What Would Jesus Buy? conspicuously wears its political sensibility on its choir robe sleeve. That seems to irk Slant's Bill Weber to no end (he describes the documentary as "the feeblest entry yet in the anti-corporate theatre-of-muckraking genre" and "tepid" leftist agitprop), while A.V. Club's Noel Murray goes a step further and declares that anyone who likes this movie is "smugly complacent." This is, however, the feel good Christmas movie of the year precisely for turning our consumerist expectations on their pointy little debt-ridden heads. No, it's not George Jackson's prison letters—I'm not too smugly complacent to be aware of that—and, no, it's not really anything new. We've all been aware for some time now—as the press notes attest—of "the pervasive notion, especially during the holidays, that to give a gift you need to buy a gift and that love for one another must be negotiated through a sale"—but, the film is still "tremendously entertaining" (Julia Wallace, The Village Voice) and still a good old-fashioned tip of the hat to performance activism. I suppose, especially when you're addressing consumers, the obvious still communicates. I'm more opposed to critical ennui blithely dismissing the obvious because that breeds the potential for self-censorship to really kick in and shush up what perhaps needs to be said again, and maybe even again, no matter how obvious. Laura Kern suggests at The New York Times that the film might effectively get shoppers to "think twice about that next purchase at the Gap." And SF360's Dennis Harvey—in his interview with Talen—confirms that Talen makes the obvious and the depressing "go down easy."
Eric Kohn has a much more fair review of What Would Jesus Buy? for the New York Press. He recognizes "the clear-cut delivery of brilliant performance art" enacted at "a level of immediacy that's startlingly distinct"; takes note of the built-in humor of its "all-inclusive condescension"; and praises the film's "real feat" of convincing the audience "that the Reverend isn't utterly insane" and that his "movements are always quite calculated to instigate reflection." As his wife Savitri D. advises: "Don't go to the performance; let the performance emerge from a real situation."
I recently met up with the duo and—while Savitri D. French-pressed some coffee—she likewise advised that next week Reverend Billy is due to be sainted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. "They're calling him Saint Holy-Moly," she laughed, "which we think is funny because it's Saint Ho-Mo."
* * *
Guillén: It's my understanding you started—or at least went through a phase of performance—here in San Francisco?
Bill Talen: A pretty long phase, almost 20 years.
Guillén: That's what I thought; but, the press notes make it sound like your career kickstarted in Times Square.
Talen: The Reverend Billy project actually started in San Francisco but it figured itself out in Times Square.
Guillén: Did New York turn you into a performance-activist?
Talen: When I was here in San Francisco I started the Life on the Water Theatre with Ellen Sebastian and produced the Solo Mio Festival, and I would have a play once a year. Oftentimes I was a character in the play. One of the characters went out into public space. He was a presidential candidate named George and part of an interactive play [staged] in hotel banquet rooms. It was a corrupt political dinner and each table was a surreal special interest group. This was around 1991 and it was an exaggeration of what was becoming rampant at the time. I had a spin doctor whispering in my ear. Another spin doctor whispering in the spin doctor's ear and so forth and so on, like a barbershop mirror into the distance.
George had a wife who was very much like Hilary Clinton. The first wife was an actress named Ann Dara who looked a lot like Jackie Onassis. When Ann left the project, the second wife was Laurie Holt and she looked exactly like Hilary Clinton. At that time Clinton was winning and we went out to New Hampshire and actually rented banquet halls during the primary and did our interactive corrupt play. It was called The Just Desserts of George and Jane and, because of that, I went into public space a lot with that character because I was campaigning in front of City Hall. I gave a speech in front of the San Francisco supervisors. Laurie Holt looked so much like Hilary Clinton that one time six or seven female restauranteurs, including Chez Panisse, gave a series of expensive luncheons to help raise money for Hilary and Bill and—obviously, you can see the punch line—the proprietress of the luncheon would stand up in front and say, "Ladies, we have a wonderful surprise. You're not going to believe what's happened. We're so blessed. Here she is—Hilary Clinton!" And Laurie Holt would come through the door. It was one of those things where she looked so spot-on that it messed with them for quite some time.
