You might know Errol Morris from his documentaries like Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, on emergent systems in topiary gardens and naked mole-rat colonies; The Fog of War, on the shadowy career of Robert McNamara; and Gates of Heaven, on competing pet cemeteries (which no less a critical authority than Roger Ebert has called one of the greatest films of all time). You might remember Morris’ interview-driven television series First Person with fondness — and, given its episodes on serial-killer groupies, cryonic head-freezers, and professional high-school students, perhaps a dash of disbelief. If nothing else, you’ve almost certainly seen Morris’ commercials for the likes of PBS, Volkswagen, and Miller High Life. In the last few years, he’s put out a new film, Tabloid, a book on the relationship of photography to reality, Believing is Seeing, and many a post on his New York Times blog. For Errol Morris fans, these are hearty times indeed.
As the newest addition to this Morissian abundance, the ten-minute documentary El Wingador profiles five-time Philadelphia Wing Bowl champion eater Bill “El Wingador” Simmons. To win the Wing Bowl, you must simply eat as many chicken wings as possible in the shortest amount of time. Such a mandate stretches the definition of “eat” to its breaking point; the trick, as Simmons tells Morris, is to train your jaw and esophagus not to chew, per se, but to bite and swallow, bite and swallow, bite and swallow — “don’t worry about choking.” For a man like El Wingador, eating, like any everyday activity taken to the level of elite competition, makes demands that would strike outsiders as grotesque: consuming eleven pounds of food per day, putting in hours-long sessions with baseball-sized wads of Tootsie Rolls, shoveling down handfuls of searing-hot pizza cheese, gnawing on rawhide bones meant for German Shepherds. And sometimes even insiders seem flummoxed by it all: asked if he would really consider his regimen an eating disorder, Simmons replies, “It’s gotta be a disorder, ‘cause it’s crazy, man.”
As a seemingly marginal subculture with its own rules, customs, hierarchies, and personalities, competitive eating would seem to comfortably inhabit Morris’ wheelhouse; it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d opted to make a feature-length documentary about it. But even in the brief minutes with Simmons El Wingador offers us, we glimpse enough of this world and its leading lights — the young hotshot Joey Chestnut, the eerily skinny Sonya Thomas and Takeru Kobayashi — to suspect that the substantive differences between competitive eating and “real” athletics may amount to less than we’d assumed. One might make a solemn point here about starvation in the developing world even as the Philadelphia Wing Bowl puts decadent ancient Rome to shame. But it gives me just as much pause to ponder the unsettling lack of differences between cramming chicken wings down your throat in the center of a roaring stadium and most other forms of human endeavor.