Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Robert Greenwald (2005)

Technically, this is awful; it seems to have been shot with someone’s dad’s Betamax camera and edited in a high-school A/V lab. Someone should acquaint Greenwald with the basic principles of activist film making, or even just film making: a few dozen screenings of Battleship Potemkin–or hell, even Norma Rae–would be a good start.

So it could have been more elegant, sure, but that’s not at all what Greenwald’s after. The movie screens like an extended political attack ad, with statistics that spiral toward you superimposed on some damning photograph, and then land with a WHUMP of shock and rage.

A confession. I like Wal-Mart. According to Quicken, I spent nearly $1000 there last year. It is, in my small southern town, a sort of agora, with bingo games for seniors in the snack bar, and families chatting as they line up their kids for Easter portraits in the photo studio. My town has fancier supermarkets, with the Cadillacs and Mercedeses of the town’s doctors and lawyers in the parking lot, which annoy me for reasons that are probably obvious. I like people watching at Wal-Mart. I think I’ve learned more about the culture of my town through my trips there for dog food, eggs, aspirin, and flip-flops than I ever could by hanging out on the local University campus. In short, at Wal-Mart, I feel like I actually live where I live.

I’ve always known that Wal-Mart has unfair and damaging policies, but I went there anyway, for two reasons beyond the socio-cultural pleasures described above, one financial and one cynical. Well, OK, they’re both pretty cynical. First, it is so amazingly cheap. If the little family-owned grocery in my neighborhood sold a quart of 1/2 and 1/2 for $2.00, and Wal-Mart sold it for $1.75, I would not go to Wal-Mart. But in fact mom-and-pop sells it for $3.29, and Wal-Mart for $1.49. That adds up when you live with someone whose morning brew is 3/4ths 1/2 and 1/2 and 1/4 coffee.

What’s 3/4ths of 1/2 and 1/2, I wonder. 3/4ths, I guess.

The second reason I shopped at Wal-Mart was that while I had an easy time believing that Wal-Mart is evil, I had a hard time believing that anyone else was any less evil. That mom and pop market down the block? The patriarch who runs it thinks George W. Bush is a leftist. I’m confident that a substantial portion of any profit he makes selling me 1/2 and 1/2 goes straight to the local chapter of the Khristian Kulture Korps.

Well, Greenwald’s changed my mind about both these arguments. First, the economic one doesn’t work, because in fact, Wal-Mart is only able to offer such low prices because it relies so heavily upon public monies to subsidize its developments, and public aid programs to care for its underpaid and underinsured employees. So in fact I’m not saving money on my 1/2 and 1/2, it’s just that I’m paying part of what it costs at the register, and another part through my taxes.

Second, Wal-Mart is pretty clearly, based on the evidence in this film, in class by itself vis a vis capitalist evilness. See the movie for details, but suffice to say that they pretty much take the low road on every single issue, from labor relations to employee health and welfare to the environment and on and on.

I don’t think I’ve got a leg to stand on any more. I really can’t go. But I am going to miss it.

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