POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock, USA, 2011)

There is not necessarily that much to say about POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, in that the premise of the film is pretty simple.

That is, Morgan Spurlock, he of Supersize Me (USA, 2004) fame, has made a film that exposes to what degree product placement – or what we might call just plain advertising – is a common practice in the film, television and new media industries.

I hope that such people do not exist (because they’d have to be what I might uncharitably term morons), but we can hypothesise that not everyone already knows this. And if not everyone already knows this, then bravo Morgan Spurlock for bringing it to our/their attention.

Beyond that, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not necessarily as brilliant as all that. And I’d perhaps even go so far as to say that it is disingenuous.

The Review Bit (in which – enviously? – I reproach Morgan Spurlock for thinking that a wink and a smile mitigates the trick he is playing on me)
The film is smart and ironic, sure – but its disingenuous nature comes through when Spurlock takes (seeming) swipes at bizarre North American corporate practices, such as the weird psychoanalytic branding exercise that he goes through early on in the film.

We see Morgan subjected to countless questions that seem to go on for hours – and after being grilled in this intense manner he is told – entirely anticlimactically – that he/his brand is a combination of intelligent and witty (I can’t remember the exact phrase – but it was cheesey).

My point is that if Morgan expects us (as at least I seem to think that he does) to laugh, somewhat bitterly, at how people can make money selling transparent clothes to the Emperor (psychoanalytic branding that tells anyone with a modicum of self-awareness what they probably know about themselves already), then why does he not expect us already to know precisely the other ‘insights’ that his documentary reveals – namely, that advertising is everywhere?

In this way, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not really about advertising, but about Morgan Spurlock – and his access to the beautiful classes (even if he has not in fact ‘made it’ in ‘real life’).

The film claims that he is not selling out but buying in. To be honest, I think that both of these terms pertain to the same logic of capital-as-justification-of-one’s-existence that Spurlock might not necessarily critique, but the critique of which is surely a strong part of his No Logo-reading target audience.

Spurlock might aim for ‘transparency’ – but this in itself is problematic. As pointed out to me in the past by an astute former colleague, if something is transparent, it is invisible. While Spurlock might make apparent something that advertisers themselves have for a long time been wanting to make as apparent as possible – namely their brand – Spurlock also seeks to make transparent – i.e. invisible – his very conformity with the practices that his film might otherwise seek to critique.

Irony and humour are aplenty in the film, as Spurlock seeks to make a doc-buster that is corporate sponsored in its entirety while being about the prevalence of corporate sponsorship. There seems no room in this world for gifts or sacrifices, or any of those things that might otherwise suggest a spirit and sense of community beyond the quest for material profit. And for all of Spurlock’s success (and his failures) in getting money from the brand dynasties, it does seem to lack, how do I put it?, soul.

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, USA, 2007) opens with Homer shouting from an onscreen audience that the Simpsons Movie within the Simpsons Movie that he is watching is no better than the TV show, and a rip-off. Similarly, Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, USA, 1992) has a protracted sketch in which Wayne (Mike Myers) explains how he will not sell out to corporate sponsorship while simultaneously advertising a host of products from pizzas from trainers.

In other words, Hollywood has been pretty up-front about the fact that it has been peddling advertisements to us/short-changing us in the form of films for a long time. Hell – although I am here shifting slightly into the realm of the online viral, but some ‘advertainments’ – such as Zack Galafianakis’ wonderful Vodka Movie – are pretty good.

In this way, Spurlock does not take his film to the level of, say, the Yes Men in their critique of contemporary corporate practices. In their far-too-little-seen The Yes Men Fix The World (Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno and Kurt Engfehr, France/UK/USA, 2009), there is a scene in which the titular Yes Men try to convince a gathering of corporate bigwigs that they could make a shitload of money by, literally, repackaging shit back to consumers (that’s vaguely how I remember it, anyway – perhaps someone can correct me if I’m wrong). Hollywood also does this – but given that shit stinks and causes disease if not carefully disposed of, sometimes it’s good to rub it back in the noses of those who deposit it, as per the Yes Men. In comparison, Spurlock just seems to enjoy wading through shit to get to the silver screen a little too much.

