The Mall Cop Meme

Give that all modern labor is in some sense alienated, the culture industries would be foolish not to nominate certain occupations at certain historical moments as examples of comic hyper-alienation.  These are jobs that appear more demeaning and humiliating than most and thus become targets of open ridicule, at least for the middle-class taste formations that have typically served as the media’s main demographic.  The Honeymooner’s Ralph Kramden may have faced the daily frustration of driving a bus through New York City, but sidekick Ed Norton had the much funnier job of patrolling Brooklyn’s sewers, a career made even more hilarious in that Norton was so positively upbeat about swimming in a river of shit everyday.  Exterminators and “cable guys” present a more uneasy yet still productive avenue of such humor, the laughter more anxious because these particular professions occasionally bring the working-folk into the middle-class home (and just who presents the bigger nightmare for this audience, “Henry” from Portrait of a Serial Killer using an exterminator uniform to break into homes and commit gruesome homicides, or Jim Carey’s “Cable Guy” refusing to recognize the appropriate boundaries of interclass socialization?)  Plumbers are known for both their high fees and ubiquitous butt cracks, while a bitter Al Bundy spent the Bush/Clinton years as a middle-aged shoe clerk engaged in the time-honored gag of stuffing fat lady feet into pumps two sizes too small.

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a new working-class occupation opened to collective mockery: the mall cop.  The Learning Channel is currently running a reality series called Mall Cops that follows security patrols as they keep the legendary “Mall of America” safe in the post-consumer apocalypse. The impotent authority of the “Rent-a-Cop,” meanwhile, has been a joke meme for several years now, often reduced to the analogical impotence of not being allowed to carry a gun.  Last year, finally, saw not one but two “mall cop comedies”—the excruciating Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) with Kevin James and the unexpectedly brilliant Observe and Report (2009) with Seth Rogen. 

Why mall cops and why now?  No doubt part of this fascination stems from the nation’s gradual realization that the “shopping mall” has become a default emblem of all that is absurd and horrifying about the “American experience.”  Here we have even more reason to be outraged that Dawn of the Dead (1976) has yet to be included on the National Film Registry, even as it remains perhaps the most politically prescient film in American history (yes, Night of the Living Dead [1968] is on the registry, but Dawn is clearly the more significant title).

Since Romero’s masterwork first appeared, many have explored the rich political possibilities of mall allegory.  At this year’s Whitney Biennial, Josephine Meckseper’s “Mall of America” displayed footage of unsuspecting dolts shopping--blissfully unaware that they were being made to look sinister and stupid through the addition of digital filters and what sounded like Einst├╝rzende Neubauten falling into The Gap. Then there is the Disney corporation’s Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999), not so much an allegory as a straightforward appreciation of a mall/junior high school aboard a space station as tweener paradise, so desirable in fact that once Zenon is unjustly exiled to earth she fights like hell to get back into orbit with her friends, clothes, and fluorescent accessories (in the end, it’s a much more refreshingly candid account of contemporary American identity than the insufferable humanist blather of WALL-E (2008).  F*#k the earth!  I’m staying in space with all my cool commodities!).  In Kingdom Come (2006), meanwhile, J.G. Ballard transposed his unique talent for narrating slow-boil social disintegration from the modern high rise to the modern shopping center, seeing the mall as a fascistic co-efficient of the west’s increasingly racialized class struggles—a point made in much more humorous terms by Chris Rock before he checked out and became a Grown-Up. 

There's no more little towns - it's all malls! And they're all the same! The mall in St. Louis is the same mall in Detroit.. it's got the same Gap, Banana Republic, Chess King, Sunglasses Hut, all the same crap! And every town's got two malls! They've got the white mall, and the mall white people used to go to. 'Cause they're ain't nothing in the black mall! Nothing but sneakers and baby clothes!

Malls remain fascinating because they promise so much and yet deliver so little—and increasingly they serve as a pointed reminder of the uncomfortable equivalence between buying power and political agency.  Even malls that have not been explicitly segregated in Rock’s terms nevertheless frequently stage a spatialized lesson in class structure:  J.C. Pennys and Payless Shoes at one end, Neiman-Marcus and Gucci at the other (with “mall cops” watching for those who cross a certain “invisible” boundary).

