By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Hanukkah acandles blowing in the wind? Little ones with their eyes all aglow?
Dream on. The holidays are hard work for most of us. Do the door. Do the tree. Do the special goodies. And most of all, do the mall.
Who among us doesn’t dread that dive into the 8th circle of hell otherwise known as going to the mall over the holidays?
With that in mind, I offer the following mall movies. And that’s spelled MALL, not MAUL.
First, the aptly titled “Scenes from a Mall.” Woody Allen and Bette Midler star as a couple who celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary by almost getting a divorce. The title is meant to be a play on the title of Ingmar Bergman’s decidedly better and very decidedly heavier, “Scenes From a Marriage.” Yes, little ones, there actually was a time when the average American moviegoer knew the name of an Ingmar Bergman movie.
Anyway, the couple goes to the mall to pick up some Chinese food — and no, it’s not Christmas; it’s for their dinner party that evening.
Probably the most interesting aspect of “Scenes from a Mall” is imagining Woody married to Midler. Not exactly his, um, type. And then there’s the weird time-tripping allure of a mall in 1990.
The problem with the movie is this: Woody didn’t write or direct it. He functions solely as an actor and while he’s funny enough, he can’t fuss his way through the script, written by Professional Sensitive Male, Paul Mazursky who also directed. The mall becomes camouflage for a really thin script. Mike Nichols and Elaine May could’ve probably made it into a pretty good 15-minute sketch. But Mazursky stretches it out for an hour and a half.
“Scenes” marked the first time Allen had worked for another director in someone else’s script in 15 years — the last time being “The Front” for Martin Ritt.
And there IS something daring in his taking on a role that calls him not to be Woody Allen. Rather, he plays a products endorsement lawyer, with two kids, a cell phone, a beeper and a ponytail. And trendy tortoise shell glasses. Maybe it’s worth seeing “Scenes” just to see him look like that.
FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH is emblematic of a subgenre of movies that all at one time or another, place their teen characters at the mall. Thinks MEAN GIRLS, when Lindsey Lohan (the younger, funnier one) runs into her gawky math teacher played by Tina Fey. This is a pre-30 ROCK Fey, who also adapted the script from the book “Queen Bees and Wannabees.”
And there’s CLUELESS — a much smarter movie — with Alicia Silverstone realizing she may have created a monster when her so-called project, played by Brittany Murphy, starts getting more attention than Silverstone does after some bullies dangle her over a mall rail three stories up.
But let’s say FAST TIMES because it came out, oh, 15-20 years before the other two. Amy Heckerling (who also did CLUELESS) directs Cameron Crowe’s best-seller, about the year he spent faking it as a teenager in a Southern California high school. The film has absolutely no focus, but what would you expect from a movie about So-Cal teens. Rather, it’s a quick-n-easy comedy, with a few moments of genius — most of them provided by a very young Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli, the ultimate stoner/surfer dude. And played appropriately showily, but without a hint of meanness or self-adoration.
The mall is just one of the backgrounds…where some of the kids work. There are places with names like Perry’s Pizza and the Mi-T-Mart (a T-shirt emporium). Even better than Penn (and co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates) is the film’s attitude toward its teens. It takes them just seriously enough while not judging them too harshly.
Finally, my very very very favorite mall movie—and this one could be spelled MAUL. It’s George Romero’s original DAWN OF THE DEAD, the sequel to “Night of the Living Dead;” at the time (1968), New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it “the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh.” I have to agree
The sequel, released in 1978, is, quite simply, the most brilliant comment on American consumerism ever made. It’s the day after the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and things are still, well, they’re not good. Some humans have barricaded themselves inside a nearby shopping mall to hold off the flesh-eating zombies.
Romero says he was really having trouble coming up with an idea about what to do with his zombies until he was introduced to a huge shopping mall in Monroeville, about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
The owner of the mall was one of the guys Romero was trying to raise money from and his office was in the mall. He offered to give Romero a behind-the-scenes tour, which included these crawl spaces where people could hide.
And Eureka!, as they say. It’s the Alamo with a food court and escalators. In the original script, Romero describes his mall as a veritable temple to materialism: “Stores of every type offer gaudy displays of consumer items…at either end of the concourse, like the main altars at each end of a cathedral, stand the mammoth two-story department stores. The images are all too familiar, but in their present state, they appear as an archeological discovery revealing the gods and customs of a civilization now gone.”
Imagine Lenox Square as an excavation at Nineveh. Phipps Plaza as the remains of Troy.
None of this negates the sheer gore of DAWN OF THE DEAD. At one point, a woman embraces her ”dead” loved one and, in return, he bites huge chunks out of her shoulder and arm…in explicit detail.
Zombies ARE the ultimate consumer.
As the movie gets going, hundreds of the dead are seen hanging around the main entrances to the mall, like bargain hunters on Black Friday. Finally, the female lead asks one of the males, “What are they doing? Why do they come here?”
He replies — and this says it all — “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
It still is.