It’s a Mall World

Brian Sholis on Malls R Us

Helen Klodawsky, Malls R Us, 2008 (detail), still from a color film, 78 minutes.

A SHOPPING MALL is “a place where idealism, passion, and greed can come together, all under one roof,” intones the voice-over narrator near the outset of Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky’s Malls R Us (2008), her latest work. The seventy-eight-minute documentary chronicles what these feelings provoke in a diverse cast of characters: megalomaniacal ambition in real estate developers, utopian fantasies of behavior engineering in corporate architects, slightly smug moralizing in critics of consumerism, and rousing antimall activism in environmentalists and labor activists. Klodawsky’s cameras alight on one luxury megadevelopment after another. Some are still in the making, whether being built by hundreds of workmen or existing solely in artists’ renderings; some are gleaming and overrun with glassy-eyed shoppers; a few older examples are kept alive by a handful of lingering tenants, like patients in a terminal ward. The film suggests that the geographic trend in mall development is toward the Middle East, India, and Asia. It also suggests that the lifespan of these projects, despite the billions of dollars and the thousands of hours of labor that go into them, is approximately thirty years.

Though Malls R Us dexterously balances seduction and repulsion, it’s not necessarily due to Klodawsky’s attempts at neutrality. One senses that her fascination is morbid and her intent exhortative, not least in a scene in which Canadian developer Rubin Stahl is caught, in an outsize sporting-goods chain store he hopes will anchor his new project, holding an automatic weapon that an off-camera store employee informs him is “meant for humans.” Yikes! The moment precedes a crescendo of crosscuts that juxtapose starkly the cross purposes of Stahl; Eric Kuhne, a London-based American architect at work on a million-square-foot project in Dubai; and Vikram Soni, an Indian environmental activist attempting to halt a development that will trample the Delhi Ridge Wilderness Preserve.

Nonetheless, at the end of the film there remains something to the claim made at the outset that the mall is a kind of sacred place. This is partly because of the lovely cinematography of François Dagenais, with whom Klodawsky worked on her 2005 film No More Tears Sister, about a Sri Lankan human rights activist. His images of privileged, contented young women among the seventy thousand trees planted on the roof of an Osaka megamall and of the dramatic, angular spaces enclosed with glass in Jon Jerde’s Złote Tarasy (Golden Terraces) development in Warsaw evoke a Pavlovian response in the viewer. One almost doesn’t begrudge the young Japanese mother who blithely announces, “To be around people with the same background makes me feel at ease.”

What undergirds this ongoing romance with shopping malls, even among those whose critical faculties lead them to acknowledge the enormous fiscal, social, and environmental costs of building and maintaining them? Jerde and the writer Ray Bradbury suspect it has something to do with the mall’s ability to foster community as the downtown promenades in small American cities once did. Aurelie, a makeup-counter salesgirl at Forum des Halles in Paris, believes it’s because the shopping mall is a place where people are gratified to be on display. The elderly women who stride purposefully around a near-empty mall in Middle America, unable to imagine what they’ll do if it closes, benefit from the consistency it affords their exercise routine. One of this film’s virtues is Klodawsky’s ability, despite her own inclinations, to let viewers empathize—to some degree—with each of these positions.

Malls R Us will receive its US premiere on Saturday, March 21, and Monday, March 23, as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth-annual “Canadian Front” showcase. To read about the other films in the series, click here.