By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2007)
Deck the halls with advertising, Fa la la la la la la la la
‘Tis the time for merchandising, Fa la la la la la la la la
Profit never needs a reason, Fa la la la la la la la la
Get the money, it’s the season, Fa la la la la la la la la
-Stan Freberg, from “Green Chri$tma$”
Joy to the world!
In the form of goods.
Consume! Consume! Consume!
-Rev. Billy and his choir
This week I thought we’d take a respite from holiday shopping to check out a new documentary called What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock (who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore Lite”) and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, the film documents the public antics of improv performer/anti-consumerism activist Bill Talen, better-known as his alter-ego, Reverend Billy, the “spiritual” leader of the “Church of Stop Shopping”.
Talen honed his act in San Francisco, originally creating the stage persona of “Reverend Billy”, a flashy, big-haired TV evangelist who performs with the fearless, in-your-face conviction of a sidewalk preacher. The Reverend doesn’t preach traditional gospel, however. His “mission” is to rail against the evils of corporate retail giants. Talen calls attention to corporate sanctioned sweat shops, abused and underpaid store employees, and the cradle-to-grave brainwashing of American consumers by the advertising media-to anyone who will listen. His favorite targets include Disney (Rev. Billy considers Mickey Mouse “the Antichrist”), Starbucks and Wal-Mart.
In 2005, Talen and his troupe left their New York City home base to embark on a nationwide bus tour to spread the good word: “Stop shopping!” VanAlkemade and his film crew tagged along, as they executed their blend of street theater and social activism. The traveling church members stake out malls and retail chain stores, treating unsuspecting shoppers to impromptu sermons and Weird Al-style rewording of well-known hymns and Christmas carols. They also rent local public halls, where they stage “church services” and “revivals”. In one particularly inspired church service, Rev. Billy exhorts attendees to come forward and have their credit cards exorcised; he collapses on cue for his grand finale.
As the group treks across the fruited plains, they make stops at the likes of the behemoth Mall of America . We watch the performers repeat the same drill several times: Billy, armed with a megaphone and backed by his singing, hand-clapping choir members, plants himself squarely in center court and proceeds to call for an immediate cessation to mindless spending. Groups of shoppers, at first a little puzzled, eventually begin to gather, some clapping along and getting into the spirit of the performance, others watching but still blinking uncomprehendingly. By the time a crowd gathers, the ubiquitous teams of beer-gutted, walkie-talkie wielding mall security personnel converge to unceremoniously escort the group from the premises. The audience disperses, chuckling and shaking their heads on their way to the Orange Julius.
The final whistle stop is Anaheim, where the reverend and his flock descend on Disneyland. Just before he is (inevitably) escorted out by the Disney brown shirts (seriously-they are disturbingly fascistic in dress and demeanor), Billy delivers the best line in the film through his megaphone: “People! Main Street, U.S.A. is made in China!”
Mission accomplished? Hardly, but you do find yourself admiring Talen’s conviction and dedication to his activist principles, despite the fact that his message is apparently falling on deaf ears. When he is filmed making a purchase, it’s at an independently-owned, small town clothing store where he first checks labels to make sure his new sweater is “Made in the U.S.A.” You get a vibe that it isn’t a grandstanding gesture for the cameras, but a sincere effort on Talen’s part to literally practice what he preaches.
To my observation, Talen is the heir apparent to a style of guerrilla theater popularized by the likes of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers in the 1960s, with a pinch of Abbie Hoffman. One scene in particular, where Billy and his flock perform an “exorcism” on a Wal-Mart store, reminded me of Hoffman’s crowning moment of political theater in 1967, when he joined forces with Allen Ginsberg and thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.
The film’s “Stop the presses! Christmas is crassly commercial!” revelation is as hoary as Miracle on 34th Street or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Also, there have already been several documentaries produced that frankly do a much better job covering the “corporate exploitation of workers” angle (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The Big One come to mind). That said, I still admire Talen’s adherence to his “mission”, and it’s refreshing to see a Christmas holiday-themed film that might actually make people snap out of their Return of the Living Dead mall stupor. One immediate epiphany as I walked out of the theater: for two hours (counting previews) I didn’t charge one thing to my credit card. And that’s a good thing.