Monday, November 26, 2007

WWJB? Cinema 21 and Morgan Spurlock kick off a half-trillion dollar holiday shopping season

Note: Producer Morgan Spurlock announced Friday night that he'll be on ABC's "Nightline" tonight (Monday 11/26), talking about "What Would Jesus Buy?", although I can't find any online confirmation of that. Probably just a coincidence that Disney owns ABC and I can't find any promotion of Spurlock's interview. (See below.)

You can set your own markers, if you care enough to bother.

For me, the moment when it became no longer possible even to pretend that the Christmas season was about anything but naked pursuit of consumerist crap came in December 2000, during the Bee-like marketing blitz surrounding the release of the live-action "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" movie. The specific trigger was a Grinch-themed MasterCard commercial, tying its "For everything else, there's MasterCard" campaign to the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey bomb. (No copies of that ad appear to be available online, which I'd like to think means that at least someone connected to the operation is capable of a wisp of shame.)

Just in case anyone needs reminding: This was the punchline of the original "Grinch" story:
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"
"It came with out ribbons! It came without tags!"
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

And what happened then...? Who-ville they say
That the Grinch's small heart
Grew three sizes that day!

There's a special circle in hell waiting for the tin-eared philistines who sold out that story in the name of ratcheting up consumer debt.

All of which brings us to Screening Liberally's first outing, to Friday night's premiere of "What Would Jesus Buy?" at Cinema 21 in NW Portland.

The documentary follows the cross-country tour of Bill Talen (aka the Reverend Billy) and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir as they carol for less expensive consumer ephemera, preach the gospel of simple gift-giving and local merchants, and conduct an exorcism at the Wal-Mart corporate headquarters.

Those are the main themes: Christmas marketing and ballooning credit card debt, a generation of consumer-droid children, harm to Main Street merchants, unbelievable quantities of packaging waste generated in a mere thirty days, and--lest we forget--the selling out of Christmas. (Bill O'Reilly can be counted on to point to "Happy Holidays" as proof that there's a war on Christmas; think he'll get on the bandwagon to save families and communities? I don't, but anything's possible. Even the Grinch's heart grew three sizes.)

There's also a really important sub-theme related to freedom of speech and the dwindling of public spaces where subversive messages like the Reverend Billy's can even be spoken. At one point, the Reverend guesses in passing that he's probably been arrested about fifty times. The reason is that, while the malls and theme parks where Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir do their performance art may be hyped as America's new town squares (or, in the case of Disneyworld, its "Main Street USA") . . . they aren't.

A classic moment in WWJB? comes when an exasperated security guard at Disneyworld explains to the Reverend, "This isn't like US public property--you can't come in here and just . . . sing."

And taking on Wal-Mart has other free-speech implications, noted Spurlock in a Q&A session after the film, since many distributors don't want to piss off the corporation controlling about 40% of the CD and DVD sales in America (and who isn't hesitant to use that clout to squelch messages it doesn't like). After the film was premiered at the Sundance festival, distributor after distributor told Spurlock that they would love to take the film, but it was simply too big a risk to incur Wal-Mart's wrath, and its long memory.

As what may or may not be a case in point, consider the KGW coverage of WWJB's premiere, including an interview with Spurlock. Through the miracle of editing, they managed to make the whole movie (which, in fairness, I imagine they didn't get the chance to see, and were only covering because of its eye-catching title in the first place) about consumer debt. No hint in the segment that the film has anything to do with some of its biggest ad clients.

(Another sub-theme is the story of two people committed to hanging onto what must surely be one of the most difficult-to-maintain marriages imaginable.)

Spurlock shared another great story with the audience: At an early screening of the film in Austin, some Christian fundamentalists from Dallas drove down to attend. During the Q&A after the show, one of the group told Spurlock they had come there fully intending to ream him a new one--after all, the film's sacrilegious intent couldn't have been clearer, with "Jesus" right there in the title!--but having seen the film she was a convert. She praised Spurlock and WWJD for rightly denouncing the materialism that had taken over the Christmas season.

Spurlock also gave a shout-out to local projects Local First and the Radio Cab Turkey Project.

Are there sensible-giving/buying-locally projects in your area? Let's hear about them!

The show runs at Cinema 21 until December 6th. As the good Reverend would say, "Change-alujah!"

(Cross-posted at Loaded Orygun.)

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