Rogue of the Week: Morgan Spurlock

Thursday, 21 April 2011 16:55 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue of the Week: Morgan Spurlock

How many documentary filmmakers can you think of who are household names?  There's Michael Moore, but his aggressive politicization has largely overshadowed his films and confined him to a narrow audience of true believers.  Guys like Ken Burns, Werner Herzog, or Errol Morris are all well known for their docs, but they don't tap into the zeitgeist of mainstream cinema.  The fact is, very few documentaries break into the popular culture, and even fewer documentarians become public figures for their work.  Certainly, only one man has ever managed to do do so while consistently sporting a horseshoe mustache: Morgan Spurlock.

The director behind Super Size Me, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, and Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is our Rogue of the Week, but not because he's become a recognizable media figure.  Spurlock is unique as a documentarian in that he creates films that are entertaining enough to kickstart popular discourse on socially relevant subjects.

Spurlock's documentaries are propelled by deceptively simple concepts which, on the surface, appear to be gimmicks.  He went from a playwright and the creator of a webseries-turned-novelty show on MTV (I Bet You Would) to a nationally prominent filmmaker with Super Size Me.  In that film, Spurlock subsisted on a diet that consisted only of McDonald's for an entire month, finishing every meal and obligatorily upgrading to Super Size any time a cashier prompted the up-sell.  The Greatest Movie Ever Sold chronicles the director's efforts to fund a film about product placement entirely through corporate product placement.

In both of these films, Spurlock serves as a jovial navigator for the audience, using his ingratiating, smartassed sense of humor to create an agreeably buoyant tone.  In Super Size Me, Spurlock's 25-pound weight gain is charted with photo updates, and in each, he grins at the camera in nothing but an American flag-patterned pair of underoos, fully aware that he's making himself a guinea pig.  He also pokes fun at himself, divulging that his diet decimated his sexual prowess, leaving his longtime ladyfriend dissatisfied.  With The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he revels in unscrupulousness of his enterprises, turning himself into a walking advertisement as he gleefully wears a suit covered in tasteless logos. 

Even as his films scream with indignation, they do not stop being almost defiantly light-hearted.  In Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, Spurlock focuses on the War on Terror, complex geopolitics, and religious fundamentalism, with his tongue firmly in cheek almost the entire time.  Of this approach, he explained, "Nobody likes to be poked with a stick. But everybody likes to be tickled with a feather."

And that's what makes Morgan Spurlock's documentaries successful.  They're clever and funny, yes, but only as a means of exploring subjects of real topical importance.  Super Size Me almost simmers with indignation at the willingness of the fast food industry to put such a low priority on nutrition, and for aggressively pushing a product that substantially contributes to serious national health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Spurlock plays the lab animal, but his film also articulates a greater feeling that human health is not the most valuable commodity in this country.  In his new film, he examines the manipulative sophistication of modern marketing, and the effect that ubiquitous advertising has on our collective and individual psychology. 

His documentaries are funny and entertaining, yes, but more importantly, Morgan Spurlock's films get us thinking, and frequently instigate thoughtful conversations.  In an entertainment industry increasingly willing to feed the audience a cinematic equivalent of insubstantial, nutritionally negligable fast food, Spurlock is indeed a Rogue.

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