Thursday, July 23, 2020

Reserved Seating: JASPER MALL

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who think of themselves as anchor stores.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: We’re taking a break from our usual topic cycle to spotlight a 2020 documentary that you came upon recently and really connected with, Adam. Billed as “a year in the life of a dying shopping mall,” Jasper Mall chronicles the comings (and mostly goings) of its tenants and patrons as they reckon with the fading allure of what was once an American institution. It features a vast array of colorful characters, among them the mall’s all-purpose custodian, a retiring flower shop owner, a group of dominos players, a high school couple engaged in a tempestuous romance.

Unlike many of the recent documentaries made to cash in on nostalgia for niche or retro topics, Jasper Mall isn’t excitable or celebratory. It’s not “an insider’s look at the crazy world of shopping malls.” It’s not trying to raise any kind of awareness about the issue or rally anyone to its cause. It’s not on a soapbox. Filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb are simply observing the modest goings-on and presenting a context for their findings. The result is something equal parts sad and invigorating, the story of people who refuse to let the darkness ahead distort the beauty of the present. I found it incredibly enlightening.

Adam, you were excited about covering Jasper Mall this week. What did you think of it?

Adam: I thought Jasper Mall was a sad and vulnerable story that worked as both a fun pop culture documentary but also something deeper. On a more superficial level, I jumped at the chance to watch Jasper Mall because I’ve always had a soft spot for dying malls. It’s one of those things that I can’t explain rationally but find a certain amount of romanticism about. Maybe, like you brilliantly did with your analysis of Palm Springs this week, I see struggling malls as this allegory for a suspended state -- the mall’s best days are over but it’s still there bravely marching on because it has no other choice. I’m sure it wasn’t the intention, but if you interpret the people who work at the mall as different parts of a psyche (think Inside Out) it’s pretty interesting. For example, Mike - the jack of all trades who manages the mall - is the forever reliable representative who shows up on time and cleans up the messes. Mike ensures that this declining structure winds down with dignity and maintains a sliver of hope. On the other end, there are people who have previously stuck it out but just can’t be in the mall anymore, like the woman who runs the flower shop or the guy who fixes and sells jewelry. They’re representative of the person whose back is against the wall and decided they have to try something different. They can’t keep fighting for a dying cause the same way Mike can.
Rob: Longtime F-Heads will understand after only a few minutes why Jasper Mall is an ideal Adam Riske movie. It’s a slice-of-life story that is deceptively introspective and presented with care and respect for those involved. It’s easy to make fun of these people, I guess, but we’ll all learn a lot more about them (and ourselves) if we think about why they do what they do and realize they’re all demonstrating strength and dignity when it would be so much easier to be cynical and distant. Your Inside Out analogy is incredibly apt.

Adam: The movie is full of existential angst whether it’s the many shots of mall-goers and shop-owners blankly staring off into the distance or the little girl who’s screaming her way through a merry-go-round ride (which we see in its entirety). Again, I’m not sure the movie is actually saying this, but the little girl crying struck me as this holistic cry for help. The mall put on a carnival and it’s an example of canned fun but if we’re not root- causing the problem of the mall, it’s just masking the problem of the mall. The carnival is a distraction, nothing more. Mike says the carnival is there to be a lubricant of sorts to get people to come into the mall and shop, but to what end? Once the carnival packs up, it’s still the same dying mall no one but a few hangers-on continue to visit. They go there because they don’t know where else to go. It’s purgatory on Earth.

Rob: We were talking about it over text, and my analog would be Mike creeping through the abandoned JCPenney with his flashlight, rhapsodizing about his former career as a zoo owner and lamenting the departure (?) of his wife. We know he’s burning with unspoken rage, but we also know that he’s been through enough shit to have accepted that It Is What It Is. The barren space around him is such a powerful image. Still, he closes that segment by explaining that — should the Jasper Mall close — he’ll get another job at one of its owner’s other malls. Door closes, window opens, etc. This, too, shall pass. And all that. It’s both solemn and hopeful. I love it.
Adam: I’m making the movie sound way darker than it is. It’s a fun watch with a lot of goofy interstitials as we wander from person to person at the mall. I just can’t get past the undercurrent of dread and resignation most of the people have. The worst thing in the world for these visitors would be if the mall closed, but it would also probably be the best thing for them too. That dichotomy really fascinated me.

Were there any moments or people that stood out to you?

Rob: The list is endless, honestly, but I love that the filmmakers don’t bend over backward to keep any kind of continuity or plot cohesion. I didn’t even realize until doing my research that this took place over the course of a year! So many documentaries add that B plot in order to create false stakes, and I really appreciate that this one doesn’t condescend or distract with that stuff. It trusts us. It doesn’t hold our hand. It felt very purposeful when Mike informed us of the death of a regular we had gotten to know. Same with Robin’s retirement. They weren’t set up or foreshadowed, really. They just happened, which felt genuine and immediate.

We need to talk about when Mike interviewed the kid for the custodian position. Mike, good soul that he is, took the kid out into the field and explained his responsibilities regarding people pooping on the bathroom floor. “If someone decides they don’t want to use the toilet...your job is to clean it up.” He doesn’t have any illusions about his work. That’s just how it is. There’s honor in that, right? Accomplishment. It takes hard work to be honest with yourself about the nature of this kind of work. It’s humbling, but it’s also noble, and it takes a special kind of person to carry it out.

I did a little cursory research on the contributing factors to mall closures, and I’m wondering what you think about how the dying mall business model relates to the larger pop culture shift of the last twenty years (movie theaters, etc.). Is there a silver lining to all this?
Adam: I’m just guessing, but it probably has to do with changes of behavior in shopping/socializing which are now done heavily online and don’t require a stop to the mall. I think malls will be around in some degree but it will be super malls, so to speak, (as you hinted at already with movie theaters) where all the big mall stores are populated in these megaplex-style structures and the smaller malls are left to slowly die out. The silver lining might be that the pandemic has proven people have a deep desire to socialize and be around each other which a mall is good for facilitating. I don’t think malls will ever reach their peak again, but we might come out of quarantine with a bit more balance between online and in-person shopping just as a short-term excuse for people to get out of their house.

If you could shop at one store and meet one person in Jasper Mall right now, what/who would you choose? I think I’d want to apply to be a custodian just so I could be interviewed by Mike and listen to that sad mall Muzak for a day before quitting.

Rob: It closes by the time the documentary starts (I think), but wasn’t there a sandwich shop in there, somewhere? That might be nice. I bet the dominoes guys all have their favorite sandwiches. You and I could wave to each other across the counter when you come around to empty the garbage cans.

Anything else on Jasper Mall? This was a great find!

Adam: I did want to mention it’s from the people behind The Rock-afire Explosion documentary, so if you’re a fan of that movie I would double down on my recommendation for Jasper Mall. This is one of my favorite movies of the year so far. Next week, we’ll be back with our baseball series (just in time as the MLB begins its season this weekend), covering The Natural. I’ve never seen it due to my overwhelming Robert Redford allergy. I’m kinda looking forward to finally crossing this one off my list to be honest. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. Oh hell, thank you, I'm totally going to check this out. (And I was a big fan of Rock-afire, which could have been mocking and never was.)

  2. I will be looking for this documentary.

    The depiction of the decline of Jasper Mall mirrors my experience with the local mall. Besides the movie theater, there is not much business going on. A lot of that activity was on weekends as well. Strolling through the mall on a weekday afternoon, you tend to have the place to yourself. I have not even been there since the mall re-opened. I should check out the FYE store, in any case.

  3. another helping of existential angst...just what I need in a pandemic