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A documentary chronicles one Virginia town's fight to save its small-town appeal


Like a creature that just walked off the set of a 1950's B-grade horror movie, the subject of Micha X. Peled's new film will leave no town untouched. But this beast is no product of a film director's paranoid, twisted imagination, unleashed merely to make tingles run down your spine. No, this story is so terrifying that it could only be true: On Oct. 28--just in time for Halloween--PBS will air Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, a documentary about one small town's attempts to ward off the threat of a Wal-Mart invasion.

Wal-Mart's entrenchment in America's cultural and economic landscape should be obvious, but the degree to which the company's policies shape the future of a community's economic and social life is as impressive as it is disturbing. According to Al Norman, founder of Sprawl-Busters (an organization that helps communities fight undesirable development), during the year ending in February 1999, Wal-Mart's annual sales totaled $137 billion from 3,562 stores in seven countries, making it the largest retailer in the world. Critics contend that the secret to the chain's success is its strategy of market saturation. Wal-Mart builds more stores than local economies can sustain, driving local stores out of business in the process. "At Wal-Mart," said Tom Coughlin, executive vice president of operations, in an internal publication, "we make dust. Our competition eats dust." In essence, Wal-Mart becomes its own competition; then, in the name of efficiency, the less successful units close down, leaving shoppers with no choice but to drive further to the nearest remaining Wal-Mart.

The impact of Wal-Mart's guerrilla expansion strategy has an especially profound effect on workers. When local businesses fold under the weight of a corporate shopping center's arrival, workers have little choice but to look for new jobs at the very establishment that led to their unemployment in the first place. Wal-Mart is now the largest private employer in the United States, with 1,000,000 so-called "associates." But, according to Peled, the average full-time employee takes home only $250 a week--roughly $2,000 below the poverty line. The local Wal-Mart has become the post-industrial version of the company store: Workers are given the illusion of choice, but the combination of low wages and the lack of competition leaves them with no option but shopping at Wal-Mart for its discounted items. Moreover, the chain's market saturation strategy means that, effectively, these same employees are punished if they don't spend enough at their local outlet. In the United States, there are now 390 abandoned buildings that once housed Wal-Mart stores and sustained their employees. In North Carolina there are 10 of these abandoned buildings.

Wal-Mart executives, who, on the PBS Web site for this film, said they "believe in maintaining an environment of open communications," adamantly frown upon any union activity and encourage their employees to take advantage of an "open door policy," which allows any worker to take his or her complaint to the regional manager. But one Wal-Mart employee dubbed the company's actual procedure for handling complaints the "if you open your mouth, they'll show you the door policy."

Peled's film--winner of the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival--explores how the threat of a new Wal-Mart alters both private and civic discourse in Ashland, Va. Despite the film's inclusion of a few visible Wal-Mart executives, supportive town council members, and one loyal (and quite vocal) employee, Peled's sympathies obviously lie with the "Pink Flamingos," a small grassroots organization trying to stop Wal-Mart from building in Ashland.

The film follows the group from its initial triumph--when the town planning board votes not to give Wal-Mart the building permit--through its more difficult struggle to thwart Wal-Mart's second attempt to build in Ashland. A focal point in the film is the locally owned coffee shop, which serves both as the Flamingos' center of operations and as their self-conscious symbol of resistance to Starbucks (i.e., corporate) culture. Though the company promises to bring 350 jobs to the area, the members of the Flamingos offer eloquent testimonials about what Ashland will really gain if Wal-Mart comes to town: more traffic, a net loss of jobs, a loss of locally owned businesses, and, above all, a loss of the small-town aura that Ashland had managed to maintain.

A pair of juxtaposed images early in the film give some indication of what the Flamingos are up against. In one shot, two neighbors watch together a videotape of their friends speaking out against Wal-Mart during the most recent town council meeting. In the next shot, we see a Wal-Mart executive addressing throngs of enraptured spectators at a shareholders' meeting, whipping his listeners into a celebratory frenzy with his self-congratulatory proclamation that Wal-Mart is "changing retailing the world over." The editing here encapsulates the central conflicts driving the debate in Ashland: personal versus corporate, individual versus conglomerate, local versus centralized, quaint versus monolithic. It also underscores the magnitude of the challenge facing the Flamingos; shortly afterward, a voice-over informs us that Wal-Mart builds a new store every two business days. Eventually the group has to hire Sprawl-Buster Al Norman as a consultant, pointing to the difficulty of maintaining a politically effective grassroots organization. "We're about to compete in the Olympics," says one volunteer, "but have just learned the sport."

Store Wars is, by and large, a powerful portrait of mega-corporations' role in intensifying cultural homogenization, but one can't help but get the feeling that the Pink Flamingos are hopelessly anachronistic. Peled chose Ashland in large part because he wanted "a town that would stand for Anywhere, USA--not too rich, not too poor, but still in possession of a pretty downtown Main Street where neighbors run into each other." But the tenacious citizens of Ashland--with their neighborhood parades, their children singing Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," their local pharmacist who asks how her customers are responding to medical treatment--feel contrived, as if they are acting out learned images of what small-town American life should be. Indeed, to emphasize the modesty of the town, at the film's outset Peled uses a close-up shot of a road sign announcing Ashland's population (7,200), but the sign did not exist until Peled began filming.

Reservations about Ashland's image that a viewer of this film might come away with could speak to the more abstract aesthetic impact that Wal-Mart, and corporate culture in general, has had on our cultural identity. Corporate franchises, from Wendy's to Wal-Mart, invariably trade on Americans' nostalgic longing for more traditional communities to attract customers. So while Wal-Mart is busy eradicating the lingering vestiges of small-town Americana, it is simultaneously repackaging and selling a replication of the lifestyle it's displacing. The result is our culture of simulacrum, where surface images have replaced authentic culture. The mom-and-pop country store has more or less disappeared from the landscape, and instead we see Cracker Barrel's grotesque attempt to re-create down-home cooking and atmosphere. We are rapidly approaching the point, says Al Norman, when "the only Main Street left will be the plastic one that you find at Disney World."

Similarly, Wal-Mart's marketing and sales strategies offer shoppers the likeness of American authenticity. The greeters masquerade as "friendly" service; advertising campaigns conjure up Sam Walton's image as a modest businessman who, according to company myth, built his stores in small towns because his wife didn't like big cities; and the store's product line specializes in American country kitsch. Despite a much-publicized "Made in America" campaign, Wal-Mart is, according to Norman, "the single largest importer of Chinese-made products in America."

Consequently, it's nearly impossible to accept anything as genuine, and the film's audience will probably be justifiably dubious about the authenticity of Ashland's small-town aura. Are the Pink Flamingos real, or have they--with Peled's help--constructed an image to combat what they see as the faceless corporation that threatens their town? It's hard to take the Flamingos' activist rhetoric seriously when we see it co-opted by Wal-Mart executives during their shareholders meeting. The film reveals a disturbing facet of our postmodern condition, in which strategies for constructing solidarity within the civic community are indistinguishable from strategies for constructing solidarity within the business community.

UNC-TV will air Store Wars on Oct. 28 at 1 p.m., a time slot that guarantees that too few people will see it. Those viewers who do tune in should, in keeping with the Halloween spirit, treat themselves to a double-feature: Follow Peled's film with Don Siegel's 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are horror movies about alien forces invading a small town in America and substituting its inhabitants with emotionally vacant, artificially pleasant replicas of the real thing. EndBlock

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