Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary gag, 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,' had a lot of people in stitches at the Sundance Film Festival. I didn't laugh as much as some, but I have to give the guy credit for continuing to bring a humorous and entertaining viewpoint to non-fiction film with his gimmicky experiments. Also, I have to give credit to corporations like POM Wonderful, Ban and Merrill for coming across as very hip brands in the doc, enough that their co-sponsorship of the film has sold me more on specific consumer products than any other recent advertisement I can think of.
The premise this time is that Spurlock wants to expose the out-of-hand practices of product placement and cross-promotional marketing, particularly in film and TV, while in turn admittedly producing one of the most whorish documentaries of all time. Through the film he goes in search of companies that will contribute to its financing as a sponsor. POM takes on the most expensive honor of paying a million bucks to have over-the-title marquee status, while other brands like the Mini Coop and Merrill contribute just enough to be used (and seen) constantly by the filmmaker on screen.
Many are calling the result the most meta movie of all time. Perhaps, but it's really not that big a stretch for documentary. Especially nowadays, the non-fiction mode is full of reflexive works. Spurlock's own 'Super Size Me' is about the process of making a documentary, and the same goes for far too many other first-person docs, many of them influenced by this very director (see 'Super High Me,' 'No Impact Man,' etc.). The only thing possibly different here is that Spurlock has made a film more about the behind-the-scenes stuff than the discovery of content. Again, though, it's not the first doc to depict a director trying to raise money for his or her film, either. 'Born Into Brothels,' frustratingly, did that too.
And speaking of things done before, the whole idea of a documentary funded or underwritten through sponsorship calls to mind almost the entire history of the mode. From early corporate propaganda films like 'Song of Ceylon' and 'Louisiana Story' to recent cross-promotional partnerships on films like 'Lunch Line' and 'Food, Inc.,' the latter of which also represents the increased custom of docs prominently featuring books as if publishers are paying for product placement. At least Spurlock is more honest about what he's doing. I only wish that he addressed both the importance and lack of clarity in documentary finance practices.
How many moviegoers are interested in an exposé of documentary sponsorship, though? Discussion of Hollywood practices is more appealing, especially when you can get big-name directors like Brett Ratner on screen to humorously dismiss artistic integrity.
Spurlock himself is a fairly big name, as well, and I find it interesting that as a celebrity documentarian, he himself has brand status. The one thing on my mind after the movie, more than the content and minor issues it tackles, was how few other non-fiction filmmakers could get away with a stunt like this. 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' is a double-edged sword in that Spurlock needs the advertising partners, yet they also need a popular-enough personality to essentially endorse their products during the film.
I just don't know if he's popular enough to get people to buy a ticket for what appears to be little more than a series of funny commercials (imagine paying to watch the Super Bowl ads -- without the game -- on the big screen), even if it's ultimately meant to be a statement against that idea. His last solo effort, 'Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?', attempted to employ his appealing brand of documentary for a more serious political topic, and it bombed terribly. I'm very curious to see if focusing on a lighter issue and concentrating on the humor over the cause will be better received.
Fore more check out our interview with Morgan Spurlock.