The aughts in America have loaded us with regret. Mistakes were made: everything from the show Entourage up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Even the bright spot of the decade — the election of our first Black president — now feels too distant to improve our recollection of the time. In so many ways, we’d like to forget it all. But a specter is haunting us, even now.
The specter of Paul Blart.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop is a 90-minute, PG-rated “action-comedy” starring Kevin James, best known for the sitcom The King of Queens. It was released on January 16, 2009, four days before Barack Obama was sworn into office, at the very terminus of George W. Bush’s lame-duck period. It is, you should know, an exemplar of Hollywood economics: a small-scale movie produced “cheaply” (it cost $26 million to make), released in a fallow month so it can quickly outgross its budget and seize the top spot at the box office. Poor quality is no problem when you have no competition, and this prescription for bottom-line success was particularly effective: Paul Blart had the second-best opening for a movie on the MLK Jr. holiday weekend, and even now, it holds eighth place in that category. It was a triumph of meager expectations.
Even Roger Ebert gave it three stars, pleased by its chubby “nice guy” protagonist, who goes from lovelorn loser to alpha male by foiling a heist of the mall on Black Friday.
But how nice is Blart, really?
Begin with this: He desires power, and, more than that, to become an instrument of state power. His fondest dream is to join the New Jersey State Police, and so enforce the laws by which the bourgeoisie keep the proletariat at a disadvantage, materially and politically. He would be accepted for this role as class traitor, we’re led to believe, if not for his hypoglycemia: When his blood sugar gets too low, he crashes.
Nevertheless, he more than meets the requirements for a job as security guard at the fictional West Orange Pavilion Mall. (I am compelled to note, as someone who grew up the next town over, that creating the mirage of a luxury shopping center where none exists is a way of shaming residents for insufficient consumerism.) As a mall cop, Blart receives little respect but steady disdain from retail employees, customers and his colleagues, but he does enjoy two perks: the use of an officious-looking Segway and an intimate, camera-augmented knowledge of his territory.
As the film’s narrative purports to reveal how Blart has been underestimated, so should we not discount the hallmarks of petty authority as somehow trivial. I sent a brief synopsis of Paul Blart and some theories about the character to Dr. Dennis Dworkin, chair of the history department at University of Nevada, Reno (and proud dad of MEL‘s Sam Dworkin), whose work has grappled with Marxist theory and class struggle.
“What I see in your brief description,” Dworkin replies, “is the classic issue in Marxism. Why is it that working people identify with the ruling class when it’s clearly not in their material interests? In this case, why is it that this poor schlep who is probably paid something on the order of minimum wage risk his life for people (that is, capitalists) who exploit him?”
According to Marx, Dworkin tells me, “the prevailing ideas of any given society are the ideas of the ruling class, which to extend this are circulated through their dominance or control in education or the media or the church. If that’s the case, workers are living in ‘false consciousness,’ which seems to fit your protagonist. He doesn’t understand his own best interest.”
This rings true to me from the outset of the movie, long before Blart has to put his life on the line. What’s more, his insistence on riding the Segway, and his unethical use of security feeds — in accordance with his vow to “detect, deter, observe, report” — may place him in proximity to what the author and scholar Shoshana Zuboff has termed “surveillance capitalism.”
Blart is not an internet giant commodifying personal data for profit, but he does collect ambient information, undetected; no sooner has he developed a crush on Amy, the new vendor of a hair-weave kiosk, than he’s back in the control room, zooming in on her face via CCTV, the poor woman unaware of this invasion of privacy as she goes about her own labor. Zuboff connects the Marxist image of capitalism as a vampire to the parasitism of Facebook, Google and the rest of Silicon Valley, which “feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.” Studying Amy’s movements in secret, Blart does likewise. (It is the criminal “villains” of the movie who will destroy this tool of oppression.)
Yet the Marxist notion of a “false consciousness” that automatically allies Blart with our techno-capitalist overlords “doesn’t give much credit to working people, which after all Marxism is supposed to be in the service of,” Dworkin notes. He raises a different, related concept from W.E.B. Du Bois’ account of Reconstruction following the Civil War. Du Bois “tried to develop an explanation for why the white working class in the south, despite being exploited by the plantocracy, identified with them rather than the Black working class,” Dworkin explains. “His famous answer is that they were paid ‘the wages of whiteness,’ meaning that their identification with the white ruling class was a sort of psychological wage although not a material one. Thus the [mall] cop who goes above and beyond what’s expected undergoes a similar sort of experience. His feeling good about himself as he defends ruling-class values is a sort of dividend.”
This is an even better description of Blart’s attitude from the very first frame to the last: He measures success by the flourishing of the mall itself, which Dworkin refers to as “the temple of pure capitalism,” just as “the Acropolis is the symbol of Greece, and the cathedral is the symbol of medieval Europe.” To uphold the mall is to reinforce the system that created it.
Now onto the Segway, the focus of roughly 60 percent of the film’s humor (the other 40 percent is fat jokes, a sort of meta-punishment for anyone whose appetite for distraction is so great and palate so deeply undiscerning that they find themselves watching the cinematic equivalent of a bag of pork rinds). The makers of Paul Blart: Mall Cop could not have known that a British businessman would buy the Segway company later in 2009, then die the following year when he piloted one of the devices off a cliff. Nor were they predicting a halt to production of the “personal transporters” a decade hence.
