' ' Cinema Romantico: Jasper Mall

Monday, December 07, 2020

Jasper Mall

“Jasper Mall” might well be a documentary about a once-thriving shopping mecca in northeast Alabama but co-directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb forgo a traditional history, eschewing archival footage of the mall’s 80s and 90s heyday, save for a lone monochrome photo buried post-closing credits. Instead Jasper Mall’s zenith is remembered via on camera anecdotes, by a jeweler whose shop is foundering and on the verge of moving, and through yellowed newspaper clippings pulled up by a florist whose shop will have closed by movie’s end, emitting the sense of something long ago, existing only in memory, leaving us to imagine as much as them what this place might have looked like with crowded walkways. What’s more, Thomason and Whitcomb provide no autopsy for the mall and are not really even sending out an S.O.S., just hanging back like flies on the wall and watching, proffering painterly Maysles Brothers-like images of a place out of time, the mall walkers passing empty, gated stores looking like the walking dead. 


The mall is seen predominantly through the eyes of its manager, Mike McClelland, a gregarious, colorful fellow who grasps the commercial realities while still projecting a humanist sense of positivity, hearing out a regular’s joke with impressive patience. Eventually we learn he once operated a private zoo, a la the Tiger King, an exotic kind of lifestyle effectively juxtaposed against his current existence, watering plants and cleaning public restrooms. And even though McClelland’s upbeat spirit rubs off on you as he routinely asks customers how they’re doing before replying, no matter what, with an “I’m doing great” and really sounding like he means it, as he tries to navigate the increasingly empty spaces in his building by phone with potential vendors, a noticeable pessimism nevertheless creeps in. 

McClelland, though, is not the only human interest story. Thomason and Whitcomb wander into various stores, finding workers in the midst of just being, like the young hair stylist who, in an intimate afterwork moment, talks with a friend about the boxes society expects young women to check, expressing a half-serious desire to split and follow her dreams. Another teenage mall employee explains his penchant for travel and a desire to see new things while taking out the trash. That we never see him again is apropos, closing the door on us in long shot before the movie cuts to McClellan wiping a table down, his work continuing regardless, and then the regular, elderly domino players, their routine contrasted against this fleeting nature of youth. The young interracial couple we briefly meet don’t even spend their introductory scene in the mall, attending a carnival in the mall parking lot that McClelland hopes will drum up business, lot of good it does, as we see the bright lights from within the personless mall interior, making it seem a world away.


There are moments in “Jasper Mall” suggesting Dan Bell’s YouTube Series, aptly titled “Dead Malls”, in which he records his experiences as a firsthand witness to the dirge of these once culturally relevant empires and uploads them to YouTube. Filmed with small, hidden camera so as not to tip off touchy mall security and peppered with Bell’s own personal impressions, these are home movies by necessity, good at what they do yet devoid of the lyrical humanity that Thomason and Whitcomb’s approach yields. Indeed, while in interviews Bell has compared so many dying malls to the sinking of the Titanic, “Jasper Mall” brings this statement to rich life. When the cameras follow McClelland into the cavernous, darkened space that used to be the anchoring Kmart store, illuminated only by a single flashlight, passing a fitting room and what used to be a customer service desk, it looks for all the world like we have plunged into the abyss by submersible, making it seem as if this one-time fortress of consumerism has sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor. 

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