Guillén: You like messing with people, dontcha?
Talen: So we did a lot of public space work with that previous character but then that character died when Clinton was elected because the parody became real.
Guillén: So you could almost say the cautionary aesthetic of your performance was ineffective? It didn't quite accomplish what it was supposed to?
Savitri D: Yeah.
Talen: What we were doing was so close to what Clinton was doing. We had an interactive play that featured a young lover, a Monica Lewinsky character, and a couple of the New Hampshire actresses that we hired from local colleges looked exactly like her!
Savitri D: Honey, you're a prophet!
Talen: The nightmare we had anticipated became real. We were then basically out of work at that point. We just stopped it. We said, "You know what? It's not working now. It's an imitation of reality." So that was when I was in public space [in San Francisco]. I was on the sidewalks. We had parades through San Francisco where I was on the back of a convertible campaigning and I learned to use public space as a stage. But the beginning of the Reverend Billy story in the press releases is accurate; I really didn't start with Reverend Billy until the Disneyfication of Times Square.
Guillén: I'm fascinated with your usage of public space. Not only that you're using public space as a stage for performance but that the political nature of your performance draws attention to the privatization of public space. As someone who's lived in San Francisco since the mid-70's, I've taken note of the increasing and alarming privatization of public space over the last few decades. I've spoken with filmmaker William E. Jones about this subject on a couple of occasions because he likewise is an artist concerned with these issues. Jones has one project where he takes gay porno from the '70s, cuts out the sex, and explores the remaining interstitial public environments because at that time, in the gay subculture, these streets and parks and beaches were public space, which over the years have been unfortunately demarcated by private interests. Almost every "public" space that you are performing in is actually private property at this stage.
Savitri D: Right.
Guillén: Can you speak to that?
Talen: I'll start my answer by talking about the court date we have tomorrow morning in New York. Savitri and I were reciting the First Amendment before the Critical Mass bicycle ride this summer on the weekend before July 4th in late June. We strayed over too close to one of the old Giuliani henchmen and I spent the night in The Tombs. It's become this trial. I was reciting the First Amendment in Union Square in New York City, which is our speakers corner there. Emma Goldman spoke there. Malcolm X. It's a famous speakers corner, especially for the Labor Movement in securing the 40-hour week. Our lawyer Norman Siegel—who as a younger man was part of Dr. King's staff and who for years was the president of the ACLU in New York—put the quote in The New York Times: "Reverend Billy has the First Amendment right to recite the First Amendment." To be arrested for reciting the First Amendment in Union Square is some kind of super symbolic act by the New York Police Department. That is a kind of death pronouncement. Anyway, we have our trial tomorrow and we hope it's dropped tomorrow. Norman was curious under what statute they would charge me and they're charging me with second-degree harassment, which is exclusively used in New York state for violent ex-husbands who beat up their wives.
Savitri D: It's the same charge that was brought against Billy here in California by Starbucks. He was initially charged with harassing a cash register. It's interesting that they're using a sexualized, gender-based language to keep Billy away from commerce. In New York the situation is simply extreme. There is no public space at all. Even on the sidewalk, the level of self-censorship—which is what fascinates us; the level at which people censor themselves in so-called public or private space—they don't even know that they're shushing themselves. If you go into a Starbucks and just listen, the language, the talk is at a certain level. It's a hushed tone. If you start talking a little bit loud, suddenly you're outside that range. We're censoring ourselves into this very narrow expressive range and it's so dull, not to mention apolitical. That's the thing. Not only is it not entertaining at all but it's completely depoliticized.
Talen: Consumerism controls public space. It makes us not conversationalists.
