Slamdance Film Festival 2020: Jasper Mall

The star of Jasper Mall is not the dying mall. It is a man we’re going to affectionately refer to as Camo Mullet. Camo Mullet may as well be the mall. The reductive job description would be that he provides security detail over a minimally used public space visited by old-timers. The expansive description would be that he is the center of the enterprise. Camo Mullet is the Jasper Mall. Camo Mullet is Jasper, Alabama. Camo Mullet is America.

Jasper Mall functions as a microcosm of the country’s consumerist culture in this sense. It is emblematic of the New Shopping Culture. The young, hip masses, that really sell the idea of spending time in the mall, shop from home these days. There are scant few featured in the documentary. Mostly, it is a shopping center by way of a retirement community for an American past-time also facing imminent retirement.

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This man complains he has few costumers but also plays electric guitar badly during business hours. Jasper Mall. Dir. Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb.

We spend a year in the confines of the Jasper Mall: a prison for fashion faux pas and old-aged consumer wisdom. The doc sits with shopkeepers earning sometimes only a couple bills a day; not enough to maintain rent, to keep in stock. They’re slowly driven out. We see fixtures of a fractured community close up shop. Say goodbye to their regulars and see you next Sunday at the church. Somehow, the directors have found the grace not to be mawkishly sentimental about the whole thing and just sit with the process and film it as it dies.

The thing is that it is truly dying. That in the course of the year they do not find any significant actionable events. That the entire conflict of the documentary is the inevitability of closing up shop. They hang on by a thread, maybe the incoming Victoria’s Secret will save some surrounding shops. They hang their hopes and dreams on exterior circumstances, opening up to the same crowd every day. The regulars may not even shop. They sit and play a weekly table game. We sit with them too, and in the only moment of tragedy, one of them passes away, and we really feel something about the state of the scene here. Someone else will come in and their game will continue. But the structure and context of their mall will diminish until everything inside it is gone.

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Kentucky Fried Santa. Jasper Mall. Dir. Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb.

Optimism for Jasper Mall lies with Camo Mullet. He leads us through closed down super-stores, spreading his flashlight over the walls. He tells us how he used to deliver tigers to the zoo. His girlfriend worked at the mall so he had stopped with his tigers, was offered a job, and never left. He is the singular functioning cog in a poorly-oiled machine. When he brings in a new worker he gets to finally talk about how patrons have shit on the floor and the gritty side of the work. And then the new guy remarks about how a customer asked him to come and watch porn with him. And we think, why is the documentary so surface level, does it not get into the grit of the situation?

There is a moment that presents its greatest oversight. We follow a couple who are enjoying a fair in the parking lot for reasons unbeknownst to the audience, or the directors. It seems like it will present a story about a young interracial relationship working out in this old space. And then it just doesn’t seem to work. The town can’t even hold their young romance together. It has not only failed the mall. Jasper has failed its people and their prospect for the future. And that is where the gravity of great sadness really weighs in with Jasper Mall, a document of a failed culture held together by the hopes and dreams of Camo Mullet.

5/10

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