The increasing visibility of the “mall cop” as a target of comic ridicule is no doubt a function of the culture’s overall disenchantment and growing disinvestment in the fantasies previously afforded by mall culture.  Mall cops are also powerful emblems of the paradoxes of consumer capitalism.  Just like construction workers who toil for years building houses they can never afford— a type of “anti-barn raising” that an evil John Ford film might direct in an evil parallel universe-- mall cops must make consumer utopias safe even as they themselves cannot afford many of the products and services that surround them.  In this sense, watching a mall cop chase down someone who has just boosted a Chanel purse is rather like watching a eunuch throwing a priapic sex fiend out of an ancient Roman bath.

As TLC’s Mall Cops makes clear, the primary task of mall security is to sacrifice themselves so that others may shop—patrolling the mall fortress to make sure unpleasant symptoms of the “real world” do not seep into the themed environment.  I’ve only seen a couple episodes of the program, but it becomes clear very quickly that a mall cop’s day typically consists of:

a.    shadowing and/or chasing shoplifters
b.    disciplining packs of unruly teenagers
c.    reuniting lost children with their deadbeat parents
d.    rousting schizophrenics, perverts, buskers, and other non-consuming eccentrics 
       from the premises.
e.    patrolling the washrooms for illicit drugs and sexual activity
f.     guarding those who have fainted and/or suffered some more serious emergency until 
       trained medical personnel can get there.
g.    breaking-up occasional fist-fights.

Mall Cops is thus a type of Cops-Lite, covering many of the same crimes and crises as its full-caloried brother, but usually in a less violent form and with the weird understanding that mall cops are generally not authorized or accredited to really do much of anything other than stand around until the “real” police or EMTs arrive. 

And this is ultimately what makes the “mall cop” most vulnerable to ridicule--his or her hollow relationship to any real authority.  Just as they often can’t shop in the stores they protect, they also can’t deliver the justice and discipline seemingly signified by the badges and epaulets on their rented uniforms.  On Mall Cops, for example, every time there is a significant breach of an actual law (assault, theft, etc), the mall cops must call-in “back-up” (but actually “front-up”) from the local municipality’s actual police department.  In fact, the Mall of America is so legendarily gigantic (and thus rife with crime) that Bloomington, Minnesota operates its own small police station on the premises—a kind of holding room where a lone cop vested with actual authority receives and processes whoever the rent-a-cops detain.

Obviously, mall cops are inherently funny because they think they have power when really they do not—at least not any significant or ultimately meaningful power.  In a culture where almost everyone feels similarly disenfranchised—cut off from having any real power at work, in the community, or on the national stage—the mall cop is the perfect collective jack-ass, someone who still believes (or at least deludes himself into believing) that he wields some form of authority.  TLC certainly recognizes this mock-appeal in the promotional materials for Mall Cops.  In the cast photo, the “cops” stand in a flying-V of arms-crossed determination, as if they’re about to scramble to a fleet of Spitfires and fight the Battle of Britain. Even more humiliating in the program itself, every time an infraction is called into mall dispatch, producers cut to a green-on-black schematic of the mall with a blinking dot indicating the location of the transgression—essentially using the visual codes of The Terminator to belittle a guy who, for minimum wage, must tell obnoxious teenagers to quit throwing French fries off the balcony of the food court. 

The two mall cop movies of 2009 both exploit this humiliation of toothless authority, albeit with very different results.  Significantly, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report have almost identical plots—dedicated mall security officer in love with a girl “out of his league” faces down an extraordinary threat to the mall in an attempt to win self-respect, the girl, and the admiration of real law enforcement.  And yet, even though the two films were obviously in production at the same time, Observe and Report seems as if it was conceived as a critical response to the horseshittery of Paul Blart: Mall Cop—an anticipatory deconstruction of a film it hadn’t even seen yet but nevertheless could still predict element by pitifully predictable element.

Those who have yet to enjoy either film should stop reading now, as much will be spoiled below.   

Paul Blart is the kind of beloved comic doofus central to Hollywood ideology almost since its inception.  Awkward, fat, and bumbling--but with a heart of gold--he wants nothing more than to be a good single dad to his daughter and maybe to find happiness with Amy, a fellow mall employee he hopes to ask out on a date.  After various humiliations related to his weight and lack of authority, Blart finds himself alone in the mall with a crack team of super-criminals, a gang headed by the turncoat kid he was training to lead the next generation of mall cops.  His relentless and truly inexplicable dedication to protecting the fully insured property of his employers, mixed with a little pluck and luck, ends up saving the day and winning the girl.  Upward class and sexual mobility reaffirmed, everyone goes home happy thinking once again that nice guys do indeed finish first in this the greatest cinema of the greatest nation on earth.  