Guillén: I've given a lot of thought on this in recent years and it's just one of the reasons why I so admired What Would Jesus Buy? and why I was going, "Yes, yes, YES!" watching the film. It's not only that advertisements prompt us what to do; it's that we are becoming embodied advertisements, not only in how we wear logos, but in how we move through space. In our BART stations here in San Francisco, for example, advertisements are now not only on a wall in billboard space, but impressed upon every aspect of the architecture: the floors, the columns, the treads on the stairwells, even on the subway tubes. The words of the prophets are no longer written on the subway walls. The entire subway space has become commercial space which we, as consumers, move through. This only deepens my concern over the dwindling of true public space. Do you think it's because you're focusing on that issue that you're being precisely targeted?
Talen: Absolutely. Putting your hand on a Starbucks cash register and asking some mysterious and fabulous Unknown that some of the money in the pocket of the billionaire Howard Schultz blow the other way through this cash register out to the coffee families who bring the beans to market and are essentially unpaid, kids are starving, to say that with your hand on the cash register freaks them out. It's obvious it's a Biblical moment. It's a moment of scabrous, scandalous taboo. It's taboo language. And we're exploring it. We're theater people. We like to do something that's charged. How is a phrase electric? If it was John Barrymore on a stage, it's charged; but, right now we're finding no stage as charged as the taboo language of going in and placing your hand on the genitals of that corporation.
Savitri D: Or even being in the midst of people's shopping. What we don't recognize is how much of a person's day at this point is shopping. You talk about the BART station, for a lot of people that transit time is part of their shopping day. They're on the way to get something or on their way back from shopping so that the whole set of gestures that go along with shopping is reaching into more and more of our lives.
Talen: The things that you can't avoid about your life like taking a piss and taking a shit, well now you've got a series of billboards in front of your face as you relieve your bladder. In New York now you go and you sit down and you defecate, you relieve yourself of your solid waste, and there's an ad on the inside of the door of the stall. They know you'll be there.
Savitri D: Sometimes it talks to you.
Talen: Sometimes it's animated.
Guillén: I know a restaurant here in San Francisco where in the men's room there are TVs over each urinal providing commercial interruption.
Savitri D: It's like, "Can't I be alone for even one moment?"
Talen: No. Being alone is a market. Being alone is a commons. Being alone is the last frontier. The psychology is that being alone is the dark continent across which the missionaries are pulling their products.
Guillén: I like what you're saying about the self-censorship, the shushing, and being robbed of the power of language. The reason I would say the word is so powerful is precisely because it's an informing vibration. If you were to place metal shavings on a drum skin and hit a tuning fork, those shavings would form into a pattern. That's why in most cosmogonies creation is manifested through the spoken word. The word gives form. It informs. In your performance pieces, your scripts, and the tone of your scripts, are precisely creative, and not to everyone's liking. How is it that the two of you became connected and that Reverend Billy found his choir?
Talen: At the time of 9/11 we were blundering our way to some kind of church service. Coming out of San Francisco, coming out of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, coming out of Beach Blanket Babylon and coming out of the traditions of public space performance that are here, the idea of having a church service was increasingly forming before our eyes. 9/11 happened and our role in the community suddenly changed and I was a pastor.
Savitri D: The community made a demand of Reverend Billy that he essentially abandon irony and become a real pastor to the community.
Guillén: By "community", what are you referencing?
Talen: Brooklyn East Village.
Savitri D: Initially, it was this certain predictable group of people.
Talen: The website community. Independent shops.
Savitri D: The garden community or the bicycle community; it's a group of people who have activist tendencies. Very progressive, radicalized people, who—many of them—are believers in something but who knows what? These are not atheists but they would probably not go to church; but, there was a sense of wanting to be in a room together….
Talen: …and have fellowship…
Savitri D: …and have hope for the future. What are we going to do? Our country's going to war forever as far as we can tell, there's advertising on my eyeball, and what are we going to do? I think that Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping came out of the community. There was a demand that there be a place and a ritual forum that would answer some of this desire.
