Wednesday, April 27, 2011
On the Money: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Morgan Spurlock’s brand personality is “mindful/playful.” That’s what he learns while consulting with a branding expert in the process of making POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s a shame Spurlock didn’t learn that while making his previous documentary, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, because that would have spared us the pain of sitting through it. As Spurlock now knows, when a brand has a hybrid identity it’s imperative to preserve the balance. Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? failed in large part because Spurlock fluctuated wildly between excessive playfulness (an animated sequence that put bin Laden’s head on MC Hammer’s body) and excessive seriousness (pretending to contemplate risking his life by walking into the Taliban’s hood), coming off foolish either way. In this film, though, Spurlock rediscovers his brand essence, and in doing so revitalizes the chemistry that made 2004’s Super Size Me a breakout success. There will still be those who find Spurlock’s playfulness too childish and his mindfulness too elementary, but what you see in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is Spurlock at his most Spurlockian – take it or leave it.
This time around, I’ll take it. Spurlock isn’t the documentary filmmaker you want exploring torture, terrorism, fraud, or the self-combustion of the American economy, but by the same measure Alex Gibney and Charles Ferguson probably aren’t the right guys to test the impact of a fast-food diet by eating at McDonald’s for a month. There are real problems in this world, and blatant product placement in movies just ain’t one of them. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a topic worth exploring, and that’s why Spurlock is the man for the job. His mindful/playful approach is perfect for taking this topic just seriously enough. You’ll likely learn a thing or two while watching his film, but like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show Spurlock has a gift for imparting knowledge with a tone that suggests he figures you know this stuff already. Put another way, he doesn’t talk down to the audience, which is precisely why it’s so nauseating when he occasionally tries to pull one over on us with some clearly calculated acting. (In Where in the World it was going through the charade of strapping on a bulletproof vest as if we bought for a moment that he was going to follow bin Laden to the darkest corners of the earth. In this film it’s telling his lawyer, ‘Gee, now that all these corporate partners are involved I feel like I’m losing the artistic control of my film.’) Spurlock’s documentaries thrive when he operates with the notion that we’re as intelligent as he is, and they fall apart when he forgets that it’s actually true.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, like Super Size Me before it, is based on a concept that’s so stupid it’s brilliant: Spurlock exposes the way product placement works in TV and films not just by making a documentary about product placement but by financing said film through product placement and using those product placement negotiations as the film itself. It’s the Penrose stairs of documentaries. As Spurlock picks up financial backers, he works their products into the “action” – sometimes casually, other times as blatantly and humorously as possible. In a span of a few minutes, we might see Spurlock driving his Mini Cooper (sponsor) to a fill up with gas at a Sheetz (sponsor) before heading to the airport to take a flight on Jet Blue (sponsor) to some city where he’ll spend the night at a Hyatt (sponsor), all while sipping on POM Wonderful (marquee sponsor). Although the gas station scene would have felt forced, those other shots are virtually indistinguishable from the run-of-the-mill product placement that we encounter every day and mostly ignore. So is product placement really that evil? After all, as Spurlock asks, if there’s going to be a car in a movie, is it such a bad thing to have an automaker finance part of the film to make it a specific car? Probably not. But the next question is stickier: At what point does sound financial strategizing become shameless selling-out? While some product placement is subtle or directly compatible with a film’s essence (think of James Bond in an Aston Martin), Spurlock provides a few examples of modern TV shows that use product placement so blatantly that it comes off like satire. In those cases, the tail is wagging the dog.
Watching Spurlock’s film is a bit like attending one of those time-share pitches in an effort to walk away with a free iPad (or whatever they give away these days). In exchange for having product placement shoved in our face for 90 minutes we get to sit back and laugh at the absurdity of it all. By the end of the film, Spurlock has made it clear just how prevalent product placement is within TV and movies, but he’s also reminded us of how ubiquitous advertising is in our daily lives (except in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where billboards and other outdoor advertising is outlawed; an amazing sight). Given that we’re so immersed in advertising, it’s reasonable to wonder if a movie can accurately depict our modern lives without intentional or unintentional product placement.
Also worth pondering is the potential effect of our growing awareness of product placement on a filmmaker’s ability to evoke character through the use of products. In an interview with Spurlock, Quentin Tarantino reveals that the diner scene in Reservoir Dogs was supposed to take place at a Denny’s, except that Denny’s wanted nothing to do with his film. If that scene had taken place at a Denny’s it would have been yet another pop cultural reference shaping the way we view those characters. But that was back in 1992; comparatively innocent times. Today, the sight of a Denny’s would reek of product placement, even in the highly unlikely scenario that Denny’s didn’t pay to play. Back in 1968, when Frank Bullitt screamed through the streets of San Francisco in a Ford Mustang, the product spoke to the nature of the man. A similar scene today would likely speak only to the nature of a film’s financing. I would have loved to see Spurlock explore that topic, but he was busy selling his movie.