WHAT DO the movies teach us about shopping malls? Mostly that they're the geographical equivalent of the famous, two-note theme from "Jaws." "Danger ahead!" bellows the celluloid mall. "Be careful of your pocketbook, your charge cards, your very soul!"
Like the River Styx, the mall is the threshold between light and darkness. It is the vessel of adolescence, a house of mirrors where children go when they're turning into adults and adults go when they're selling out, cashing in or falling apart.
Cinematically speaking, the mall is a cry for help, a suicide note in the form of a credit card slip. Want to let us know that a female character is shallow, unstable or on the brink of divorce? Put her in the mall with an armload of bags from age-inappropriate clothing vendors and a fistful of Mrs. Fields cookies. Want to see a man about to leave his wife? Sneak him off to the department store jewelry counter, where his midlife crisis inevitably will be helped along by a clerk who knows who the necklace is really for, and who registers scorn -- "You can always return it" -- even as she makes the sale.
Want to put teenage girls in your movie without going to the trouble of writing personalities for them? Give them a montage sequence in the mall. Give them the food court scene, the dressing room scene and the scene in which they're poking each other on the escalators when they see a cute boy. In 10 seconds or less, we can know everything we need to know about these characters: They're victims of the nefarious culture of conspicuous consumption; they're destined for a terrible comeuppance; and they look hot in jeans.
The small sample of mall-based movies below suggests that the mall is where directors send their characters when they've been bad (crimes range from brattiness to inertia to unchecked sexual impulses). Although some films tip their hats to the giddy, hormonal spirit of youth culture, most make a good argument for shopping online.
* "Dawn of the Dead" (1978): George Romero's classic follow-up to "Night of the Living Dead" finds flesh-eating zombies walking the Earth because "there's no more room in hell." As scores of people perish, a news producer, a traffic-watch helicopter pilot and two Philadelphia SWAT team members escape in a chopper and seek shelter in a suburban mall, which also happens to be filled with hundreds of members of the retail-therapy-seeking "undead." After killing all the zombies, the gang raids the mall and lives in a consumer paradise. But soon enough more zombies show up, killing a few main characters and turning them into zombies who also must be killed.
Intended lesson: Corporate greed steals your soul.
Actual lesson: Don't knock gun stores. You never know when you'll need one.
* "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982): Directed by Amy Heckerling and based on the book by Cameron Crowe, "Fast Times" remains one of the great high school odes of all time, with the mall functioning as a glittering adolescent playground. Notable here is the mall's role as a place of employment as well as recreation. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates work at the food court pizzeria, and Brian Backer is the assistant to the assistant manager of the cineplex. Also notable is that the movie was shot inside the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which is now an open-air pavilion but was immortalized in Moon Unit Zappa's vocals on her father Frank Zappa's 1982 hit "Valley Girl."
Intended lesson: Suburban culture, while purporting to shelter young people from the chaos of the real world, spawns a provincialism and claustrophobia that only creates more chaos.
Actual lesson: Anatomy 101, courtesy of Cates' topless scene.
* "Scenes From a Mall" (1991): Paul Mazursky directs Woody Allen and Bette Midler as well-heeled Angelenos making a trip to the Beverly Center on their 16th wedding anniversary. Over a frozen yogurt in the food court, Allen's character confesses to infidelity. Midler-esque hysterics collide with Allen's signature stammering, eliciting stares from shoppers and intrusions from an irritating mime played by Bill Irwin.
Intended lesson: The male species, like the mall shopper, is a natural hunter and seeks variety in the mating process.
Actual lesson: Allen's age-appropriate co-star almost makes up for the track suit and tiny ponytail -- almost.
* "Mallrats" (1995): Two dudes recently dumped by their girlfriends lick their wounds at a local New Jersey mall and, along the way, sabotage a game show being taped there. Self-conscious, overwritten dialogue -- "there is something out there that can help ease our simultaneous double loss, the mall!" -- combined with the banality of the mall setting is presumably director Kevin Smith's idea of a really ironic juxtaposition.
Intended lesson: As the public square is bulldozed into oblivion, malls are the new American meeting house.
Actual lesson: What works in "Clerks" (Smith's 1994 breakout film about convenience store workers) doesn't sell at the mega-mall.
* "Chopping Mall" (1986): Under the direction of B-movie maestro Jim Wynorski ("The Witches of Breastwick," "The Bare Wench Project"), the Sherman Oaks Galleria yet again stands in for the American Everymall. When a new robotic security system is unveiled, mall officials boast that theirs will be the "safest mall in the state." But as mall employees, having an all-night sex party in the furniture store, find out the hard way, these robots are killers! Slashing, electrocution and burning of live bodies ensues.
Intended lesson: Unclear.
Actual lesson: Use caution when outsourcing.