Talen: That's when Savitri came. That's when she showed up. We fell in love.
Savitri D: That's right. We were having sex by then.
Talen: Then she started directing the choir and the choir became more professional.
Savitri D: It matched my skill set. I'm a theater person, a dancer, a performer and a director, and I was feeling that sensorious hush in the theater. I thought, "What is this? This is crazy." It's like a chemistry project. I'm walking around New York City, I turn left and go into a theater and suddenly New York is gone and I'm in a room with all middle-class white people.
Guillén: The arenas of privilege.
Savitri D: It has nothing to do with the street anymore. I have a love affair with New York City. I want there to be a relationship between my work and my city and my place. It's very important to me. For me the choir was a great opportunity to do both.
Guillén: Was the choir already in place in a nascent kind of way and you developed it?
Savitri D: Yeah. There was some wonderful talent there, a couple of great singers, but I'm being charitable here. It's become a great vehicle. The church services have remained the same for a long time. It's a wonderful forum. I'm a formalist. It has a form, it has a shape, and a structure that's necessary.
Talen: It's the ancient variety show. There's the song and then there's the reading of the word, a little ritual, community announcements.
Guillén: Are you an official pastor?
Talen: I think it's important for Reverend Billy not to be ordained.
Guillén: I wondered because of the rituals in the film, like when you baptized the child. My eyebrow went up. Did the child's parents truly believe you were baptizing the child? Did they think you were ordained to do so? To put it more accurately: you were baptizing that child?
Talen: Yes. They know what our church believes and they were interested in wishing for their child, with the support of a community, a life free of consumption. That's a powerful thing to wish for a child, especially nowadays when it's so hard to raise an unmediated kid. So many young parents are coming up to us and saying, "You don't know how hard it is to raise an unmediated child. We're having trouble finding diapers that don't have logos on them." You've seen the film. The first thing we say after we're on the road is we deal with child hypnosis and how Christmas has become a hypnotizing event for kids.
The one thing we did that was formal [in terms of my pastorship], we decided to go and get certified permission from the city to marry people. We signed that document. Baptisms are not formal that way with governments.
Savitri D: You should know we got that certificate to marry couples during the Republican National Convention because one of the things we decided to do during the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 was to marry people on the Great Lawn in Central Park where we had been told we couldn't go and protest. We weren't allowed to have a rally in Central Park. We thought, "Well, we'll go have weddings in Central Park instead." Billy got his certification so he could perform formal marriages. We thought, "This will trump the police." When the police come to say, "You can't protest here", we can say, "Oh, we're not protesting, officer; we're getting married." We know these institutions usually trump policy to some degree.
Talen: Most of these people back away from the act of a wedding. Also, when we're exorcizing a cash register or our retail interventions, if Savitri indicates that she's married to Reverend Billy and I indicate back that Savitri's my wife, the policemen back away.
Savitri D: I get two or three more minutes in if I say, "Honey, please, I'm begging you, I really wish you would stop. Honey, would you please stop?"
Talen: "But you said when we talked about this at home that you wouldn't do this."
Savitri D: So the police think, "Oh, she's going to do it. She's going to get him to stop."
Talen: They think, "Let them work it out."
Savitri D: And they back away. So we buy some time that way.
Guillén: Who's writing the songs the choir is singing? Are you writing these songs?
Savitri D: Billy writes the lyrics and various composers write the music. Right now we're working with a guy named William Moses who wrote a fair amount of the incidental music in the film but not any of the songs in the film.
Talen: "Lover Logo" at the top of the website is a torch song—"Are you my lover? Are you my logo?"—that was written by William.
Savitri D: But Billy writes all the words to the songs.
Guillén: When you are training the choir, do you likewise teach them nonviolent civil disobedience?
Savitri D: Yes, we do have trainings.
