24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Morgan Spurlock

'Undefeated,' Michael Moore and the art of entertaining documentaries

March 1, 2012 |  6:47 pm

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Even in documentaries, it helps if the main character is animated. That’s one of the themes being explored at the University of Missouri’s conference on documentary filmmaking titled Based on a True Story -- in very windy, but so far tornado-free, Columbia, Mo.

In preparing for a Thursday panel -- looking at the role, if any, of entertainment in documentary filmmaking -- I began thinking about how audiences have come to expect as much entertainment as information, as much drama as data, in documentaries.

The good news is that so often documentary filmmakers deliver it all, as new Oscar winner “Undefeated,” with its underdog team and its charismatic coach, did so winningly well.

Or consider documentarian Michael Moore, who in the years since his groundbreaking “Roger & Me” has essentially become the main attraction –- his brand of in-your-face tactics, as he tackles various issues, is one of the main reasons audiences keep coming back. It's also his main challenge: How can he keep re-inventing himself? Or can he? And what would a Michael Moore film be without the filmmaker literally in the picture? Might be interesting to see.

It’s an approach that filmmaker Morgan Spurlock uses more lightly –- a little outrage and a lot of comedy -– whether he’s actually supersizing himself to talk about fast food in "Super Size Me" or selling the shirt off his back to examine product placement in movies, as he was in last year’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

But really, most documentary filmmakers find their challenge in not being center stage. Instead, they're trying to build a compelling story around their featured player –- whether it’s the life and death of a race-car sensation like "Senna" or a bunch of babies in "Babies," their first year of life followed in detail. Or a chimp named Nim, who became a science project in the '70s, and an examination of our right to subject animals to such research in the outstanding “Project Nim.”

It requires the patience of Job to film far more than you need in hopes of finding those moments of truth that will take life on-screen, the serendipity that surprises. Like fictional film, ultimately, it's about telling a story. In the case of documentaries, the story is a true one, and that is very powerful cinematic material indeed.

For a taste of these films, watch the video above.

[For the Record, 12:01 p.m. March 6: A previous version of this post referred to Based on a True Story as a film festival. It is a film conference held by the University of Missouri.]


'Undefeated' wins feature documentary Oscar

Sony Pictures Classics nabs documentary 'West of Memphis'

'Undefeated' is a provocative look at race and class in sports

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic, reporting from Columbia, Mo.

Toronto Film Festival documentary lineup includes Herzog, Spurlock

August 3, 2011 |  9:41 am

The 2011 Toronto International Film Festival has filled its documentary lineup with a heady mix of movies from today's best-known documentarians, including Morgan Spurlock, Jonathan Demme, Werner Herzog and Alex Gibney, among others, organizers announced Wednesday.

The subjects are just as varied as the filmmakers. Spurlock ("Super Size Me") will present his take on the annual geek fest in San Diego in "Comic-Con: Episode IV: A Fan's Hope."

Demme, who has made  documentaries on Neil Young and Jimmy Carter, among other subjects, is on tap to deliver his tale of Hurricane Katrina from one woman's eyes in "I'm Carolyn Parker: the Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful."

Werner Herzog, who surprised audiences with his 2005 tale of grizzly bear devotee Timothy Treadwell and struck box office gold this year with his 3-D "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," is back with an examination of a triple homicide case in Texas.

Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2008 documentary on U.S. torture practices in "Taxi to the Dark Side," takes on an extremely different subject matter in "The Last Gladiators": professional hockey players. And for those unsatisfied with Stephen Bannon's recent flattering Sarah Palin film, “The Undefeated," there's "Sarah Palin -- You Betcha" from Nick Broomfield ("Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer").

Thom Powers, lead programmer for documentaries at the festival, said: "I'm thrilled at the large number of veteran filmmakers who have brought us new works this year. The lineup contains a wide range of memorable characters -- crusaders, convicts, artists, athletes, nude dancers, comic book fans, dog lovers and more."

