By Morgan Proctor
In the trailer for Dead Mall Walking, images of a cavernous abandoned mall, cut with historical footage depicting expressions of capitalist expansion, are set to the voicemail-critique of filmmaker Jessie Kahnweiler. Accelerating cuts between Hawthorne and symbols of structural racism and military violence lead to a graffitied wall. A beat into sudden stillness, in sync with a focal shift from the brightly-colored wall to prison-like bars in the foreground, Jessie’s voiceover exhortation to “focus” is heard. Like the film itself, it is hilarious, reflective, and thrillingly expansive, anarchically threatening all along to spill out of itself.
In just 23 minutes, though, it emerges that the range of issues confronted in Dead Mall Walking clearly and remarkably belong there, and the story of the mall is an intricate and absorbing one of profit-driven planning, the abandonment of communities, and the quelling of radicalized space. Dead Mall Walking is a revelation of the complexity of the ordinary in the late capitalist landscape, where so much in decay is a surprisingly complete metaphor for the failure of consumption-based culture.
The Hawthorne Plaza Shopping Center was built primarily to serve the community drawn to the area by defense and private security giant Northrop Grumman, which operated a plant in Hawthorne for years. The plant closed in 1997, and the mall, hindered from the start by the city’s paradoxical desire to host a major regional mall but insulate itself from the freeway, withered. The mall closed most of its doors, and the nearly 20-year conversation on what to do about it began.
The primary interviewees – an urban explorer, a mall security guard, and a city planner – pick up compelling and competing strands of that conversation, which is as much about the mall as it is about Hawthorne itself. For communities living in the wake of one capricious enterprise or another across the U.S., the essential story is familiar: a flawed development idea that played out the only way it could, harming the people who live there for a generation or more; the transformation of the resulting derelict space; and the deployment of the politic language of concern used to describe such spaces. Overwhelmingly, the desired response to the mall’s decline is to tear it down.
Many of Hawthorne’s residents are understandably frustrated that their community is known for what they consider a dangerous eyesore, and it follows that they’d want to be rid of it. But what Dead Mall Walking conveys so powerfully is that, even as we recognize the legitimate imperatives for tearing it down, the demolition of the mall is the disappearance of a symptom of ideological failure. Cheney brings us to the precipice of an almost-certain erasure, and asks what would happen if we were permitted to keep looking, if we had to keep looking. What if every artifact of capitalism lived its life out completely in sight, falling inevitably into decay before us, and wasn’t just blotted out when it became intolerably offensive – the moment it became distinctly anti-capitalist?
The dead mall is a monument to both creativity and inequality, and it cries out for a meaningful reaction to both. The lost potential for forced confrontation with this is especially sad in an era in which “fake news” is shouted over the sound of inconvenience. The elegiac tone of Dead Mall Walking‘s final shots capture the sorrowfulness of that – its quiet scenes, still except for dust animated by the lyric movement of stale air, imagine the foreclosure of its chaotic magic.
Cheney has made an incredible debut with Dead Mall Walking, an American story so perfect for this moment, brimming with the empathic outrage that is kindness at the end of its rope. With unbroken focus, he shows us the vast and varied shapes of fucked-up that greet you when you really look at any neglected thing crumbling through its entropic destiny on this hungry tundra.
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Morgan Proctor is a musician, photographer, writer, and farmer. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area