Talen: That's true in some cases but in other cases they teach us! Saru from the Retail Workers. Donald Gallagher, the Radical Faerie.
Savitri D: We have some old-time activists in our group.
Talen: They bring a history of activism to us.
Savitri D: But we do have formal trainings in civil disobedience and police awareness, what to do if you get arrested, because we're up against arrest a lot. Only on one occasion has anyone in the choir been arrested because they usually just take Billy away.
Talen: All of the end of the film the entire choir was detained in that weird magical warehouse behind the surface of the Anaheim Disney theme park.
Savitri D: The door [to the warehouse] is in the back of the bathroom. We walk into the Mens Bathroom and there's a door—and you can't even tell that it's a door—and you go [through] the door and it's backstage Disney. It's just like you would imagine, people smoking, it's disgustingly dirty, there's trash everywhere.
Talen: A completely bored Snow White smoking a cigarette. An actress full of regret looking like Tahlullah Bankhead with a hangover. Snow White! The entire choir got brought in there and then they decided to formally arrest only me.
Guillén: And you've been arrested more than 40 times?
Talen: With the work that we do, especially the beginning of the process of being arrested, from the hand on the cash register, that is our stage. It's very charged. Words, as you say, are like the filings moving the greatest distance at that moment. We are continually researching how to slow that process down; what we call "marriage spat theater." It's one of the things that we use. Also, if we're working with UFCW and we're at a picket line, a labor leader will come up, or an ACLU lawyer will come up and talk about the particulars of this state's [civil rights] if we're in a parking lot. In California we have more first amendment rights in a parking lot than we do in New Jersey, for instance.
You just want to open it up to different kinds of rituals, different kinds of language. Abbie Hoffman said, "Stay out of jail if you can." We're dedicated to slowing down and deepening the beginning of that [arrest] process. Of course, once the canoe's going off the waterfall … I'm in the back seat of the cruiser.
Savitri D: There's a point of no return. You're just arrested.
Talen: There's a point when you're in the precinct's holding tank and then you're down in the tombs and then Rykers Island or whatever.
Guillén: But you have an infrastructure that's protecting you and you're aware of that?
Talen: Very much so. I'm not in jail without it being known. Many many people in the tombs overnight, they're trying to reach their first possible relative. A lot of them are there and it's not known they're there.
Savitri D: That's the real problem with these public space issues; is how discretionary enforcement is in the cities that police can, on a whim, arrest a 17-year-old Hispanic kid and take him to the jail and hold him for three days.
Guillén: I have a healthy disrespect for the so-called legal processes of law enforcement, which sometimes move much too arbitrarily and much too swiftly. I'm intrigued by your explorations into slowing that process down. Are you hoping someone is listening while you're stealing those few extra minutes?
Savitri D: Yes. They often are.
Talen: We have media. We have a performance. I remember the old Eureka Theatre when it was on Noe before it burned down.
Guillén: I remember that too. I took mime classes there.
Talen: I remember the Intersection Theatre when it was in North Beach. I go back into the late '70s and early '80s of San Francisco theater. I was in a lot of little black box performances with duct tape and coffee can lights. When we're at Astor Place and the cops are trying to surround the Reverend and get him into the cop car, and we're [letting this] alternative theater kick in, [I realize] we have more of an audience than I had for years!
Savitri D: It is an incredibly dramatic stage when the cops are players in your play and you are directing this event, which of course has elements of surprise in it. The stage is the street. It's an amazing, creative forum.
Talen: Just the people that stand around. You have a couple of hundred people there. And now in this era they've all become [filmmakers]. There are like 142 Reverend Billy YouTube movies?! All these people have their cellphones up and making movies. That's interesting. That's democratic. If we're losing the first amendment in the commons, something else is happening, which is this witnessing.
Savitri D: But is witnessing enough? I'm not sure it is.
Talen: Where does that go? That is the question.
