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What Would Jesus Buy? Reviews

Rob VanAlkemade's documentary about performance artist/political activist Bill Talen — aka Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping — is steeped in what may be the ultimate postmodern irony: Talen's impromptu, defiant piece of performance art with political undertones has actually taken on a spiritual dimension. A longtime resident of New York's fabled Times Square area, Minnesota-born playwright and performer Talen created the Reverend Billy in the late 1990s, as redevelopment of 42nd Street transformed it from a seedy downtown neighborhood with a unique place in New York history into an open-air mall dominated by corporate tourist attractions, notably a Disney store. Dressed in white and wearing a cleric's collar, Talen fulminated against the evils of corporate cultural domination in the style of the Deuce's street-corner preachers, who once stood outside porn theaters and drug dens and threatened sinners with hellfire and damnation. A decade later, "Reverend Billy" and the authentically soulful Church of Stop Shopping Choir are a polished act, equal parts street theater, grassroots political activism and consciousness-raising prank, and in 2006 they undertook a cross-country crusade decrying the commercialization of Christmas. Talen, who looks vaguely like Kurt Russell and has his holy-rolling mannerisms down cold, deplores the buy-now-pay-later culture of perpetual debt, hard-sell advertising aimed at young children, happy news reporters who not only make light of the seasonal shopping orgy but actually encourage it, the pervasive American belief that love equals expensive gifts, and the corporate entities who foster it because their business models demand ever-escalating consumption. Reverend Billy is a carefully calculated construct, but he's no longer a joke: Talen's public witnessing has gotten him arrested and barred from every Starbucks in the continental United States, vividly demonstrating that such bedrock American rights as freedom of speech are no match for the forces of corporate image control. The crusade VanAlkemade documents takes Billy and his cohorts from New York to "the happiest place on Earth" — Disneyland, where Reverend Billy is, of course, arrested — with stops at malls, decimated small-town shopping districts and tightly controlled corporate enclaves. By the time they're done, they've made a convincing case that the spiritual bankruptcy of nonstop consumerism is not only psychologically corrosive but contributes to the destruction of the global environment, the concentration of American economic power in an ever-smaller number of hands, and the abuse of impoverished and politically disempowered workers in developing nations. Not bad for a fake preacher.