Bill Talen is a New York City-based performance artist whose alter ego, “Reverend Billy,” is a personality in the anti-globalization movement that has become increasingly popular in recent years. “Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping” follows the Reverend as he stages his notorious, you guessed it, “stop shopping” actions at the largest Starbuck’s in Manhattan and the Disney store in Times Square. He also organizes a protest at the house where Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Raven,” which had been slated for demolition so NYU could put up some new lofts.
Talen created the Reverend persona in order to combat what he describes as the “mallification” of New York. He laments the corporate hijacking of neighborhoods such as his own Hell’s Kitchen, which has driven out colorful personalities like the hooker, the shoe shiners, and the street dealers. Some (former mayor Giuliani among them) might disagree that this is in fact a bad thing, but that’s not the point. The Reverend takes to the streets, and the offending stores, with his group of fellow agitators to spread their anti-consumerist message.
“Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping” is a pretty bare bones documentary. The DVD contains a 30-minute interview with Talen, but aside from that the German TV crew following him around seems content simply to film everything without editorial. The results are refreshing, with every mechanical glitch and smart-assed New Yorker comment caught for posterity.
The Reverend himself, who looks like a cross between Eddie Money and Michael Douglas, uses the preacher angle quite effectively to grab attention from onlookers. Once he has them, however, his bellowed slogans seem more campy than convincing. Talen is really much more effective when he’s just speaking as himself, and not trying to fire up a crowd. His efforts at Starbucks and Disney are mixed, as several onlookers offer encouragement, but just as many seem irritated or simply bored, which is bad news for a performance artist.
The protest in front of Poe’s house is more effective, is also more telling about the Rev himself. Even accepting that a fair amount of ego has to be involved when tackling an undertaking like this, Talen seems to have plenty to go around. In the DVD’s extra interview, for example, he never opens up to us. He doesn’t answer questions as much as lecture us incessantly. In the end, the message of the film is an admirable one, but perhaps a less self-congratulatory messenger would have been more effective.
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