The festival is also presenting the world premiere of Mark Cousins' 15-hour documentary, "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" that tells the story of innovation in movies. The lengthy work traces 11 decades of cinema, features 1,000 movies and dozens of interviews with filmmakers such as Stanley Donen ("Singin' in the Rain") and Iran's Abbas Kiarostami.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 8-18.


Bono, U2 doc will open Toronto International Film Festival

George Clooney, Brad Pitt highlight Toronto film festival lineup

A secretive Nick Broomfield documentary about Sarah Palin is nearly complete

-- Nicole Sperling

Photo: Werner Herzog in West Hollywood on April 25. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Has Hollywood product placement gone too far?

April 21, 2011 |  1:19 pm

We've seen so many brands integrated into film storylines and backdrops that by now we're almost inured to it. Which is one of the points made by Morgan Spurlock and a number of talking heads in  "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," the documentarian's playful but tough look at product placement that was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters Friday. Brands have become so present that companies must keep ratcheting up the volume, which in turns makes them even more pervasive.

Although Spurlock uncovers plenty of outrageousness in his new movie, the filmmaker who gave us "Supersize Me" told 24 Frames that very little of what he found surprised him or made him (more) depressed. "I'd say I'm about as jaded now as when I started," he said in an interview. (Come back Friday at 10 a.m.  for a live chat with Spurlock.)

Still, Spurlock said he was hoping to achieve a socially conscious purpose with the new film which, among other things, also shows the encroachment of advertising into classrooms and school buses. "A certain amount of marketing is OK," he said. "But the question is where you draw the line. Because the line continues to be erased. I was at a subway station the other day that was named after a brand. They're selling advertising in schools, and schools are supposed to be sacred."

Spurlock also shows a number of blatant instances of product placement in shows and movies, including one case of "90210" cast members flogging Dr Pepper in the middle of the show's narrative.

Those who engage in the practice say that, if done properly, product integration can be unobtrusive and even beneficial. "Marketing is just a part of life," said Hollywood product placement expert Norm Marshall, in a profile about him in today's Times. If a brand is placed organically in a movie or show, he said, it can serve the character and storyline. (Marshall also estimated that actual paid placement at no higher than one-third of all brand appearances.)

Spurlock suggests that the practice has become more insidious, and that if consumers don't take an aggressive stance advertising in movies and other editorially driven venues will will soon become overwhelming. "It seems wrong not to push back," he said. "That's the only way to slow it down."


Live chat with Morgan Spurlock

Sundance 2011: Spurlock sells The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Product placement king Norm Marshall explains how it's done

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Morgan Spurlock stumps for "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Live chat with Morgan Spurlock on Friday

April 18, 2011 |  1:38 pm

Over the course of a colorful and acclaimed career as a documentarian, Morgan Spurlock has pulled back the veil on a number of hard-hitting subjects, whether it's anti-Muslim bigotry or the perils of fast food, while maintaining a sparkling sense of humor. Now the "Supersize Me" director tackles a new topic: product placement. In "Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold," Spurlock takes us behind the curtain of corporations as they attempt to pay their way into Hollywood. He does so using some novel means: by making a movie financed entirely using product placement.

The movie, one of the breakouts at this year's Sundance Film Festival, shows how parties ranging from major hotel chains to television series to local school systems are complicit in the product-placement machine. In his inimitably Spurlockian way, the director critiques the current system by playfully and ironically promoting the brands featured in his film.

On Friday, the day the movie opens, Spurlock will join us for a live chat at 10 a.m. PDT. He'll answer any questions you have about his work and the current state of marketing, and maybe plug a few products (ironically) while he's at it. Join us for a freewheeling discussion.


Morgan Spurlock finds a buyer

'Greatest Movie Ever Sold': Product placement guru explains how it's done

Sundance 2011: Morgan Spurlock sells 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' to audience

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Morgan Spurlock in "Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics


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