[27 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Morgan Spurlock remains an intriguing documentary enigma. On the one hand, he has ideas and approaches that rival the brilliant infotainment techniques of Michael Moore and Errol Morris. On the other, he wants his concepts and conclusions to be taken as seriously as those of the most incisive investigative reporter. It’s a strange combination of vaudeville and viable cinematic technique, of getting to the truth via jokes, jest, and a generous amount of actual information. Yet the results are often scoffed at, viewed as gimmickry in a genre that eschews such sensationalism and stunts.
HIs latest film will definitely not win over the artform’s purists. With POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock takes on the subject of product placement in the media and the fine line between marketing, manipulation, and the money generated by both. Not really an indictment of the decades old practice of prominently featuring certain items in movie scenes and set-ups, this film instead treats such subterfuge as a given, and then goes about explaining how and why it is done. The conclusions are as clear cut as the purpose behind the strategy: modern movie productions need added sources of revenue to stay afloat, and companies can no longer rely on the traditional advertising model to reach the audience (read: individuals 14 to 29) it wants/needs.
So Spurlock decides to finance his documentary - already a shaky commercial proposition - with endorsements and placement deals. He contacts friends at the forefront of the industry and asks their advice. He pitches to the main marketing firms that handle such situations and explains his ideas. He cold calls major companies (Coke, McDonalds) looking for lucrative tie-ins…and when all those approaches fail, he decides to go after the smaller businesses that could use a boost of outsider swagger and publicity. Along the way, we learn about the latest techniques in ad focus (something to do with MRI, images, and brain mapping), delve deeply into the vague world of ‘branding’, and wait for the moment when all of Spurlock’s sarcastic snark and social satire pay off.
It never comes. As a matter of fact, a good micro-review for this movie would be “accomplishes what it sets out to do…nothing more or less.” Unlike Super Size Me, which hinted at the harms in fast food, or Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? which questioned our campaign and concerns over terrorism, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold has no real subtext. It’s more of a mission quest, with Spurlock succeeding in getting his movie made with product placement cash. Period. He doesn’t dissect the disservice such an approach does to artistic aspirations. He doesn’t talk to filmmakers who refuse the Madison Avenue advice. He doesn’t deal in the earliest examples of the concept - the subliminal campaigns run by theaters throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s.
No, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold sets itself up to be a “can it be done?” style of expose, and then merely achieves its goals. Along the way, we hear some interesting tidbits that, themselves, could be the focus of an entire film (the concept of being a “sell out” high on the list) and there is very little input from the targets of this trickery - the everyday viewer. Yes, Spurlock conducts some man on the street interviews, but they are always in service of his set points. Because he grants the practice at the very beginning, never challenging its fundamental objectives, there’s no counterpoint. As a result, we watch with passing amusement as Spurlock spins and subverts his more noble intentions to make the highly paid CEOs and underling officers of his “partners” happy.
Perhaps this is the real point of the otherwise fluffy film. Initially, the director has his desires and limits down pat. He knows how far he will go and how much he will bend. But then, during a sit-down with the people of POM Wonderful, we witness the moment of marginalized truth. After coming up with three appealing - if slightly anarchic - spots for their product, the company counters with what “it” thinks is the right way to feature their specialized juice. Defeated, if not deterred, Spurlock acquiesces. While the resulting spot fits well within the dynamic of the documentary, it gets to slip by with a minimum of commentary - and that’s the biggest problem here.
Indeed, in order to stay true to his process and not upset his clients, Spurlock cannot go on the attack. He cannot take apart the POM Wonderful meeting and make sense of it to those who see it solely as aesthetic ass kissing. He can’t challenge the often absurd conclusions of his consultants, listening to their business babble without nary an eyebrow lift. In a takedown of any artistic impediment - say Kirby Dick’s definitive deconstruction of the MPAA, This Film is Not Yet Rated - we get both the cheerleading and the challenge. Here, the rah-rah-rah always outpaces the reality. It’s as if Spurlock, by now an apparent insider, forgets that not everyone is part of (or privy to the workings of) Hollywood. There is an insularity here that keeps the material from really resonating.
Still, this carnival barker turned consumer advocate is consistently entertaining. His jokes land with confidence and his punchlines fall with intelligence and authority. It’s too bad then that The Greatest Movie Ever Sold wasn’t motivated by a desire to spit on the status quo. The movie would have been better had Spurlock never found his financing, that he instead went via independent means to make his cinematic statement - including knocking those who would ask for his collaboration in their crass commercial demands. In the end, his film would be a clear indication of how out of control the practice and the people behind it have become. Instead, POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is like every other mainstream entertainment out there, except in this rare, rare case, transparency trumps the standard trickery. Too bad it couldn’t overcome the onerous needs of the conceit as well.