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Entries in Greatest Movie Ever Sold/The [2011] (1)

Saturday
Apr232011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

Corporate Shrill

"If you do a commercial, there's a price on your head.  Everything you say is suspect, and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink."
--Bill Hicks
 
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I found Morgan Spurlock's documentary about pervasive corporate advertising, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, to be so profoundly depressing that I staggered from the theatre and couldn't figure out where I was for fifteen minutes after it was over.
 
This is the most upsetting movie I've seen in years; not because of the subject matter, but because I felt betrayed and assaulted by the film itself--and by its director.  I hesitate to even call this a documentary, or even a film, as it is so blatantly and proudly a ninety-minute commercial for second- and third-tier brands (and, ultimately, for itself), that any ideals about art or information become irrelevant by the end of the first scene.
 
Spurlock's 2004 debut, Super Size Me, was a Michael-Moore-lite stunt doc in which he--as subject and director--ate nothing but fast food for thirty days.  By chronicling the effects of self-pollution, he illustrated just how dangerous the convenient, brightly packaged foods Americans take for granted can really be.  I gave the film a pass because, though I found it a tad slim on mental nutrition, Spurlock was such an engaging and forceful personality that I suspected Super Size Me would be the rocky start to a promising career.
 
Next came 2008's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?; a tiresome, simplistic movie made for people who pay absolutely no attention to world affairs.  Once again playing the central figure in his own story, Spurlock delivered a ghastly, shrugging "Muslims-Are-People-Too" message that was, ironically, more Chicken McNugget than Chicken Cordon Bleu.
 
So, going into The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, I was partially looking for news about the sinister tactics marketers use to sell products in the multimedia age, and partially looking to tilt the "Is Morgan Spurlock a Good Documentarian?" scale.
 
Let me make something clear: This is not a movie about sinister corporations.  It's a multi-brand vanity project working through an identity crisis and a false premise.  Spurlock would have you believe that the cute notion of his trying to find corporate sponsors to fund his movie about corporate/media influence is the framework for a meaningful film.  But that framework is just about the whole movie.  Aside from a visit to a town that outlawed outdoor advertising and a brief visit with Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader (more on him later), The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a series of interviews between Spurlock and prospective donors.
 
If your idea of a good time is turning your theatre seat into a virtual place at a corporate boardroom table and listening to stuffy, unimaginative people drone on about brand identity and multi-platform promotions--with each meeting perfectly framed so that the interchangeable products' posters and sample displays are visible at all times--then you'll probably get a kick out of this thing.
 
However, if you find such an idea distasteful, along with the notion that Spurlock would present himself as an aw-shucks outsider who finds the whole process ridiculous--only to indulge in his donor-masters' every whim--then stay far, far away.  This is meta-filmmaking, to be sure, but it is also unaware meta-filmmaking, which can be dangerous.
 
"But how can a movie be dangerous, especially when it's really funny?"
 
That's a great question, with two answers.  The first is that neither Spurlock nor his movie are particularly funny.  There are plenty of comedic moments in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but many of them are simply distractions that keep us from learning anything.  Michael Moore, who I mentioned earlier, knows how to inject humor into his documentaries in ways that both amuse the audience and advance his agenda; whether or not you agree with his politics and tactics, Moore's ability to connect with viewers is undeniable.  There aren't enough takeaways in Spurlock's movies--especially this one--to start a stimulating conversation, let alone a revolution.
 
The second answer is that Spurlock spends a lot of time making fun of the companies he's getting money from and "wrestling" with the notion of selling out; but he laments his phony rock-and-a-hard-place position while swigging from a bottle of POM Wonderful juice.  When someone goes out of their way to perfectly light and present that which they're allegedly rebelling against, they are no longer the detached, ironic hero railing against the machine; they're a pitch-person.  The danger lies in increasingly passive audiences' inability to distinguish between sincere discontent and the most clever product placement in history.
 
Spurlock takes this a step further by joking to various spokespeople that he'll gladly place a 30-second commercial smack-dab in the middle of his film, for the right price.  At least, I thought he was joking.  But, no, there are three spots in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, each more disturbing than the last.  Worse yet, there's nothing controversial or subversive about the ads; they're the same bland crap that DVRs were made to erase from our lives.
 
Towards the end, Spurlock says that the only solution to the problem (a problem, mind you, that he doesn't bother to explain all the components or negative effects of in the course of 90 minutes) is to get back to nature, to find a place where there is no advertising.  Inevitably, he says this while walking along a stream with his son, in what turns out to be a commercial for waterproof shoes.
 
These are the same shoes that he presents to consumer advocate and perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Earlier in the film, Nader talks about the lack of truth in advertising and seems generally run down by the all-powerful machine.  He perks up, though, when he gets those shoes; so I guess the message is marketing and advertising are evil except when schwag enters the picture.
 
Had this been a real movie, I might have learned about the history of advertising; the influence of celebrity endorsements on brands and consumers; the challenges corporations face in an increasingly crowded marketplace; and what can be done to change our collective mental landscape--if anything (one consumer-advocate-group member suggested, without a hint of irony, placing pop-ups on TV shows to let the viewer know they're being marketed to).  But because this is a Morgan Spurlock movie, all I got was a lot of mugging; some half-baked scenes involving companies' use of brain-scanning technology in targeting their consumers' habits and desires (!); and stimulus overload from an hour-and-a-half of non-stop "Buy Me!" pleas.
 
If you love headaches and feeling like there's no hope against the onslaught of glossy, brain-dead media, check out The Greatest Movie Ever Sold!
 
How's that for an endorsement?