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Sunday, May 15, 2011

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock's provocative documentary on films and advertising

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Morgan Spurlock has lost a lot of weight since last we saw him in his documentary on junk food, Super Size Me. Now looking fit and trim, Spurlock once again dashes across the line separating reporting on reality from becoming that reality in his new film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Hilarious and provocative, The Greatest Movie investigates how advertising has saturated our consciousness through the lens of filmmaking. Many Hollywood blockbusters are funded in part through product placement or "co-promotions." Iron Man, for example, had no less than 14 "brand partners" whose products were woven into the movie. Spurlock wanted to see if he could finance a modest indie film (i.e. $1.5 million) entirely through co-promotions.

The gonzo documentary's marquee-filling name embraces its chief corporate sponsor, the successful purveyor of pomegranate juice. But before POM put its name "above the title" (as they say in Hollywood) in exchange for $1 million, Spurlock had to find other brand partners willing to fork over, say, a modest $50,000. Early scenes show Spurlock being laughed at by Red Bull and Hormel executives. VW issued a curt fax declaring that it's "not in Volkswagen's best interest to be involved in this documentary in any form." Finally he met with executives of Ban roll-on, who consider themselves the brash underdogs of deodorant. They told him that associating the word "fresh" with their brand "really spins this...into the positive." Spurlock agreed that The Greatest Movie would show Ban in a fresh, positive light. With their check in the mail, he was now in business.

But what does the movie business have to do with art? Can integrity be sold by the pound? Spurlock interviews corporate critics such as Noam Chomsky, interviewed with a bottle of POM on the table, who warned of Faustian bargains. Spurlock got Ralph Nader to admire a pair of Merrell shoes as he denounced advertising as inevitably deceptive. The Greatest Movie's most revealing scenes were shot in São Paulo, the Brazilian megalopolis where billboards and other outdoor advertising are banned. The city looked strangely, appealingly naked. The citizens he interviewed felt they could see the real world once again.

Of course, once he read the contracts from his brand partners, Spurlock discovered strings attached to the dependent clauses. One insisted on final approval of the film. Spurlock's lawyer recommended that POM be the only visible beverage in the entire documentary. "I'm losing the ability to have control over the movie," Spurlock concedes.

And that's certainly what he expected when he set forth, just as gaining weight by eating daily happy meals was no surprise. One wonders whether artistic license was taken, but, in Spurlock's cheeky way, The Greatest Movie makes us think about the corrosive effects of a culture where happiness is on sale and human identity is traded for branding.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
is scheduled to open in Milwaukee on May 20.