a classic enabler who says her daughter should love her curves) and her trainer (at whom she screams uncontrollably whilst running on a treadmill). These are the scenes that MTV prioritizes within the plot, so that Daria’s voice and perspective are made less important and secondary to the high drama and dysfunction.

Despite odd juxtapositions and star/director Cross’s tone-deafness to the real value of his effects, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead honors its ordinary human subject in a way that is all too rare in media about weight loss. Encouragingly, the marketing forces behind the film must have identified that as the finished film’s ultimate strength: The YouTube channel for the film hosts videos of viewers and others in the film’s community of fans who are going through their own “reboots” and transformations.

Of course, there’s also the occasional video from thin Joe Cross. But he functions best as a supporting player amongst the everyday people who have become the true stars of his fitness movement.

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