In response to the Boozehound Cinephile™ review of Super Size Me a few weeks ago, a number of commenters defended Morgan Spurlock’s filmmaking style as an irreverent “Jackass-meets-documentary” approach. This school of thought holds that Spurlock works in a stylized nonfiction format, foregoing conventional journalistic rules and relying more on first-person stunts and shock value to provoke thought about important issues such as the obesity epidemic and corporate malfeasance.
Given the role of documentary filmmaking in modern political debate, that argument seems a bit like a neurosurgeon deciding that repairing an aneurysm should be more of a brain-surgery-meets-fondue affair. Some concepts were not meant to be chocolate-and-peanut-buttered. If you catch your wife reverse-cowgirling the mailman, you don’t really want to hear that she’s trying to take a more “irreverent” attitude toward conventional marriage vows. Going for sheer entertainment value is fine; just don’t call yourself a documentarian if you’re not primarily concerned with credibility. Johnny Knoxville doesn’t need the audience’s trust to succeed with his product — he’s not peddling an argument or his version of “truth.” If you’ll forgive the meta-truism: If it’s not true, it’s fiction.
In that vein, there’s a certain irony in the dim critical reception so far accorded to Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, Spurlock’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2004 film Super Size Me. While the two films are similar in production and tone, Spurlock’s sophomore effort largely resolves the most valid and damning criticism one can level at his first film, or indeed at any documentarian: He was dishonest with the viewer. Where Super Size Me was shot through with misleading half-truths, Osama generally steers clear of disingenuity, though Spurlock’s self-indulgence and self-consciously smart aleck schtick are once again front and center. The primary complaints I have seen so far about Osama, however, seem to be that it is less entertaining than Super Size Me and too gimmicky. Lies presented as truth are fine, apparently, as long as we’re moved to laugh or cry without feeling manipulated.
All that said, it’s difficult to argue against a “by any means necessary” approach to warning the sheep that Farmer MacKenzie has an unusual affinity for Shetland sweaters and mint jelly. Half of a good documentary exists in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, about 45 minutes of good-natured but pointed material designed to lead a largely blindered American public to the simple reality that the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims bear no ill will toward us. A skilled documentarian would distill this concept into a key theme in a better, more ambitious documentary about our refusal as a culture to focus on or care about what really matters in international relationships. Instead, Osama delivers a steady stream of contrived scenarios essentially designed to provide opportunities for Spurlock to dish out ersatz witticisms and smirking one-liners. He’s 75% me-monkey and only about 15% filmmaker. (In fairness, the remaining 10% is a pantheon-level porn star moustache.)
As Super Size Me proved, Spurlock undeniably has a knack for rooting out the entertaining aspects of potentially dry subject matter. Alas, his apparently enormous ego inexorably drags him in front of any convenient camera in the vicinity so that he can do his version of a stand-up routine. The bulk of Osama consists of Spurlock’s employing various devices to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to obsess over Osama bin Laden and his supposed impact on attitudes toward the West. Tellingly, the bits that work best are the most traditional documentary tools, primarily those instances where Spurlock engages in genuine conversation with locals in various countries throughout the Middle East, from shopkeepers to children, from burka-wrapped women to grim-faced imams. As with most documentaries, the most moving footage comes from the unplanned events that occur when a film crew unexpectedly shows up, such as Spurlock’s tense ride-along with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, during which they witness a firefight, and his uncomfortable encounter with hostile ultra-orthodox Jews in a Jerusalem neighborhood.
Spurlock has the ability to establish a quick rapport with strangers, even those with whom he shares only the barest human commonality, and Osama finds its stride in those moments where filmmaker and subject relate to each other about subjects of common concern, such as raising children. While he has a certain charisma, however, Spurlock greatly overestimates his individual appeal. Osama is fraught with gimmicky, self-indulgent scenes in which Spurlock leans on annoying devices hardly worthy of a morning shock radio show, such as going through the local phone book in Saudi Arabia and calling people surnamed bin Laden to ask if Osama is there. Attempting to mix it up a bit, Spurlock also liberally sprinkles in animated stunts and graphics, some of which work well — as noted in our Sundance sneak preview, the line-up of Osamas dancing to “Can’t Touch This” is inspired. The animated bits are more misses than hits, however, and they suffer from the same narcissism as the rest of the film: Once you’ve seen Spurlock rendered as a Rambo-esque video game character so that he can fight Osama, World-of-Warcraft style, you realize that Michael Moore could, in fact, be even more annoying.
But there’s another, more profound horror waiting for the unwary viewer who reaches the end of Osama. A key piece of Spurlock’s narrative turns on his wife’s recent pregnancy, which Spurlock discusses as motivating his curiosity about the questionable relevance of supervillain bogeymen. Spurlock returns home from his frustrating yet encouraging adventure just in time for the birth of his child, a situation which might have some poetic resonance were it not graphically rendered in slimy-wet PreggoVision right before my eyes … my bleeding, self-mutilated eyes. It’s perfect, really, when you consider the immense self-regard of the filmmaker. After 80 minutes of Spurlock’s Witty and Handsome Middle Eastern Travels, Spurlock decides to finish up with a little real-time, close-in coverage of his latest gift to humanity.
Let me repeat that. At the end of Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, Naked-Ape-Spurlock and Naked-Baby-Mama-Spurlock slip into a birthing pool, preggy-titters afloat like twin pontoons, at which point we are treated to a lengthy exposition of what it looks like when a pudgy, shaven hedgehog is greased up with tomato sauce and K-Y jelly, then shoved through a keyhole. A large, hairy, frightening keyhole. A word of advice: Next time, let’s go with the events leading up to conception. That would have reduced the nightmare potential by at least ten percent.
Safe place, Ted; go to safe place.
Of course, a valid response to all of the foregoing criticism — except the birthing footage; that’s just wrong — is that dryly serious documentaries about the Middle East were made and released to indifferent yawns over the past three years. Traditional docs apparently don’t motivate people to take an interest and push back against our government’s isolationism and fear-mongering. I don’t mean to suggest, however, that there is no place for irreverence, sarcasm, or adolescent humor in this genre; quite the opposite, actually, as those tools are sharp weapons against authoritarian-imposed ignorance. But it takes a light touch, good judgment, and a judicious sense of one’s own presence to include such material in a film examining serious matters of global concern. To date, Spurlock has displayed a woeful dearth of all of those traits.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? / Ted Boynton
Film | April 21, 2008 | Comments ()