15.11.05

Wal-Mart for Couch-Potatoes

Tonight, whisked away to a friend-of-a-friend's elegant apartment, I watched the new corporate -bashing bonanza, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. Like a terrorist attack executed on a shoe-string budget, the new Wal-Mart movie has stirred a maelstrom of excitement at each of its city debuts across the country and a defensive campaign to thwart it by the company.

Aesthetically, the documentary was no bombshell. In presentation, it provided a pedagogical treatment that walked the viewer through the line-dance steps of an anti-Wal-Mart cheer. The magnitude of the hardships was reduced to stop-clock fragments of complete human tales. The canned music rubbed me wrong, and the pop-up Word 1.0 fonts seem devoid of attributes of digital progress. However substance is the meat of it, and the Wal-Mart movie serves-up a grade-A Giant at discount-bulk.

Though the film doesn't shy from cashing-in on emotive currency, the drawn-out fable of H&H Hardware shutting its dynastic doors for the last time is both less charged and less convincing than when the film simply points directly to the absurdist facts.

* privileged benefits afforded to Goliath and denied to mom-and-pop.
* a multi-billion dollar miser cheating employees below poverty level and without adequate health-care from over-time hours
* punishing whistle-blowers still enamored by Sam Walton's now defunct entrepreneurial spirit
* systematically ignoring health and safety conditions for workers in foreign (and indeed domestic) facilities
* gorging on government subsidies in the form of start-up cost capital, relying on public assistance for employee health insurance, obfuscating labor and environmental laws, securing tax-abatement, etc.

Some of the screen-shots of dilapidated Main Street stores, cramped structures seemingly ignorant to the bare land around it and sunk in beds of weeds, meant to inspire sympathy for the departure of small-town life only served to remind me how culturally and economically suffocating the limited consumption choices of isolated communities can be.

True, denizens frequented H&H for years, but probably because they lacked other options rather than because it provided an ideal product-service combination. True, the store's owners were upstanding citizens who shared their smiles with customers and their economic stimulus with the town, but growth was apparently stagnant when compared to the potential revealed by its usurpers.

A Forbes article takes issue with the film's concluding message that Victory! in the war against Wal-Mart is necessary and equivalent to blocking its arrival in the back-yard. Yet the "solution" to curtailing the mega-retailer's negative effects on small businesses and communities is not clear.

Smaller businesses are not intrinsically more valuable than large ones, but the entity whose value could be an underestimated premium until irretrievable is the small town community
itself. If the social-value of a high-level of local employment, the integration of mutually-dependent lives, and community are costs no Super Wal-Mart full of cheap goods is worth, then all that a town must do is not shop there. Of course, many Americans aren't familiar with either basic economics or the upheaval of small-town roots the planting of a Wal-Mart consistently brings about, and I suppose serving to educate that point is the best service the film can serve.

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