6.20.2005

Morgan Spurlock and 30 Days

A big fan of Super-Size Me, I eagerly tuned into the debut of Morgan Spurlock's new hourlong documentary show 30 Days when it premiered on FX last week. The premise is, á la Super-Size, that Morgan will document 30 days of somethin—minimum wage work, exercise, etc.—for the good of...the good.

In the first installment, Spurlock and his partner move to Columbis, Ohio, and secure minimum wage work. His girlfriend gets a dishwashing job at a cafe while Spurlock takes up odd construction, landscaping, and restaurant work. They move into a bug-infested apartment with basically just the clothes on their back—and no heat until they have enough dough to start the service.

Their 30 days documents the financial hardships of the minimum wage earner and makes a strong argument for a federal wage increase, yes. Spurlock and his partner scrimp and save as much as they can but are knocked out by back-to-back emergency room visits (his for work-related wrist injury; hers for a nasty UTI). For his partner's 30th birthday, they must choose between a $20 meal out (which goes overbudget) or a visit to the local conservatory (adult ticket price: $6).

Spurlock repeatedly asks the camera during his "confessional" moments: How do people live like this?

I respect Spurlock and I respect what he's doing, but I was also a little outraged by this episode. Spurlock and his partner, despite their "immersion" in the culture of poverty, are still just tourists there. Any minimum wage earner in our country doesn't have the luxury of asking how people live that way—because they're too busy living that way. Throughout the episode, Spurlock provides a brief history of the minimum wage and its current status—that there's been no increase since (I believe) 1997. It's horrific to be one of America's working poor, but it's sort of irresponsible to live above the poverty line and profess to understand what it's like after just 30 days.

It's a complication that speaks to my relationship with poetries of witness. Witness is such a difficult thing to communicate because it can easily encroach on violence. For example, Spurlock is attempting to provide a witness of an experience that isn't entirely his. I don't know where to draw the line in terms of witness, either. It can be a slippery slope. But I think recognizing the difficulty of witness is a good start on the path to keeping it "honest," if that's even possible.

6 comments:

  1. Okay.

    Morgan Spurlock is not a "dreamboat".

    Also: As one who's sensitive about this issue, I feel the need to comment (though I also feel the need to RUN out and see this movie). You're right. 30 days is not enough time for anyone to understand what it's like to be part of the working poor in America. He can't fully understand poverty. He can't get inside the psychology of it, especially when he knows he'll be returning safely to a comfortable life at the end of said 30 days. "How do people live like this?" They have to. And the working poor in America have it INFINITELY better than the poor other places. What I find so great about this concept is just the glimpse. I don't know what, if anything, it does for the working class poor. And it would be interesting to me to find out what Spurlock intends to do with the money he stands to make on this film given the success of Super Size Me. But I think it's admirable that this is out there. And if it's hard to look at, even better.

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  2. Yes, yes, and yes for tying it into the poetry of witness--though I still want to see future episodes (I missed last week's). The most frightening truth of Supersize Me, for me, was Morgan's deadened sex drive. Yeow. Clog my arteries, pack pounds on my thighs, but mama don't take my kodachrome away...

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  3. I can't tell you how many times I've read a poem that was transparently "Look how compassionate I, the poet-as-narrator, was toward this (homeless person/handicapped child/minority/etc.)!" It's a patronizing approach that makes me want to vomit. Anyway, I bet Spurlock's show isn't quite that bad.

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  4. Charles: this sounds fascinating and I want to see it. I think you are exactly right about the "tourism/witness" thing. But it's probably better than not even trying to walk in someone else's shoes for a little while. (30d would be an eternity for me!)

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  5. Have you read Nickled and Dimed? When I heard about this episode, my first thought was that the idea was a direct rip-off from Ehrenreich.

    --dba

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  6. I like "Poetry of Witness" best when it acknowledges the darkness in the witness, the eye that can't turn away from the horror is also savoring it, no?

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