Friday, April 22, 2011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold



The actual title of this movie is "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold", I would not want them to be cheated out of their million dollar investment by my omission of their sponsorship. That is the primary purpose of this movie, to explore the relationship between product marketing and the motion picture business. The conceit of the film is brilliant, the cost of making the movie will be covered by investors who are paying for product placement in a movie about how product placement gets done and the impact that it has. Morgan Spurlock the director of this film, is best known for the movie "Super Size" me. A movie that was equally creative in it's conception but from my point of view not nearly as entertaining. Having listened to speeches for almost ten years now that try to quote the narrative of a documentary as proof of claims, I've gotten a little tired of students seeing the material from the singular perspective of a provocateur like Spurlock or Michael Moore. The muckraking aspect of their films is the least appealing part of the movie.

This film contains some of those same elements. There are the usual talking heads that have insight that only they can manage to come up with. I about bust a gut when Noam Chomsky shows up in one scene blithering about capitalism and Morgan's soul. There are several other pieces that insert academics into the exposition of the process of marketing. Almost all of their intellectual analysis sounds like a parody of some academic double speak. I appreciate the need and desire for humans to ask questions about how things work and the attempt to interpret events in a manner that seems sound. I simply have little patience for the tortuous process that some University types go through to find a way to interpret the world through their shade of spectacles. The more relevant insights in this movie are provided by people that actually make movies, market products and produce goods that some of us might actually use. The "Channel One" controversy that showed up twenty years ago is repeated as a canard of capitalism run amok in the class room, brainwashing students to become mindless consumers. The high school students interviewed deconstruct this nonsense in about 30 seconds. They understand entirely what is going on and are such sophisticated consumers of information, they make the academic pundits sound positively ancient.

I wanted to get the negative parts of my reaction out of the way as quickly as possible so that the deck is clear for the rest of my comments. As much as I thought the talking heads of the scholars was silliness, the rest of the film works like gangbusters. The same points can be made by showing the process that is used to put products into a movie. Spurlock does exactly that, with more charm and charisma than most snake oil salesmen had more than 100 years ago. He is upfront about what he is trying to show and funny and thoughtful at the same time. He doesn't need Ralph Nader to make the points that come up, but he does need Nader to make the points humorous. He basically turns the high priest of consumerism into a shill for shoes. How's that for a piece of reductive analysis? His movie does exactly what he is talking about to one of the moralists that is preaching against this process. The Nader bit is not even the best example of this. Let me say that I will be flying Jet Blue whenever I can, just because of the one interview in this movie.

It takes a lot of people to put a movie together, all you have to do is look at the credits of any film (including this one) to see that hundreds make a contribution to what ultimately ends up on screen. The vision of a movie though is usually the responsibility of the director. Here the director and the star are the same person, so the focus is sharp and it is a chance to see how really involved the film maker is with the process. This guy is not a fluke. He did not get lucky with one great idea a few years ago with the concept of eating every meal at McDonalds for a month. In fact, this movie is not just another lucky stab in the dark either. When you watch how Morgan pitches his ideas, shows his advertising concepts and visualizes some sequences, it is clear this is a talented and creative man. His concepts for selling some of the products are so original and funny, I am sure he could be working for any of the big advertising firms in the country.

As a movie, these concepts are shown in creative ways that are pure cinema. When the fleet of Mini Coopers shows up, you will smile. Even something as simple as a talking head scene in a drug store becomes interesting, the way our hero puts it together. Maybe I am biased because outside of my work, the movies are where I put most of my focus. I am so worried right now about the future of motion pictures that it depresses me a little. Technology and a dearth of original material is draining the business of creativity. I like comic book movies but holy mackerel, we have a dozen super hero movies this year. I'm not sure that any movie series (with the exception of James Bond), should have several follow ups. This movie gives me hope. Not because the product placement issue is exposed ( which it really isn't, we are just much better informed about it then we were before) but because some one has had a creative idea and made it work.

There are at least a dozen big laughs in the movie, most of them intentional but a couple that may be unique to me (Noam Chomsky, really?). Even if you don't laugh out loud at all the things that are so ridiculous, you will smile at Spurlock's chutzpah and the enthusiasm he has for his own project. I did think there were too many forays into the political waters involving advertising. Did we really need a trip to South America to see the billboard ban in San Paolo? Overall though there is just too much fascinating behind the scenes content to be worried about the occasional burst of righteousness. The best part is that those hand wringers are not the film maker himself. He commits to the idea of the movie and lets the process of putting it together tell us the story. This is a fully satisfying comedy that takes down the pretensions of people on both sides and allows us to enjoy the process as a movie ought to do.

My daughter Amanda did an internship at a product placement firm. She is interested in working in this field. When I heard about the movie a year or so ago, I was interested but she seemed indifferent. Maybe she thought the movie was designed to blast the movie product placement business, or perhaps she is like me, a little worried that the field we immerse ourselves in was being attacked. She went with me last night to see this film. She enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. It is not a hard hitting expose of product and film marketing, it is a movie first. It raises issues that seem exaggerated to me, but that others deeply care about. If you want your documentary to be polemic, there is enough to satisfy you here. On the other hand, if you want to be entertained and learn some things along the way, this is right up your alley.

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