A Love Letter to Capitalism?

So here I am in the Holy City for a week, to attend a family wedding and restore my shattered nerves. Too many months spent teaching Great Books in rural New Hampshire is enough to reduce a civilized man to a bag of broken glass, and I need at least a week of taking subways and walking the crowded sidewalks of the East Village to bring me back to internal equilibrium. Finally, I can get some decent Tibetan food, a frosty glass of Kwak beer (from St. Dymphna’s town of Gheel), and grade my final papers in a cafe full of stained-glass windows rescued from old parish churches, while smoking a hookah pipe. It is so healing to return to all that is sane and normal.

It’s deeply refreshing to find movie theaters that offer something beyond five screens of Bridesmaids and seven avatars of Thor. New York really is one of the only towns where a docudrama about a group of Trappist monks martyred in Algeria can play for more than three months and still attract ticket buyers. The film, Of Gods and Men, is an unforgettable account of what makes Christian faith completely unique, and I highly recommend you get hold of the DVD when it’s available — or better yet, that you make a pilgrimage here and see it in the theater, if only to savor the looks of wonder on the faces of the secular moviegoers as they emerge from this solemn spectacle.

Not that every movie on offer is really worth seeing, of course. I plan to energetically avoid the newest work of the pseudo-Nazi Lars von Trier, who made his name with the sickening Breaking the Waves — a film that depicted a crippled husband pimping his wife out to strangers so she could return and recount the encounters to him, which some addled observers affected to see as a modernized answer to the biblical Book of Job. No, I remember thinking at the time, this is just another movie by a Danish pervert, which culture-hungry Christians are desperately trying to baptize. They did much the same thing with The Matrix, whose first part was stuffed with random elements from various world religions and philosophical systems, sufficient to make it the fodder for endless, pot-fueled late night bull sessions. “Dude, the Agents are totally part of the Evil Genius that Descartes was worried about.” “No way, man. I think they’re members of Regnum Christi.” Of course, parts II and III of The Matrix were filmed to squash any suspicion that something deeper was intended in part I, beyond hot girls in leather clothes dodging bullets in very slow motion.

 

Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris, is a waste of two hours and $13 — a silly middlebrow fantasy full of bookish and artsy references designed to stroke the egos of public TV viewers, which offhandedly also demonizes every American to the right of Denis Kucinich. Did the world really need to see Owen Wilson play a tortured, aspiring writer who’d “sold out” to work in Hollywood and live in Malibu, who steps into a magical Paris time machine so he can drink Pastis with Gertrude Stein — and break away from his castrating, materialistic, conservative fiancée? I have not seen a smugger, more self-satisfied film since I ran for the fire exits 15 minutes into Sasha Baron Cohen’s Bruno. (I fled just after Bruno made a crude pass at Rep. Ron Paul in a hotel room.)

 

But there is an offbeat, actual “indie” film out there that I highly recommend, which does in fact raise themes of deep interest to Christians: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. To be completely accurate, I should give its formal title: Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. That correction is important because the film is a jovial documentary that explores the key role of product placement in TV and the movies — and to drive the point home, director and star Morgan Spurlock chose to fund his film about product placement by selling… product placements. (I’m reminded of the classic Seinfeld bit where Kramer publishes a coffee-table book about coffee tables, which itself has fold-down legs so it can serve as a small coffee table.) Spurlock even sold the coveted “space above the title” to the makers of Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, who appear in the film discussing the ways Spurlock could promote their product. He cheerfully promises not only to drink the beverage exclusively throughout the movie, but also to “blur out” any other cans or bottles that accidentally appear. When he delivers on this and similar promises, the results are dryly hilarious — even funnier than the segment where he courts the makers of Mane ‘n Tail (“the original horse-to-human crossover shampoo”) by appearing in the bathtub washing the hair of his young son — and a Shetland pony.

He also has lots of fun with “corporate partner” JetBlue, interviewing alarmist anti-corporate commentators exclusively in JetBlue’s swanky airport lounge, with the logo always prominently displayed. Spurlock’s film is gleefully self-referential, consisting entirely of documentary footage collected while trying to court new corporate sponsors, getting legal advice from amiably sharkish entertainment lawyers, and gathering rueful reflections on the ubiquity of advertising from austere, self-anointed pundits like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader. How sad that the conscience of such a movie nowadays finds its voice with secular leftists, instead of men like the Primitive Franciscans — who are much more intimately acquainted with the virtues of voluntary poverty.

The film confirmed my lifelong philo-Semitism; I was utterly charmed by people like Lynda Resnick, the CEO of Pom Wonderful, who admitted her concerns about Spurlock’s reputation as a gadfly by saying, wryly: “Worry? Of course I worry. Or else I wouldn’t be a Jewish mother!” The movie is suffused with the earthiness and ironical acceptance of man’s materiality and fallenness, which authors like the great Karl Stern have observed in Jewish culture. I’m tempted to describe the film’s worldview as Groucho Marxist: Like Karl, that puritanical, anti-Semitic utopian, the film attends very closely to the economic underpinnings of everyday life. But it does so with a smile, with a generosity of spirit that says, “Hey people, we’re just trying to make a living.”

And so they are. While in other hands (such as Michael Moore’s) this film might have turned out a dour and scolding brief against the commercial instinct itself, Spurlock’s movie is by turns insightful and playful, coating its real concern with the advance of sheer commercialism into every corner of life with a spoonful of sugar. Or rather, with honey, since the efforts of the people in the film to promote their products come across as organic and even healthy. No one is peddling cigarettes to kids, landmines to Third World countries, or clown Mass manuals to parish liturgists. While we might sometimes find advertisements distracting or annoying, there really is nothing wrong with people selling the fruits of their labors, so they might earn their bread from the sweat of their brows. “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes 3:10).

Of course, there is more to say than that. Just as Spurlock’s last film, the scathingly funny Supersize Me!, examined the deadly sin of Gluttony, so this one addresses the dangers of Greed — not so much the attributed avarice that the Leninist linguist Chomsky finds in the “corporate bosses” who squeeze advertisements for sugary junk foods into children’s TV programs. Merchants have always hawked their wares, and if they didn’t they wouldn’t be living out their chosen vocations. They would be like farmers who didn’t plant, or monks who didn’t pray. The Greed that troubles us here is that which relentless advertising can stoke in the souls of ordinary consumers, convincing them (as an academic warns in the film) that “happiness is always just around the corner — it’s always one purchase away.”

The consumerism against which we were warned by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI is a real and vexing problem: In the absence of a vital spiritual life centered on solemnly celebrated sacraments and tight-knit families, we really do become isolated and hollow individual atoms, whizzing through the void of secular life in search of just one more electron… and then the next. We hunger and fill ourselves with bags and boxes and gadgets and shoes. We are restless, and so (as Pascal pointed out) we roam the earth like demons in search of “diverting” experiences. We are lonely, and so we “trade up” from one relationship to the next. Because our desires are for the infinite, when perverted they become instead insatiable. We try to transform our sense of our inmost selves by swapping the wrapping, to purge that sense of early-morning worthlessness by slipping into cashmere, silk, and swank.

This is the heavy, burdensome weight of Greed that St. Francis made such a point of prophetically rejecting. It is something we battle by spiritual means, by filling ourselves with the best things so that we do not pervert and make addictions of the merely good things that God has given us — things like Pom Wonderful, JetBlue, and especially Mane ‘n Tail, which from now on will displace Aveda as my shampoo of choice. For me and my pony.

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

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