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‘Scarf Face’ (review)

I discovered competitive eating on the Fourth of July.

A lot of people can probably say the same.

For me, it was 2004, and I had tuned into the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN to try to spot my brother in the crowd.

I was too distracted to notice him though. It was like coming up on a car crash on the highway: I couldn’t not look.

Transfixed by a spectacle of gluttony, I watched as Japanese power eater Takeru Kobayashi broke his own record while winning his fourth consecutive Nathan’s Famous contest.

Fifty-three and a half hot dogs in twelve minutes.

How? Why?

The documentary Scarf Face surveys the rising popularity of competitive eating following Kobayashi’s dramatic emergence at the Nathan’s Famous contest in 2001.

The film focuses on the annual Nathan’s competition, its organizer: Major League Eating, and breakout stars Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut.

The film chronicles the trajectory of competitive eating over twenty years from Kobayashi’s 2001 Nathan’s victory, his defeat by Joey Chestnut in 2007, and Chestnut’s eight year run as hot dog champion and subsequent return to the throne after 2016. Along the way, archival footage and interviews with over a dozen competitive eaters and others highlight a dysfunctional culture of eccentric personalities hustling to make careers out of their singular obsession.

Scarf Face explores the culture of modern competitive eating and its place within the modern world with a cynical eye. The film begins with a quick review of the lore of the Nathan’s Famous hot dog competition which purportedly reaches back to 1916. This leads into a montage of staged footage from the developing world where children appear to be tuning their televisions to coverage of the Nathan’s Famous competition.

“I’m hungry,” says one Mexican child.

“Quiet,” says another, “Joey Chestnut is about to come on.”

And they cheer.

The documentary is most interesting when peeling back the curtain to reveal the personalities behind competitive eating. Chestnut struggles with the scrutiny of celebrity. Other competitors dish behind the scenes gossip. Individuals wrestle to grab their proverbial piece of a small but lucrative pie. Kobayashi chases endorsement deals and exhibitions and runs afoul of MLE’s rigid management. Chestnut notes at one point that the outcome of Nathan’s will determine his income for the year.

Scarf Face is less effective in turning its cynicism into a solid critique. The film frequently teases the darker side of competitive eating but settles for innuendo over investigation.

For instance, the 2015 death of competitor Stephanie Torres points toward the possible health risks associated with the sport. Torres lost consciousness due to low potassium levels three days after a competition and later died. The film takes a skeptical view of fellow competitors who insist Torres’ death was unrelated to competitive eating without exploring the issue any further or even explaining how excessive water consumption, a competitive eating tactic, can lead to low potassium levels.

Likewise, some competitors suggest that bulimia plays a role in competitive eating. The film makes no effort to substantiate these claims or to explore their impact.

There are assertions throughout Scarf Face that Major League Eating, the organization which has come to be both the governing body of competitive eating events and the sole manager of their participants, has squeezed out talent like Kobayashi, limited media access, and rigged competition in order to maintain rigid brand control. Kobayashi rightly notes that such an arrangement unavoidably raises questions of conflict of interest. But those questions aren’t explored beyond an anonymous former competitor who declares all the contests rigged. A discrepancy with the count in 2018 and video troubles in 2021 are highlighted to cast further doubt on MLE.

I caught a few more Nathan’s competitions in the early 2000s and watched Kobayashi face off against a Kodiak bear. But just like gawking at a car accident, eventually you put your foot on the pedal and move along. The novelty and spectacle of competitive eating faded fast for me.

Scarf Face peels back the curtain a bit on the how and the why of it all.

The film is a fascinating look at the culture of competitive eating but lacks the critical depth suggested.

Scarf Face is now available on DVD and Digital HD

*  *  *  *  *
Produced and Directed by Sean Slater and Joseph Ruzer
Written by Sean Slater
Featuring George Shea, Takeru Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut, Eric Booker,
Crazy Legs Conti, Brian Dudzinski, Tim Janus, Edward Jarvis

 

 

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