Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold. I need an idea to call my own. – R.E.M.
As it turns out, the orchestrated joy of the 1998 Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa single-season home run record chase was the exception. Pursuit of a pioneering feat is probably more often like the 2007 Barry Bonds countdown to the career home-run record – the feat is impressive, but it’s come at a steep cost, and there’s a dark and visible undercurrent to the entire record-breaking process.
Think of the records in the Guinness Book, both the mainstream ones as well as the freaky ones. The world’s longest fingernails? The longest flagpole-sitting session? The longest case of hiccups? The fastest marathon time? Odds are that the record holder suffered greatly to achieve this immortality, both in training for the feat and in its accomplishment.
In the most memorable scene in Starbucking, Winter, the documentary’s subject, aims to break his record of 28 Starbucks cafes visited in one day. Under Winter’s own rules, he must drink at least one 4-ounce coffee at each Starbucks he hits.
It is absolutely gut-wrenching to watch Winter close in Number 29. He retches. He dry-heaves. He’s even more jittery than usual. He complains of a headache, and it’s easy to believe that it’s pretty awful. It spurs as visceral a reaction as the puke finale of the Super Size Me chowdown.
And Winter carries on. He has a record to beat, and a limited amount of time before the last one closes for the day. Welcome to Starbucking, a documentary by rookie director Bill Tangeman that follows Winter’s obsessive mission to visit every Starbucks in the world. Winter exists. He’s been on his mission for 10 years, and it’s described in exhaustive detail on his website, StarbucksEverywhere.net. It’s safe to assume Winter is already the individual record holder for most Starbucks visited. He’s not done yet, either. As of 2007, Winter still aims to visit every standalone Starbucks in North America, and he’s been to more than 7,000 (or 97 percent) of them.
Your Point, Please?
So what’s the damn point? That’s what Tangeman wondered when he first heard about Winter in 2004. Why would somebody pursue such a seemingly trivial goal with so much tenacity?
This is the essence of Starbucking – Winter’s singular, all-encompassing obsession with accomplishing a unique goal, one that may or may not be worth the effort and blood price it requires.
Winter’s dates and girlfriends come and go, put off eventually by being second-fiddle to his Starbucking obsession – we hear from a couple of them in Starbucking. Winter’s willing to pay the price. That’s why he’s also willing to freebase coffee that spilled in his car’s cupholder – okay, he’s actually drinking with his mouth through a straw, but it looks as base and illicit as a coke hit. These are Winter’s rules, though. It’s either that or turn around and go back to the Starbucks where he got it, now miles away in the rear-view mirror. His visit doesn’t count unless he drinks the coffee, right?
Caffeine Highs and Lows
Is Winter’s mission worth its cost? Winter himself seems up-and-down on this question in the documentary. In some scenes, he takes obvious pride in living a life different from the rest of the crowd. Nobody, not even Starbucks CEO Jim Donald, has likely done what Winter has done. Most folks stay rooted in their jobs and the area where they grew up. Winter takes short-term programming jobs, sees them through, then he’s back in his car to knock a few dozen more Starbuckses off his life list.
“You cannot imagine how much I love this, just being out on the road, driving from city to city,” Winter says. He expresses similar sentiments in an INeedCoffee article he wrote, stressing the once-in-a-lifetime sights he’s seen on his road trips.
Tangeman captures some of these sights, too, like a sequence of approaches toward some of America’s great cities. The skylines are an uplifting rush. They’re juxtaposed, however, by a scene of Winter sprinting across the street toward a Starbucks in Anywhere, USA. The chain-franchise experience gnaws away at a town’s individuality. In other scenes, Winter dwells on his own insignificance and the futility of his chase, likely during times when the caffeine buzz runs low. When asked how he compares to Lewis and Clark, Winter says, with a despondent look on his face, “What they were doing is truly important. …What I am doing is not.”
In yet other times, Winter seems to feel trapped by his own scheme. Many people can’t buck inertia; Winter can’t buck momentum. Several hundred Starbucks visits after he first came up with the idea, says Winter, “I was too far into it to quit.”
He also says, “It got old a long time ago, but a goal is a goal.” He started this mission, and he considers it past the time where he can second-guess the worth of his endeavor.
Nobody in their right mind would accuse Starbucking of being an ad for Starbucks. Winter’s dry-heaving doesn’t exactly make one want to run out for a Venti Coffee of the Day. Neither does a hometown friend’s claim that Winter’s skin smells like Starbucks coffee.
The same goes for the film’s treatment of Winter, who receives 25 percent of the profits from Starbucking, yet this doesn’t come across as an “approved” documentary. While this is Winter’s stage, it reveals all his warts, shortcomings, and neuroses. Students in an Abnormal Psychology college course take turns speculating as to what psychiatric disorders afflict Winter.
Winter, to his everlasting credit, doesn’t seem to give a damn. He’s amused when told about the psychoanalyses. Plenty of people think Winter’s insane, and this isn’t lost on him. Just like his website links to almost anything written about him, positive or negative, Winter is content to receive the attention.
Ah yes, the attention. There’s definitely an air of Reality TV to Starbucking. Winter describes himself as a “minor celebrity,” probably accurate, a status that puts him on par with a typical Reality TV “star.” Molehills sometimes become mountains. Winter’s travels entail tons of driving on interstate highways and tons of time spent in chain cafes – standout moments are few, scattered, and milked for all they’re worth. Those who loathe the Reality genre probably won’t have much love for Starbucking.
Whatever one thinks of the Winter and his Starbucks mission, Tangeman uses what’s at his disposal to tell a story. He does so artfully. Starbucking is neither a hatchet job nor a puff piece – in other words, it’s a good, honest documentary, simultaneously sympathetic and unsparing in its treatment of Winter. Is Winter a pioneer of 21st-century chain-store culture or an inconsequential attention hound? Tangeman leaves the viewer free to decide.