SFF 2011: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary is quite possibly the most self-reflexive piece of film I have ever seen. Its full title, POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS, THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD, is about the making of itself. Spurlock's initial idea is admittedly inspired. He sets out to make a documentary about product placement, that is itself wholly funded by product placement. As he explains to some wary marketing suits who ask him what actually will the film consist of during a pitch meeting to get sponsors, Spurlock replies "This is the film", and points at the camera. And that essentially is the film.
After a hectic first act where Spurlock travels from meeting to meeting accumulating sponsors we reach a point where he then realises he has signed himself up to a large laundry list of goals he is now contractually obliged to meet. He needs to have certain products feature a specific amount of times, he must show off different locations promoting new features that different companies want to highlight etc etc.
From this point on the film begins to disappear up its own ass (so to speak) as Spurlock becomes hamstrung by the limitations of the concept he himself signed up for. While this may have promise in showing us how product placement can hamper artistic control it actually ends up doing the exact opposite.
As Spurlock examines the idea of branding he has an expert come on and deconstruct his own brand. Revealing him to be equally "mindful and playful", the expert suggests this is a strong combination to have and Spurlock uses this 'brand' to promote himself to his corporate sponsors. This results in a weird perspective for the audience to gain as the film progresses and Spurlock starts to have deep and meaningful crisis moments suggesting he is struggling with how to convey a truthful opinion while hamstrung by all these corporate concerns. Rather than have these moments come off as genuine though, they end up seeming awkward and contrived. Almost as if these parts of the film are as artificial as the brazen moments of advertising. By deconstructing his own brand Spurlock had rendered his film impotent and reductive with any personal moment coming across as fake and merely designed to reassert his own brand of authentic commentator.
A Bill Hicks routine began to run through my head as the film reached its conclusion,
"I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too, "Oh, you know what Bill's doing, he's going for that anti-marketing dollar. That's a good market, he's very smart." "
This surely was what Pom Wonderful were thinking as they stepped up to be the film's biggest investor (the screening I was at even featured a complementary bottle of Pom Wonderful on every seat). After all, you wouldn't invest 1 million dollars into something that wouldn't be beneficial to you.
Ultimately, Spurlock's film becomes a truly fascinating victim of its own concept. He does bring us an interesting awareness to the pervasiveness of branding within films but he never gets a chance to say anything truly meaningful. Several brief digressions examining the psychology of advertising or the city of San Paulo that has banned all outdoor advertising only ever seem like asides, consciously placed to fit in with the "anti-marketing" ethos of Spurlock's own brand. It's a fascinating film to watch, constantly entertaining but never really becoming anything more substantial than a weird meta-experiment successfully pulled off.