This is a video essay looking at how Kevin Smith’s 1995 comedy Mallrats depicts the American shopping mall as a simulated world. In particular, it draws on Anne Friedberg’s theory of the mall as a distinctly cinematic and performative space.
In Mallrats (1995), Kevin Smith interprets the American shopping mall as a distinctly cinematic and performative space. Like movies, malls are all about creating a fantasy, a simulacra of the real world, in which the shopper is privileged with the spectarial gaze, and feasts upon the visual and auditory pleasures laid out before them. The character Brodie signifies something of a postmodern (or anti-modern) flâneur, using consumerist and popular culture as way of mediating his place within society. Like the nineteenth-century “city stroller”, Brodie is compelled to capture the “convergence of new urban space[s], technologies and [the] symbolic functions of images and products”. He enjoys simply wandering that space without any particular destination in mind, enthralled by the “pleasures and potentialites of a world removed from the presence, stricture and restraint of tradition” (Clarke 5). The postmodern irony lies, of course, in the fact that the mall is not the cityscape, but a microcosm of the cityscape, complete with all of the consumerist luxuries the modern mind has become accustomed too, but with none of the complexities of life.
From his first scene of the movie, it is apparent that Brodie is someone who prefers the stimulatory to the real. When pressured by his girlfriend to discuss their relationship, Brodie ignores her, and quickly retreats to the virtual comforts of a video game. Likewise, his best friend T.S.’s notion of romance is to propose to his girlfriend during the Universal theme park tour, just as the animatronic Jaws emerges. This attraction to fantasy worlds is a prevailing theme throughout the movie, with characters making various humorous and heartfelt allusions to Star Trek, the X-Men, Jedi Knights, Superman, Spiderman, ice hockey, and Sega (Vidal 22). Indeed, Smith seems to be commenting on an entire generation of early twenty-somethings (the so-called “Generation X”), who identify more closely with cinematic and televisual narratives, than the previous generation, who were more concerned with historical and ideological conflicts. After Brodie and T.S. are dumped by their respectively fed-up girlfriends, they resolve to forget their troubles and hang out at the mall. Once again, this suggests the escapist allure of the mall. For Brodie in particular, it is a utopia, and he affords it a much higher level of respect and reverence than any of the people or institutions he encounters throughout the film (save Stan Lee of course, the architect of fantasy). Besides its pristine cleanliness and relative safety (compared to actual urban spaces), the mall also captures a feeling of timelessness, which obviously appeals to the “man-child” caricature of Generation X (Friedberg 119). However, the mall could just as easily be read as a dystopia, in which people are reduced to the level of “cogs and pinions” in the “capitalist selling machine”, voluntarily trapped within a neon-lit, synthetically-gardened prison, in which every movement is tracked and monitored by a hundred hidden surveillance cameras (220).
Smith links the mall to cinematic and performative spaces by expressing it as a series of stages. Kowinski writes that the mallgoer occupies a communal (but ultimately artificial) space, framed by symmetrical aisles, synthetic plants, pools of black and white lights, and a series of real and figurative stages that the consumer observes and performs upon (Friedberg 121). In a way, its aesthetic veers closer to the early “cinema of attraction”, embodying the more spectacular and carnivalesque elements of pre-1910 films, and emphasising the interplay between viewer and performer. In the world of the mall, the stage and audience are melded into a single public space.
In her chapter in Cinema and the Postmodern, Anne Friedberg points out the screenlike nature of shopping windows. Each window is cinematic narrative in its own right, a private (yet observable) drama, unfolding between customer and clerk (125). Brodie and T.S. move through the mall’s thoroughfare, perusing each shop, just as the TV viewer clicks through channels, before landing on one they like. The various figures of the mall are all delivering a performance to entice the consumer, from the salesman, to the survey-taker, to the busker. Everything feels slightly heightened, and people adjust their disposition to suit that energy (Vidal 25). For example, Brodie is nourished by the mall’s energy. In his home, he comes off as apathetic and is described by his girlfriend as “weak-willed”, but upon entering the mall, he bursts with confidence and motivation, immediately asserting his presence, and declaring that he “love[s] the smell of commerce in the morning” (another movie reference). Like a cinematic experience, Brodie uses the mall’s simulated world to construct a narrative in which he is the protagonist, casting himself a “nemesis” in Shannon; cartoonish allies in Jay and Silent Bob; a “damsel-in-distress” in Rene; and a “father-figure” in Stan Lee (it is hinted that Brodie has a poor relationship with his own parents). Whether any of these people are who Brodie perceives them to be is irrelevant. The simulated space of the mall is there to serve his fantasy. The scenes of the female characters trying on different outfits—and having their dressing rooms ruptured by Silent Bob’s voyeuristic gaze—also alludes to this idea of performative theatre. More than functioning as a figurative stage, however, malls serve as the ideal location for cinemas, and are filled with visual and auditory advertisements for the latest movies. Film and shopping share the same discursive and social environments, and embrace “the act of looking” (or visual stimulation) as the “master sense” of the modern world (Clarke 7).
Friedberg also argues that, the mall is a perfect space for “a crisis of identity”, because “it is a space where identity can [be] so easily transformed” (122). Like cinema, it is an arena for the spectator to experience temporary shifts in identity, taking on the various roles of each social situation they come across. For example, when Brodie is pulled into a backroom corridor by Shannon (rupturing the mall’s pristine interior), he becomes cowed again (reverting to the Brodie we saw lying in bed), and can offer only snide remarks as he is beaten bloody. However, on the stage of the Truth or Date show, he is once again feeding off the energy of the crowd, and refocusing it into a performative, exaggerated interplay between himself and his adversary. There is something distinctly postmodern in this idea, because it suggests that, rather than being a fixed, isolated state, identity is in a state of constant transition, shaped by the “process of interaction between the self and the other”, and “taking on the roles of the world” it inhabits (Heise 141).
Smith ends the film on a seemingly happy note, with Brodie and T.S. reconciling with their girlfriends, and perhaps even realising a greater level of maturity. However, their happiness must once again be facilitated by a “stage”: Brodie has become a talk-show host, with his girlfriend Rene as band leader; T.S. gets married on the float of a Universal Studios ride; and Jay and Silent Bob are seen escorting a monkey towards [as the sequel reveals] Hollywood—the mecca of “simulated worlds”. Likely, Smith meant these closing scenes to play as charming and humorous, but a darker reading might suggest that these characters will struggle to find emotional contentment outside of the stages they’ve constructed for themselves.
Clarke, David B. “Introduction: Previewing the Cinematic City.” The Cinematic City. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 1997. 1–17. Print.
Friedberg, Anne. “Les Flaneurs/Flaneuse Du Mall.” Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 109-148. PDF File.
Heise, Ursula K. “Science, Technology and Postmodernism.” The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism. Ed. Steven Connor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 136-167. Print.
Vidal, José Antonio Cerrillo. Cinema and Contemporary Urban Experience. Aposta-Revista de Ciencias Sociales 43.1 (2009): 20-27. PDF File.