Savitri D: It makes voyeurs of us all in our own culture.
Guillén: So all of this performance activism has made its way into What Would Jesus Buy? Can you talk a little bit about how then this street theatricality transformed into a film project? And what you hope will be achieved by the film?
Savitri D: We decided to hang this movie on the lens of Christmas essentially. We felt like you could amplify a lot of the issues through Christmas. It could have been a lot of other topics; but, Christmas seemed like a time frame we could work with. This trip across the country, again, we're lovers of America the place. Never tour in the winter!
Talen: Damn! Those buses are cold! Damn!
Savitri D: Movies still are the king of the artforms. A movie is an amplification system. People in the media, housewives in Kansas, they take movies seriously. [The message becomes more] meaningful. "So you've made a movie? That means you've done something." And they'll watch it. And they can see it as a thing you send into their house and they can look at it; but, for us, we are theater people, and I'll be honest with you the movie—as a medium—is laborious. It's hard. It's slow. We want to put up a show tomorrow but it took two years, which isn't even that long for a movie. What I feel happiest about is that I learned from the movie itself. I met people in the making of this movie that taught me so much about shopping. There are people you see talking in the movie that I think, "Who are these people?" I never would have met them any other way. So there's a certain self-education process.
Talen: Morgan Spurlock had these wonderful people fanning out across the country talking to Americans about shopping at Christmas.
Savitri D: And then they're talking to each other. Another shopper sees a shopper in the movie telling her story. We had a woman in L.A. come up afterward and say, "On the way here I bought a Gucci bag and on the way home I'm going to return it."
Talen: Isn't that fantastic? If the big boxes are causing us to be isolated and to be hushed by the language of advertising and packaging, perhaps our movie—where some of these brave people with cameras caught people in the parking lot as they were leaving and so forth and they turn and talk about what's happened to them and then sign a waiver and then another shopper's in the dark audience looking up at the silver screen—we've caused a conversation to take place that was denied to us as American citizens by commodification.
Savitri D: Advertising controls the media, right? You don't hear shoppers talking about the bad part of shopping. You only hear the good part of shopping. So let's talk about the other thing. That's why I think this movie's really wonderful because it teaches us how much we all have in common. Yesterday we were in Los Angeles and a rightwing Christian blogger was talking to us, quite enthusiastically, and five minutes later the editor of Hustler walked in and said almost exactly the same words about the film.
Talen: Suddenly [we recognize] how we dichotomize people into opposites. This is a gift from Morgan Spurlock. I have to say, there's something radical about this guy. He's a West Virginia working class kid and he's dedicated to revealing the falseness of the Red State Blue State divide. He's on this compassionate campaign. He's taught me something about, "Don't assume that person's your enemy necessarily." It's an important lesson for us right now. If consumerism is all the way from the climate crisis, the wind and the rain, all the way down to our relationships in our families, and lovers, there's this impact of this giant thing called consumerism, we have to partner up with people that we may have thought were our enemies. We have to be able to let it go and join with others.
Guillén: Do you have a game plan about how you want to distribute the film and if you'll be making appearances with the film?
Talen: We're traveling from place to place. This last travel is New York, L.A., San Francisco, back to New York; but, we have this wonderful team Morgan's put together. A key marketing person is from the Al Gore film, Nivette Previt. We have turned over to her team all of our 10 years of contact with activists. She is methodically contacting activists. She wants the credits to be interrupted by somebody from the community saying, "Okay, this is what we can do!" No matter where it is. It's on about 40 screens now; 31 screens in the United States, we're not quite sure how many screens in Canada yet, but if the opening weekend trips and they put us ahead of the queue where another movie bombed and we get in, there's this whole process, we definitely can reach into some communities where they've been having struggles against supermalls and bad development, highway projects and false eminent domain claims that are kicking people out of their homes. There can be some energizing of activists with this film.
Cross-published on Twitch.