Happily, Observe and Report wholly eviscerates this annoying formula.  Written and directed by Jody Hill, one of the creators of HBO’s equally dark Eastbound and Down, Observe and Report is one of the more explicitly political films to accidentally sneak out of Hollywood in quite a long time, so dark and unrelenting in its portrait of masculine psychology that, rather predictably, it angered the usual circle of film critics who feel the cinema should above all else never be “bleak" or--worse yet--"mean."

Like Blart, Seth Rogen’s “Ronnie Barnhardt” also lives in a “broken” family--not with a cute daughter, but with his perpetually reforming yet frequently out-cold alcoholic mother.  He too faces a “super-criminal.”  Not some ludicrous team of scheming thieves borrowed from an equally ridiculous caper film, but just a common creep who likes to run around the parking lot flashing his Johnson at women as they get in and out of their cars.  And yet Barnhardt is no less dedicated to his job than Blart; in fact, for the first half of the film he seems bizarrely over-dedicated to his position. There’s a girl involved, of course, Anna Faris courageously throwing her all into an “all rack/no brain” performance that makes her character—putatively our “romantic interest”—utterly repellent (in one of the film’s more subtle gags, she is completely devastated by her encounter with the flasher’s penis, even after she has just arrived at work listening to an almost comically filthy rap song about dicks and va-jay-jays).  Barnhardt’s determination to catch the flasher that has so traumatized Faris quickly brings him in conflict with Ray Liotta, the grizzled “real” detective who treats Barnhardt like an idiot. In a brief but wonderfully nasty side-plot, Barnhardt (like Blart) attempts to join the real police force, but finds that Liotta—whom he sincerely believed was treating him as a professional equal—in actuality thinks he’s a moron, hates his guts, and wants him to fail spectacularly. 

About half-way through the film, however, there is a rather astounding revelation about Barnhardt, one that completely derails the logic of the overall genre--even as it perversely helps to better explain it.  We discover that Barnhardt is bi-polar and off his meds--not figuratively, but literally.  Instantly, all of the familiar building blocks of the “little-guy” comedy become recast as a function of manic delusion.  The “gung-ho,” “can-do” attitude, the blind determination to succeed, the excessive loyalty to his employer, the dogged pursuit—to the point of sexual harassment—of Faris, the ferocity of his hatred for the flasher, the desire to “be someone” and advance in the professional hierarchy—all of it becomes a by-product of raging psychosis.  In effect, the film tells us that a person would have to be “insane” to believe in all that shit, the very same shit that Paul Blart so blissfully shovels without the slightest hesitation.

Like all “little guy” heroes, a mall cop finds ideological redemption only when his hard work, honesty, and determination eventually succeeds—capturing the girl’s heart and earning the respect of higher authorities (who of course then want to induct him into their ranks).  Barnhardt does in fact capture his exhibitionist Moriarty (to the heartbreakingly beautiful accompaniment of the Pixies “Where is My Mind”).  Rather than follow any magnanimous professional code, however, Barnhardt beats the perp to a pulp and personally delivers him to the police station.  Liotta and his cop cronies are on the front steps, smirking as they see Barnhardt approach.  Here at last is the big moment of fake recognition and fake respect we have all been waiting for.  But luckily, Barnhardt appears to have learned a hard lesson about the real world during his previous 90 minutes of relentless humiliation.  Handing over his suspect, Barnhardt tells the three cops to go fuck themselves. 

What was the last movie you saw where the big emotional payoff at the end involved a bi-polar maniac telling three cops to go fuck themselves?

The mall cop comedy may end up being the shortest-lived cycle ever.  What Paul Blart creates, Observe and Report destroys…utterly.  Let this be the end of cheap jokes about fat guys forced by the economy to wear fake uniforms and worry about the security perimeter of the Banana Republic, hoping beyond hope that some suit will notice their dedication and award them a girlfriend and a gun.  Let's move on and mock window-washers or toll-booth operators instead. 

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