Season of Anxiety
Christmas is meant to shake the world up, not just be an occasion for more shopping.
What Would Jesus Buy?
Bill Talen, Savitri Durke, Alan Sklar (narrator)
US theatrical: 16 Nov 2007 (Limited release)
“Three-quarters of us view Christmas with more dread than anticipation.” With this pronouncement, What Would Jesus Buy? suggests a certain sympathy for the American holiday shopper. It backs up such sympathy with a montage of harried activity: shopping carts and trees on trucks, presents ornaments and lights, turkeys and presents, aligned with waving U.S. flags, traffic, and cash registers. It’s enough to make you cringe. ‘Tis the season, the documentary submits, when “Many millions will converge on centers of worship, large and small, to celebrate and give thanks to a familiar god.”
Produced by Morgan Spurlock and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, What Would Jesus Buy? follows the agit-prop adventures of Reverend Billy, the bleached-blond alter-ego of Bill Talen. It’s 2005, and he, wife/church director Savitri Durkee, and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir are on the road in a convoy of buses, preaching against the “shopocalypse” coast to coast. Part performance art, part guerrilla theater, the group combines comedy and “intervention” in a way that recalls the Yes Men. And even if, like Super Size Me, the film is telling you what you already know, it’s so raucously good-natured that at times, the point seems almost new.
The framework is surely familiar: as Thanksgiving (and now, Halloween) comes and goes, media begin churning out shopping news. On Black Friday, the shopping begins in earnest. The updates include circulars in your Sunday newspapers, pop-up ads on your screens and endless minutes of TV news: what products and what stores are drawing the largest crowds, where someone was injured during a midnight rush through the mall’s front doors, updates on your patriotic duty: “We can’t just let the terrorists win and just stay home,” declares one interviewee. Get with the program.
“We used to be a nation of producers and are now a nation of consumers,” intones the narrator. “American stores could already fit every man woman and child in North America and South America inside them at one time.” Crowds have become definitive. Today, en route to a future when everyone shops online and every day is Cyber Monday, most holiday cheer is located in the mall. Reverend Billy and crew travel from mall to mall, their goal, much like Borat’s, the Golden State. Here they plan to descend on Disneyland, but their journey includes stops at Wal-Mart and the Mall of America (the only mall with its own police force and college campus). “We’re trying to get them to slow down their consumption!” Reverend Billy tells Glenn Beck. Instead of flat screen TVs and iPhones, he says, people should give love, time, and attention.
Following the format of Super Size Me, What Would Jesus Buy? includes expert testimony. After a series of children list what they want for Christmas (a disposable cell phone, a Nintendo, a “Batmanmobile,” and a knife and an army gun), Dr. Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania, and child psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint lay out the history of Santa Claus, as an eventual emblem that interlaces the expression of love with buying stuff. “Our parents go to such immense trouble to make it seem like nobody shopped for Christmas,” says Christmas historian Steven Nissenbaum, as a vintage cartoon Santa appears tap-tapping on a toy. The pretense invites children to believe in miraculous gifts and helps to hide that their parents are enduring “a season of anxiety and sometimes frantic desperation.” Exhibit A for the prosecution: Reverend Billy’s “personal antichrist,” Mickey Mouse, who appears on Reverend Billy’s t-shirt, squished in a mousetrap.
The film includes some drama (a tour bus is slammed by an 18-wheeler, sending several choir members to the hospital) as well as lots of antics. The choir marches through parking lots, performs an exorcism outside Wal-Mart HQ (accompanied by The Exorcist‘s piano theme on the film’s soundtrack), and makes a stand outside a Victoria’s Secret window (“Oh Victoria! We know your secret! We don’t need a million catalogues a day have our sexual fantasies”). It appears that most all the shoppers they encounter are amused by the show but don’t stop what they’re about. Savitri expresses a moment of frustration (“If they do hear us, they so don’t want to hear us… I need for what we do to have some impact on someone soon”), but for the most part, the choir is relentlessly upbeat. As Savitri puts it, “I think the culture of shopping is so complete now, that even just a single interruption is a kind of success. You really do have to start somewhere.”
Reverend Billy and company don’t imagine anyone will actually stop shopping. Their ambition is to encourage more “responsible” shopping, some awareness concerning effects of consumer choices. (They appear shopping, sometimes marveling at the ease with which they’re seduced by objects and advertising.) You can make the effort to know what it does to a community to purchase from chain stores rather local merchants, or to consider the effects of Wal-Mart and its clones (low wages, for one thing). Or you should know that workers in Sri Lanka and China don’t make living wages, and that union organizers have their kneecaps broken (images of exhausted women and lines of sewing machines offer general proof of the claims). Evidence of “interruption” is more immediate: a trio of girl shoppers undertake to look online in pursuit of information concerning their choice of designer clothing.
The road show is mostly grand (the lyrics are clever, the energy infectious) and on occasion, apparently inspiring (Reverend Billy baptizes a pair of shoppers’ infant outside a box store: “Give this child and give its parents the loving power to not be lost to the mindlessness of consumerism,” which leaves the father sighing, “What a nice man”). After Reverend Billy is arrested at Disneyland, and carted off to the Anaheim City Jail, his choir sings and cheers when he’s released. As they all head off for another engagement, it’s clear they are united in art and protest. Having changed their own lives, they have indeed started somewhere.