PARK CITY - Both public and press screenings were held today of the new Morgan Spurlock documentary "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," and already I'm seeing wild disagreements about the film. What's interesting is that I can see both sides of that argument, and my own take on it doesn't mean I discount some of the things I'm hearing about it. If you aren't entertained by the film, and if the sense of humor with which Spurlock throws himself into the idea of product placement doesn't work for you, then there's going to be little point sitting through it. While I do believe it offers some new material regarding our relationship with advertising, I think the way it does it is so head-on self-aware meta-funny that it could easily turn off a viewer completely.
Spurlock takes a lot of heat from documentary snobs in the first place, and it's because, like Michael Moore, he shamelessly, happily indulges in agitprop, and even more than Moore, he's a populist. His movies are meant to play to the cheap seats. He is a commercial documentary filmmaker, and that's not an easy thing to be. I don't think he is the most incisive or the most visually remarkable or narratively adept of documentary directors. He is, however, an engaging onscreen presence, and he genuinely enjoys poking at things in a way that is meant to raise questions. I don't think he answers the questions he raises, and I don't think this film is meant to be a mind-blowing expose. Instead, it's Spurlock intentionally dunking himself into a process and filming it as a way of simply casting a little light on the way it actually works.
What's interesting about this one is that the notion of product placement isn't a surprise. It's everywhere. We might not quite be at the age of "Minority Report" yet, but we're close. When you open your e-mail and there are targeted ads using your personal information next to it, or when you're watching a program and you can easily identify the narrow niche that they're trying to sell to, it's hard to be offended because it's so transparent what's happening. But the insidious constant marketing in every environment, ads running in places ads have no business being, or even products being used in film and TV in a way that is nearly subliminal… that really is a problem. I resent it. I resent the way it works on my children, and I resent the fact that my not-quite-three-year-old can identify "McDonald's" even though he doesn't eat there, and that he knows he wants to go there because advertising tells him he does. It's amazing the way brand names and brand recognition soaks into my kids via osmosis. I remember hearing once that the Disney brand is exposed to the average kid something like seven times a day, every single day, in some way, and I'm sure that's right. It's on the sheets, the shoes, the shirts, and I'm guessing even the shits they pass at this point, the omnipresent castle, the eternal Mickey.
Branding has become a verb that people use to describe an overall philosophy, the way they live their lives, so why shouldn't we just accept the nonstop input of advertising? If we are all being told that the 21st century requires us to be products, and if social media is simply the way we advertise our "brands," then how can any of us be upset at the lengths mega-corporations will go to in their efforts to sell us things? Spurlock's film plays the entire thing as a meta-textual joke, from the title through the closing credits.
The premise is simple enough. Looking at the way Hollywood blockbuster movies use promotional and product placement partners to defray costs and help open films, Spurlock decides that he wants to make a film about product placement and he wants to fund it entirely through product placement. The film is about his efforts to do so, creating a transparency that is also commentary, and while I thought it all sounded a little precious at first, I think this is the most clear-eyed film Spurlock's made yet. I prefer this to his "30 Days" series or "Super Size Me" because I think he's genuinely discovering the ins and outs of the system as he goes through them, and while the film is never an attack on his sponsors, it is illuminating to see what he has to go through with them as he lines them up. One by one, companies agree to be part of the film, including Mini-Coopers, Jet Blue, Hyatt Hotels, and perhaps the biggest sponsor of the film, Pom Wonderful100% Pomegranate Juice, and each of them is very aware that they are signing up with the guy who basically kicked McDonald's in the balls for 90 minutes to kick off his career.
He shoots actual commercials for the sponsors that show up in the film, he does interviews at a Jet Blue terminal and a Sheetz location, he drinks Pom Wonderful constantly, and he wears the Merrell shoes he's been given in every scene. He absolutely plays the game, and we see the companies negotiate the way they are featured. We also get a glimpse at "neuromarketing," which I think is the slippery slope to truly invasive and disturbing assaults on the consumer, as well as a peek inside the way Hollywood negotiates these things. He interviews directors like Quentin Tarantino, Peter Berg, and Brett Ratner, and they represent a sliding scale how how comfortable filmmakers are with someone else telling them how to shoot something or what to include in a scene. Quentin talks about companies like Denny's ordering him to take references to their brand out of his films, Berg seems uneasy with the influence the product placement guys have on his films, and Ratner offers up the money quote of the film: "Artistic integrity? Whatever."
In the end, though, it's the film's sense of humor that worked for me. Spurlock is aware that this entire thing could very well turn out badly and represent the end of whatever credibility he's built with viewers, but the transparent nature of the film sort of end-runs that. I think he got it right. Between this and "Thunder Soul," Snoot Docs is turning out to be a company that is offering up docs with broad commercial appeal built in, and Spurlock has handed them a breezy, contemporary picture with built-in marketing partners on a level that no doc has ever really had. Spurlock's testing his theory here, and the fact that Sony Pictures picked this up before the festival even began doesn't surprise me. You'll get your chance to see this one soon. And as twisted as it is, I'm willing to bet when the film is over, you're going to want to drink a Pom Wonderful.
I've got several other Sundance titles to write up tonight, so keep checking back. And, yes, I'll be at the "Red State" screening on Sunday night thanks to the efforts of AICN's Quint, and I'll have a full report on the carnival inside and outside the auditorium tomorrow.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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