Morgan Spurlock, director and star
Featuring the music of OK Go, Ralph Nader and such products as: Ban, Hyatt, Merrell, JetBlue, Old Navy, Sheetz and Mane’n Tail
Morgan Spurlock is American documentary’s taller and thinner star, the more amiable counter-balance to Michael Moore. Even in his most confrontational film Super Size Me, Spurlock always saw the absurdity in his decision to eat only McDonald’s products for 30 days. Moore, by comparison, takes the stance that he’s shocked and appalled that big corporations (Roger and Me) or the US health care system (Sicko) aren’t performing up to his expectations.
Now Spurlock has taken his humorous approach to new levels. POM Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Spurlock says that the title should just roll off your tongue) is a very clever “how to” instructional film on how to get a feature made. As we all know, it’s getting harder and harder to make independent films, so Spurlock took the most practical approach possible: he decided to turn product placement into the building blocks that would finance his new doc.
What unfolds is a meta-film; it’s irony built on irony. In reality TV style, Spurlock addresses the audience as he journeys across America attempting to get the money together to make a film about branding. To get their name above the title of the film, for example, POM Wonderful’s board of directors appears in several scenes with Spurlock, extolling the virtues of pomegranate juice, their product, and–in keeping with the spirit of transparency necessary for the film to still qualify as a serious documentary–offering an amount in the six figures to claim pole position as the film’s main financer.
Not content with giving POM a couple of scenes, Spurlock comes up with a terrific trick. He pitches POM’s board on a commercial to be placed inside the film but makes the suggestions hilariously inappropriate. (One would have featured the ability of pomegranate to overcome erectile dysfunction–it’s best left to the imagination!). Turned down, Spurlock subsequently complains in a direct address to the camera that it will be hard to come up with the right kind of commercial for POM. Later on, when the audience isn’t expecting it, Spurlock is seen in a grocery store, grabbing armloads of POM while talking about how great it is; it’s only then that you realize that you’re seeing the embedded commercial.
Spurlock spends most of the film dancing around the topic of “selling out.” While maintaining a stance of objectivity, pretending that any product might be placed in the film, the director clearly ends up with reasonable sponsors—Trident, Hyatt Hotels, JetBlue airline and other acceptable commercial endeavours. Surprisingly, Spurlock is able to turn an interview with acclaimed critic and politician Ralph Nader into an endorsement for Merrell shoes.
POM Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was a hit at Sundance and opened up Hot Docs last Thursday. It’s in theatres today–and it will be interesting to see what kind of results it will rack up at the box office. While it’s certainly a cause célèbre, my feeling is that the film spins out its ironic conceit for far too long. An industry veteran told me, off the record, that Spurlock’s doc is “the most profoundly cynical film of all time.” I doubt that–but it could have been more critical of branding and product placement. But then, that might have cost him some sponsors–as well as some of the laughs that propel this doc along.
Two Great Docs to see this weekend.