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11.28.07

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REPENT, YE SHOPPERS: Rev. Billy takes his message of anti-consumerism to the belly of the beast in Times Square.

Shopocalypse Now

Rev. Billy Wirtz delivers the Sermon on the Mall in 'What Would Jesus Buy?'

By Richard von Busack


SOCIALISTS and Christians have the same problem, which they approach from different angles: How do you make something nice sound nasty? Luxury sells itself, but renunciation takes some salesmanship. In the documentary What Would Jesus Buy?, the indefatigable Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping barnstorms our sales-addled nation in two vegetable-oil-powered buses. He and his followers face trespassing arrests and the bum's rush from unamused security guards. On the road, they hit such targets as Minneapolis's cyclopean Mall of America and the Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Finally, they reach the Heart of Disney itself on Christmas Day.According to the documentary, Billy (born Bill Talen) was a New Yorker who saw his beloved Times Square turn into "a Stonehenge of logos." Thus he adopted the language of a Southern Baptist preacher. He peroxided and aerosoled his pompadour into a cockatoolike crest, slapped on a white collar and began denouncing the megalo-marts and Disney Stores. From New York City to Burning Man, Billy hauled his three-foot megaphone to try to dissuade shoppers, and he assembled a crimson-robed choir to back him up in gospel song.

Director Rob VanAlkemade and producer Morgan (Super Size Me) Spurlock don't just get carried away by Billy's charisma. The film boasts constant motion and not a hint of talking heads. We get montages of ruined semitrucks bursting with goods, smashed on the interstate after a bad winter storm. Overstimulated toddlers wail their heads off at Disneyland. It's all as crisp as if the political artist Winston Smith himself had done the collage. (Terry Gilliam is the name that comes to mind in the linking segments of animated liturgical art polluted with Santa Claus and Hummers.)

As a shtick, the Southern preacher bit can wear out fast–just ask any former fans of Robin Williams. Get past the hallelujah stuff, though, and one believes Rev. Billy means every word of what he says when he talks about lost souls, emptiness, evil and the useless attempt to fill internal voids with consumerism. Certainly, he puts himself on the line. He even sets himself up for Christmas in jail: punishment for staging perhaps the first organized demonstration in Disneyland since the Youth International Party stormed the Magic Dictatorship in 1970. The good news about this documentary–besides its timely arrival right after Black Friday and before Amok Month–is that it has its ducks in a row. The end titles feature the names of a couple of dozen divines, psychiatrists, sociologists and ecologists testifying to the shattering cost of our annual solstice orgy. A lone countervoice comes from Rev. Andrew Young, formerly an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and now a shill for Bentonville. As leader of the spurious grassroots organization "Working Families for Wal-Mart," Young claims that in the global economy "Nothing is guaranteed anymore": meaning, I suppose, civil rights, child labor laws, 8- or even 12-hour workdays. It's interesting to see a real idealist like Billy counterpointed against the old kind of imperfectability-of-man preacher who drove so many away from Christ.


Movie Times WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY? (PG; 90 min.), a documentary by Rob VanAlkemade, opens Nov. 30 at selected theaters.


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