Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is one of the most fantastically meta films I have ever seen, drawing a perfect recursive picture that contains itself. Spurlock sets out to show how product placement and advertising dominate the film industry. There’s a straight-forward way of going about this: just conduct the usual interviews with talking heads, interspersed by voice overs and a camera moving slowly over still frames. Spurlock does some of that, it is a documentary after all, but the bulk of the film is devoted to the film’s central gimmick of financing the entire documentary itself through product placement and advertising.
It’s clever as a gimmick, but it moves far beyond the gimmick stage in that the exercise becomes documentary performance art. For the most part, Spurlock does not tell us (or have others tell us) how advertising works. Instead, he demonstrates it by documenting his meetings, presentations, and endless phone calls as he pitches the movie to would-be advertisers to try to get them to place their products in the final film. There’s a wonderful element of the snake eating its own tail, as Spurlock explains to potential clients that the film he is proposing to make is already being made as he points to the camera.
It would have been very easy for Spurlock to simply make the anti-advertising film that a lot of filmgoers will assume this film is when they walk in to see it. Michael Moore has made a career out of exactly that sort of documentary. Pick something that your target audience has already made up its mind about and then proceed to show them in sad tones just how right they were. Knock the preacher, but that choir keeps buying tickets so we shouldn’t damn the fire and brimstone too much. But Spurlock takes on the far more difficult but eminently more rewarding task of challenging the viewers instead of confirming their biases.
There’s a critical conversation early in the film that cements a central irony of the movie, when a marketing executive gets through to Spurlock the realization that his name is a brand he’s trying to sell. That the exercise of selling advertising in the documentary is less about convincing companies that people will see their products, and more about convincing them that it’s valuable to be associated with the “Morgan Spurlock” brand name. That dichotomy of reflexively disliking the idea of branding while simultaneously having to acknowledge that he is a brand in and of himself forces Spurlock to explore the issues from a far more nuanced perspective than he might have even initially considered.
The world is never as one-sided as it appears at face value. Even though we roll our eyes at Pepsi and Coke logos slapped onto everything within line of sight, once we start going down the path of qui bono, we realize that somebody else is getting something out of the deal too. Our deeply principled stomaches might protest at the sight of Gatorade logos plastered all over a high school football field, but every dollar the school gets that way is a dollar they don’t have to cut out of teacher salaries or school programs. The focus rightly shifts from focusing on the bane of advertising to exactly where we should place that line between selling out and capitalizing on something of value that you possess.
This central tension is well maintained throughout the film, as in the second half Spurlock shifts somewhat into the shoes of the advertisers from the first half of the film once he starts trying to sell the film to the public. So at a certain point he’s got a film about advertising, funded through advertising, that he is attempting to advertise, all the while being sure that his prime sponsors’ products are on screen.
That’s certainly not to say that one walks out of the film thinking everything is hunky dory and looking for the nearest Golden Palace tattoo parlor. Some of the marketing executives really come across as nothing but cancers on the less savory parts of the body politic. The inside glimpses of when placement has clearly crossed the line, with Alka-Seltzer shutting down an entire film at one point because of demanded script changes particularly rile the closet anarchist.
It’s an original and intelligent film that nonetheless could have easily deteriorated into an exercise in painful smugness, but Spurlock is fantastically likable throughout. If the precise same film was made with the cameras pointed at someone less charismatic it simply wouldn’t have worked. This is easily the funniest documentary I have ever seen.
The only real complaint I have with the film is that while it forces the viewer to look at a seemingly black and white issue through an entire spectrum of grays, it falls short of offering solutions or recommendations. Spurlock is satisfied with noting that the situation is more complicated than it looks and offering the comfort that the best we can really do is be more informed and knowledgeable about the advertising and product placement happening around us. I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think that just because the situation is more complicated than it looks means that there’s no way to make it better.
The end result is a documentary that eschews the easy route of condemning something that we all already know that we don’t like, and shows us that the reality is a lot more complicated than we think. It excels at demonstrating that reality is both a lot worse and a lot better than you might think. And the fact that it makes you think while making you laugh is about the best compliment that one can give a documentary.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.