Anyway, now to…

The Real Blog – not about but inspired by the so-branded Greatest Movie Ever Sold
At one point in Spurlock’s film, he talks to Martin Lindstrom of Buyology, which is also the name of a book about marketing and its effects on the brain.

Lindstrom shows to Spurlock images of his brain while watching a Coke commercial.

Lindstrom explains that at a certain moment in the commercial (it is not made particularly clear which moment, since Spurlock – like many neuro-whatever evangelists – tries to blind us with ‘science’ rather than a precise explanation), Spurlock’s brain releases dopamine, which suggests an addiction of sorts – inspired by the commercial. That is, or so the film seems to suggest, Spurlock underwent the same effects of a ‘Coke high’ thinking about Coke – which in turn suggested his avowed desire for a Coke at the time of watching the advert – as involved in actually drinking a Coke.

What is not clear from this is whether Spurlock’s ‘addiction’ is to Coke, or at the very least to its effects, or rather to images that can spur desire through their very presence for that which they depict.

My critique of the lack of clarity offered by Spurlock and which I extended to neuro-evangelists is not because, Raymond Tallis-style, I wish to dismiss ‘neuromania.’ Indeed, I personally think that neuroscience has enormous amounts of insight to offer us.

But I am not sure that the right questions are being asked of neuroscience at present in order for us fully to understand the implication of its results.

I have written a few papers, published and forthcoming, on what neuroscience might mean for film studies, particularly in the realm of images attracting our attentions through fast cutting rates, through the exaggerated use of colour, and through various acting techniques (associated predominantly with Stanislavski’s ‘system‘ and Strasberg’s ‘method‘ – which are of course different things, but I group them together because the former spawned its offshoot, the latter). And it is this area of studying film that I wish to pursue further – and on a level of seriousness far greater than that more playfully adopted for a previous posting on sleeping in the cinema.

This will sound quite outlandish – particularly to academic readers – because it is a crazy, Burroughs-esque proposal. But I think that a neuroscientific approach to cinema will help bring us closer to answering one question, which I formulate thus: can there be such a thing as image addiction?

Why is this an important question to ask/answer – and what does neuroscience have to do with it?

It is an important question – at least in my eyes – for the following reason: there is a long line in film studies history of people who argue for and against (predominantly against) the possibility that humans can or do mistake cinematic images for reality. This question, however, is all wrong – even if slightly more interesting than it seems easy to dismiss.

Far more important is the following: it is not that humans mistake films for reality (or if they do, this is not as significant as what follows), it is that humans commonly mistake reality for cinema.

What do I mean by this? I mean every time we feel disappointed that we are not in a film. I mean humanity’s obsession with watching moving images on screens at every possible opportunity such that life – and even ‘slow’ films – become boring and intolerable to people who must have their fix instead of bright colour and fast action. I mean the widespread aspiration to be on film, or at the very least to become an image (what I like to refer to as ‘becoming light’) on a screen (the final abandonment of the body and the ability to be – as an image – in all places at once [travelling at ‘light speed’]). I mean our inability to look interlocutors in the eye because we are too transfixed by the TV screen glowing in the corner of the pub. I mean – and I know this sensation intensely – the sense of immersion and loss of self that I feel when I watch films.

This is what I call image addiction.

But why neuroscience?

Because neuroscience might be able to help show to what extent – be it through conspiracy or otherwise – moving images and their accompanying sounds literally wire our brains in a certain fashion, such that we do all (come closer to) thinking in exactly the same way, repeating the same bullshit mantras to each other, dreaming only minor variations of the same things, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. If we adopted a psychoanalytic – instead of a neuroscientific – discourse – we might realise that the literal wiring of our brains is heavily influenced – and perhaps even relies/historically has relied upon – ‘fantasy’ of other kinds beyond the cinematic, and which we might even more broadly label the ‘culture’ in which we live.

