Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Con Artists

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Mari-Beth Slade normally doesn't review movies for us but she wanted to tackle this one. It made sense. Mari-Beth is one of those rare folks from a marketing background who questions rather than simply markets. Morgan Spurlock had already made a name for himself exposing the detriments of eating at McDonalds in Super Size Me. But, in his latest film, Mari-Beth astutely sensed something a little more self-serving at work.

The Most Boring Movie Ever Watched: Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Disclaimer: I fell asleep during this movie. Granted, it was the late movie on a Tuesday night after a full day of work, a softball game, and endless errands. It’s also not the first time I’ve turned the cinema into my personal napping studio. But still, after Super Size Me (2004), I had grand expectations for Spurlock’s next documentary. I’m not a cinephile or a film connoisseur. I’m just an ordinary moviegoer hoping to learn something and be diverted for a few hours. Super Size Me confronted us and demanded that we reconsider the consequences of every empty calorie we consume. I hoped for a similar challenge with POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I expected Spurlock to ask the tough questions about product placement, selling-out and the effect advertising has on rampant consumerism.

I received no such challenge. The film was essentially a poorly-edited and loosely-connected series of meetings that Spurlock arranged in an attempt to secure sponsorships for his film. One reviewer pointed out that this is cleverly “very meta.” Fair enough, but it would also be “very meta” to catalog a book about the Dewey Decimal system – and equally as dull. Many of us spend our lives attending meetings and can think of nothing more monotonous that watching someone else do the same thing for two hours with no comic or cunning interpretation. It’s this interpretive twist that makes the mundane mischievous. Consider the TV show The Office: who would have thought it would be entertaining to watch pedestrian clerical workers all day? Yet the result is wildly amusing, an acute depiction of the ridiculousness of office life. Spurlock had the same potential with this movie, but missed the mark.

Conversely, another reviewer claims that Spurlock “shoots straight enough that the audience can make up its own mind” (you’ll have to excuse me; I had to pore through other reviews to make up for what I slept through). Again, I concede the point. The film was exceedingly straightforward and not the least bit leading. But don’t we want to be led, or at least guided? Isn’t the filmmaker supposed to have some point of view, even in a fact-based documentary? The film was all exposition, no persuasion. I realize that we need to be told the whole story, but we also need a narrator. I could gather the facts myself, but I go to the movies to get the insight that pure facts cannot deliver. Unfortunately, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold did not deliver either.

It wasn’t all a wash. The segment on identifying your personal brand was useful. This is something that we don’t do enough: treat our lives like a business. It’s amazing how, on a personal level, people will amass large amounts of debt, kindle unfruitful alliances, or engage in aimless activities, when they wouldn’t dream of doing these things in a commercial context. Approaching our lives as we would a company is a powerful metaphor that, most of the time, will lead us to make the right choices. Watching Spurlock learn what his personal brand stands for and align his relationships appropriately inspired me to be more entrepreneurial about my own personal brand. Spurlock’s brand was summarized as ‘playful meets mindful’ and jibes with corporate brands like Apple, JetBlue Airlines, and Mini. This left me wondering about what I want my personal brand to be and scared that my corporate counterparts aren’t near as cool as Spurlock’s.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (apparently that’s the official title) did get me examining product placement in other films. While watching The Next Three Days, the abundance of Toyota vehicles was strikingly obvious. The line “What kind of criminal drives a Prius? The socially responsible kind” confirmed that Toyota must have paid big bucks to get their cars in the movie. For a moment I felt like I was watching a commercial. I would have loved if Spurlock provided some sort of insight into how much more likely I am to buy a Toyota after seeing The Next Three Days. But once again, Spurlock neglected to ask and answer the truly intriguing questions about in-film advertising and product placement.

If you’re the type of person who enjoys looking at pictures of your friends’ vacations and appreciates the minutiae of others’ lives, you might find this movie interesting. If, however, you are like me, and prefer the opinion to the objective, you’ll spend the whole time wondering what Spurlock actually thinks (if you don’t fall asleep, that is).

- originally published on June 7, 2011 in Critics at Large.

 Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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