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Sundance '11 Day 3: Selling out

Posted by Wesley Morris  January 22, 2011 08:09 PM

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Morgan Spurlock, the director "Super Size Me" and "Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?," returned to Sundance to premiere his third documentary. It's called "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," and in it, rather shamelessly, Spurlock races around the country in pursuit of corporate sponsorship. He does so under the guise of exposing both the evils of product placement in movies, television, public transportation, and everywhere else and the omnipresence and insidious omniscience of advertising. And while Spurlock rounds up the likes of Mark Crispin Miller, Noam Chomsky, and Ralph Nader to speak doomily on the subject, for most of the film Spurlock meets higher-ups at willing companies interested in placing their products in his movie. That's pretty much it: meetings and montages.   

It may be the case that Spurlock is uninterested in -- or incapable of -- rising to the intellectual challenge he presents for himself. Instead, he uses the film to turn himself into a human billboard. He doesn't appear to find corporate sponsorship for nonfiction filmmaking a problem. In a sense, it isn't. Without big business' backing, many of the movies we see and festivals we attend wouldn't happen or would happen differently. 

Spurlock tries to complicate things by getting Hollywood directors like Peter Berg and Brett Ratner to come clean about product placements in their movies. They say nothing surprising. Corporations, for instance, don't care about art. And: Sellouts? We're all sellouts! Sony Pictures Classics bought "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" a few day before, a move one imagines is a bargain given the money the sponsoring companies are likely to spend on marketing. (The movie includes scenes in which its posters are printed and pressed and another in which Spurlock appears on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show. Presumably, it was staged, which, of course, makes you wonder what else Spurlock has rigged.) The movie doesn't ask whether good product placement is good for documentaries. Spurlock doesn't need to. The answer is obvious: It's good for him. Spurlock says he set out to make a "docbuster," which, of course, would make him the Brett Ratner of nonfiction.

Even so, as empty of insight and crass in its shamelessness as it is, the movie is occasionally funny. The audience went for it. The Q&A was packed; and as proof of the film's queasy efficacy, one questioner told Spurlock, who was joined by the charmed executives he pursues in the film, that he plans to start using the products whose makers backed Spurlock, because they're supporting documentary filmmaking. Above is a bit from the Q&A, for which Spurlock changed into a blazer emblazoned with the logos of his sponsors. He looked like a waiter at a NASCAR restaurant. 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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