Hollywood vs. The People of Walmart
The immensely popular website People of Walmart is easily as enjoyable as a screenful of LOLcats, in addition to being many times more meaningful. The amazing array of common freakery on display calls one's attention to a part of America that is ignored by mainstream media, sneered at by sophisticates, and pandered to by politicians.
Received wisdom holds that there is no nonconformity in Walmartland. Cultural agency belongs to the folks on the coasts, and to those among the landlocked who aspire to join them. Only New York and Los Angeles think, dream, produce. These products come in one of two categories: the stuff that the dream-makers make for themselves ("indie" films, "indie" rock, "smart" tv shows), and the dumbed-down dross (pop excretions) meant for everyone else.
Last year's top blog, Stuff White People Like, took on the first of these categorical assertions. The humorous bluntness of blogger Christian Lander's overstatements about the ways of the white man meant that SWPL could never be great satire. But Lander's excess was appropriate to the all-pervasive yet unconscious cultural assumptions he--and he alone--was targeting at the time. It was an authentic, self-aware reflection of the race-and-class confusions at the heart of our status quo.
In some ways, People of Walmart is the mirror image of Stuff White People Like. (Lander would describe many Walmart shoppers as "the wrong kind of white people.") The inexactness of SWPL is continued in PoW's often-insulting user-submitted photo captions. Appending peanut-gallery comments to pics that are more than absorbing on their own amounts to smuggling in snark. The images themselves, however, resonate louder and longer than wiseacre laughter. As outlandish as some of the sights in John Waters' films, the pics speak most powerfully as documentary evidence of authentic American characters and homegrown ignorance (neo-Nazis, child endangerment).
Of course, this is artless documentary. PoW's saving grace is that it comes free of the pretenses of blue-state liberal docs that falsify this country's essence. It's conceivable, though, that a genuine artist could find his or her imagination ignited by the rich raw material found here. Observable human truth, even with a snarky suffix, is not in itself art, but it must be in the room when a real artist creates.
In 2009, the closest thing we got to People of Walmart: The Movie (as made by a true artist) was Gentlemen Broncos by Jared Hess, who previously directed Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. Its innovative structure juxtaposed dream-life and waking life, provoking hilarious and meaningful recognition. The gross-out humor in the film disarmed any condescending response one might have to the spectacle of small-town folk living far-out fantasies. Unlike all those socially blurry indie films, Gentlemen Broncos rose out of a landscape we can feel around us.
Need I add that it was a major box-office flop? One of the very best movies of the year, it never made it out of the big cities to reach a broader audience. The success of People of Walmart and Stuff White People Like, however, could help to prepare future audiences to appreciate Jared Hess' necessary weirdness. If that doesn't happen, we'll all be stranded in Walmart.
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