But a neuroscientific demonstration of how this is so (if, indeed, it is so – this is only my hunch at the moment) might then open up debate on every philosophical level: ontologically, to what extent is reality determined by fiction? Ethically, how many images, of what kind, and using what styles, can or should we see if we want to retain some sense of a mythological self that – impossibly in my eyes – is ‘untouched’ by the world (be that by cinema in the world or the world itself that contains cinema) and belongs ‘purely’ to us? Indeed, this might open up debate not only about which ontology and which ethics, but regarding the entire issue of both ontology and ethics – and how historically they have been framed…

For those interested in what academic researchers do, I am trying at present to create a network of scholars interested in ‘neurocinematics’ (which is not to deny that various scholars are already working on these issues in their own ways). I am sceptical that I will be successful in attracting funding, not because the idea is not ‘sexy’ but because I am not sure, at present, whether I know enough neuroscientists to work with, and I also figure I might be too much of a no-mark academic to land a plum grant from a funding institution that has never heard of me. But I shall try nonetheless.

In conclusion, then, Lindstrom’s comment to Spurlock is unclear, but it raises the issue that I think is at the heart of where I want my academic research to go (even if I want to retain strong interests in other academic areas, predominantly film studies, and even if I might ditch all of this to write and/or direct films if anyone ever gave me the money to do so beyond my breaking my bank account every time I put light to lens – my filmmaking being my own desire to become light): is Spurlock addicted to what is in the image, or to the image itself? Can we separate them? Does looking at Coke can yield the same effect as looking at the stylised Coke can in the image (i.e. it is the properties not strictly of the can, but of the can in the image) that trigger the response of which Lindstrom speaks…

I suspect that both the advertising and movie industries are funding this kind of research as we speak. If the corporate giants can go straight to your brain, they will do. Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010), then, becomes no lie (not that inception/influence of some sort has not always been in existence – as I argue here). In some sense, then, such research is morally indispensable; what I mean by this is that if corporate giants discover and protect methods of accessing the brain directly, then it is up to academics to let humans know how this happens, to make them aware of ‘inception,’ to bring people back to that most unfashionable of approaches to studying film, ideological critique.

In some senses, then, this is simply the rehashing under new paradigms the same old questions that have been banging around since cinema’s, ahem, inception, and even before. Only the stakes are now higher.

Might I say that a full neurocinematic programme might simply prove according to some scientific paradigm what many of us have known all along?

Wait a second, isn’t this also what I accuse Morgan Spurlock of doing with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, accusing him of being a self-serving hypocrite for doing something that I myself seem to want to do?

Maybe Spurlock’s film is better than I thought, then. Maybe it is important and ingenious, because of its invisible transparency, not in spite of it.

There probably is no academic study that is devoid of corporate sponsorship somewhere along the line these days. There certainly will be even less if the politicians do not open their ears at some point and listen to what people are beginning literally to scream at them with regard to higher education and other issues. That is, that is must be as free of outside interests as possible, even if the quest for true objectivity is impossible to achieve.

Indeed, if we are talking about the possibility of corporate – or even gubernatorial – brain control (which is not the same as mind control, I hasten to add, though one could lead to the other), then we need to know whether it is possible, how it might happen, and what we can do about it. Before our bodies are all snatched away by the light (note: even now I cannot escape movie references) of the screen and before we are all turned into dependent image junkies who need the images just to feel alive – the over-dependent equivalent of the good, small dose that a movie like Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, UK/Denmark, 2011) seems to offer – as written about here.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, Documentary, Film education, Film reviews, Neurocinematics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock, USA, 2011)

  1. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info specifically the last part 🙂 I care for such info a lot. I was looking for this certain info for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.

  2. Pingback: Product Placement..Where do you draw the line? | retail fix

  3. Deaunne says:

    Wow. I’ve just heard my own thoughts in your voice, at exactly the right time- thank you!! I’m thrilled to find a kindred spirit here.
    I’m a neuroscientist (recent MD/PhD grad) in Portland, OR, and have been looking for opportunities to work in this arena (outside academia) you so articulately describe. Please feel free to contact me anytime if you’re interested in more discussion. And I’ll certainly keep updated on your site, and share anything relevant I come across.
    Thank you heaps!!

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