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[whitespace] Culture Shock

Raw, clever documentary 'Culture Jam' champions the 'joyful revolution' of ad busting, sign-jacking and all-around culture hacking as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival Friday program

By Steve Palopoli

Jill Sharpe's unusual documentary Culture Jam: Hijacking Commercial Culture gets off on entirely the wrong foot when an interviewer says rather pretentiously to one of the film's featured pranksters, "I can't believe how many people I talk to have never heard of the words 'culture jamming.'"

But the interviewee, without missing a beat, quickly sets things right. "I must say," he replies, "I don't really care if people know the words 'culture jamming.' It really has to do with activity."

And that's the push-and-push that winds its way through Culture Jam: the populist agenda of the documentary's mass-media-monkey-wrenching subjects vs. a temptation to condescend to the very consumers they're trying to speak to--as if we all aren't completely a part of consumer culture, no matter what our politics or beliefs about it are. Thankfully, the former almost always wins out, with a couple of the interviewees making that very point. It's refreshing to see them own up to their part in consumerism ("I like nice cars, I like guns ... but that's only part of [life]," says one culture jammer in one of the movie's truly next-level moments), and it keeps Sharpe's film from being shrill propaganda.

It also makes you have all the more respect for the thought-provoking and sometimes laugh-out-loud ingenious corporate antagonism that the folks featured in this movie engage in. Not to be mistaken for an adaptation of the similarly titled book by Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam mostly focuses on a San Francisco group called the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), who have gained some notoriety over the years for altering billboards to say things like "Malbore" or feature Charles Manson as a corporate logo or lampoon Exxon (after the Valdez spill) by proudly displaying the company's logo under the words "Shit Happens."

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Santa Cruz Film Festival 2003

Culture Shock: Raw, clever documentary 'Culture Jam' champions the 'joyful revolution' of ad busting, sign-jacking and all-around culture hacking as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival Friday program.

Roller Ballsy: Roller queen Ann Calvello is still hell on wheels in 'Demon of the Derby.'

You Gave Me Shiva: A hyperkinetic NYC tour guide and a frightening vérité look at the terrorist attacks make for a fascinating SCFF program about Sept. 11.

Green Enos and Ham: 'Story of the Space Chimps' reveals what two unsung American heroes went through for the glory of the U.S. space program.

Let Us Prey: Cheri Lovedog's 'Prey for Rock & Roll' gets a homecoming on the SCFF's opening night.

Bitter Fruit: 'Coloring the Silver Screen' program focuses on the history of African Americans in cinema and the strange-but-true history of Billie Holiday's haunting rendition of 'Strange Fruit.'

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It quickly becomes obvious that besides being passionate, these guys are a hoot. Some of the quotes in the film are suitable for framing. "If you can bust the same wires by changing one letter, why grandstand by changing the whole sign?" reasons one BLF member, while after a discussion about the reworking of a cigarette billboard to make it highlight the health effects of smoking, another deadpans, "We weren't against smoking or anything like that. Actually, we're very pro-smoking. We just wanted to help them out with their ad campaign. It was a little more truthful."

These people are just a lot of fun to watch, and Culture Jam is so thrilling and entertaining because Sharpe is so good at tapping into the wit and charisma that they bring to what they do. One of the best moments (which the film keeps cutting back to) is a meeting of the BLF in which they all wear masks--love that little Darth Maul number!--and plan out their dastardly pranks.

"I think a lot of them are getting the message," one of the conspirators says.

"The message?" asks another.

"The message."

"Oh yeah."

"No, wait, the medium ... show of hands, medium or message?"

True to the group's playful spirit, the winning choice is "medium rare." How can you not love a group that refuses to do permanent damage to their targets and leaves behind beer for the people who have to clean up after them?

The Church of Stop Shopping

Later in Culture Jam, another complete charmer named Bill Talen leads a daring but similarly conscientious assault on a Disney Store as his prankster persona Rev. Billy (of the Church of Stop Shopping). The film gets its tensest moments out of watching him confront employees and shoppers about sweatshop labor, Michael Moore-style, and when he gets going with his testifyin', the movie crackles. He also has another of the best quotes, after we see a bystanding Christian take offense: "What was Christ if not the Andy Kaufman of his day? He's a hero of mine, and I think he'd like this, because Mickey [Mouse] is the Caesar. Mickey is the empire."

There's a lot of great stuff like that in Culture Jam, and the movie also addresses constitutional issues and more abstract principles (with a nice nod to the Situationist political pranksters of the '60s, though somebody should have mentioned their direct influence on the Sex Pistols and the rest of '70s punk rock). An interview with a billboard-industry insider is pointedly juxtaposed against the culture jammers for bonus humor value.

It kind of bugs when references to things like "real people" come up, undermining the populist agenda of the discussion--if the implication is that people who don't challenge consumer culture in the same way are somehow "not real"--well, that's just silly, isn't it? Thankfully, that's really not the tone of the film, and even the youngest of the featured subjects, who seems the most prone to a condescending attitude, really shines when she engages someone who disagrees with her in an unexpectedly frank and respectful conversation about it.

Culture Jam is certainly recommended viewing for anyone who's ever seriously questioned consumer culture--and thought of doing something about it. And it's even more highly recommended viewing for anyone who hasn't.


Culture Jam plays Friday, May 30, at the Del Mar as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival's 'Culture Jamming' program, along with the short film In Smog and Thunder.

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From the May 28-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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