The Segway gags are a shallow, extended ripoff of superior physical comedy in Arrested Development, hinging on the “dork factor” of such a conveyance. That Blart keeps it in a small home garage and drives it to and from work, as well as around the mall, is another jab at his social status; he is lesser for not having a car, for not taking up more space and burning fossil fuels, and therefore clings more desperately to his expensive toy as way of literally elevating himself above the masses. Early on, in a slapstick bit of foreshadowing, he crashes the Segway into a pristine minivan with a gift ribbon on it — the future prize of a sweepstakes winner. Toward the climax, when he has to assert his command of a crisis, he ditches the scooter for the van, plowing it through a wall to the outside world.
But if you’re wondering how a schlubby loser like Blart might get the girl in the end, well, it’s a simple matter of proving he can protect some brands when thieves show up to rob a centralized hub of commerce. This is the logical conclusion of his proactive spirit — while the other guards adopt a laissez-faire approach to their crummy jobs, Blart sees the safety and integrity of corporate hierarchy as a civic matter, and the mall almost as a sovereign nation, built on conspicuous consumption.
He is, in other words, a soldier of capital, and stays to defend it in a hostage-heist scenario lifted from Die Hard. His nemesis is Veck Simms, a guy who infiltrated Blart’s dominion as a security trainee (again, instruments and a position of surveillance turned toward personal enrichment), leading a crew that is coded as more ethnically diverse and “street” than the squishy, middle-class mall-goers and staff: I’m not joking when I say that these characters are doing parkour basically whenever they’re on screen, or zooming around on skateboards and BMX bikes to threatening effect — threatening to a white, suburban sensibility, that is.
Veck is the financial realist of the picture, having orchestrated his plan around the busiest shopping day of the year, and creating the appearance of a bank robbery when in fact he is out to steal credit card codes from individual stores, a far more lucrative idea. (More shades of Zuboff: Privileged information is better than money.) Obviously, there is no plot if Blart elects not to fight the gang on his own, but it’s remarkable that we’re prompted to root for someone who puts innocent lives at hazard to prove himself a noble defender of data.
The mission of taking out the thieves has parallels to the social critique inherent to zombie films: Blart goes “shopping” for all the gear and gizmos necessary to dispatch these bad guys, and more than once, he poses as a mannequin to get the drop on someone. By accident, he also receives an unwanted spray tan.
Contrary to the subversive cynicism of a George Romero, these adventures in looting are both an endorsement and the natural zenith of product placement; Blart could not protect anything or anyone, it seems, without access to commodities that reinforce their own branding: He kicks ass in a New Jersey Devils jersey; he snares the attention of a robber with a Sharper Image robot; and when he breaks into a Hallmark store to get Amy a birthday card, it’s meant to be heartwarming. He doesn’t have a scratch on him from all the broken glass, either. Blart isn’t stealing, he’s borrowing — a bloodless, inoffensive act. He’d never take what belongs to these franchise businesses; he only trusts in their generosity.
I asked Dr. Dworkin if all this jibed with the Marxist take on commodity fetishism. The parallels are there, he says, “as what Marx meant by it is that the prominent role that should be given to labor and laborers was instead given to the objects that they created. So we lived in an inverted world, one in which the objects took on a magical form, here symbolized by the role that they take in thwarting the robbers, while the workers who made them are forgotten. In the [Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844], Marx refers to this as alienated labor, that is, the objects that we make, which should be a representation of who we are, become foreign to us and external, objects enjoyed by others. Rather than us creating them; they seem to have created us.” Indeed, the figure of Paul Blart as MacGyver-like hero is created by the various items he employs to outwit his foes. Even the Segway is conscripted for service as a decoy; Veck impulsively shoots at it, as if Blart and his scooter are one and the same.
Yet it is still Blart, the lowly wage slave, who gives everything, most of all his body, which absorbs punishment as readily as workers bear inhuman conditions and the indirect burdens of a cruel, abstracted market. We hear a lot these days about the end of malls; after he’s saved the day, Blart rejects the offer to finally become a cop, preferring to stay in a retail bubble destined to be hollowed out by Amazon. In superseding his actual duties, he committed to a delusion of his importance, and the glories of the temple he is assigned to patrol — and he probably still can’t claim any overtime pay.
“Workers produce surplus value beyond the going wage, but are never enumerated for it,” Dworkin says. And despite the trauma he’s been through, Blart still believes in the virtue of profit for those already much wealthier than him, ultimately reverting to a humble, aw-shucks pose that would have us conclude that his effort to save the shops was simply the correct moral choice. In fact, it was selfish (his love interest was one of the hostages), suicidal (he was outnumbered, unarmed, untrained) and it led to his daughter being captured as well. Nevertheless, the movie asks us to see this foolishness as all-American valiance. He stood his ground and protected his mall, along with everything the mall represents.
This returns us to Dr. Dworkin’s most critical question, which Paul Blart: Mall Cop has no real intention of answering: Why does Blart risk everything for those who exploit him?
“Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist party, developed the idea of ‘hegemony’ to understand how it is that ruling class ideas come to become the values of the working class in certain historical circumstances,” Dworkin says. “He developed a vocabulary for dominance in which institutions like the church, the schools, and the media broadly conceived distribute what [he] calls ‘common sense.’ In other words, they develop ways of explaining working-class experience that resonates with them by providing explanations that have direct emotional appeal.” Dworkin gives one example of hegemony as Gramsci outlined it: a politician blaming the problems of the working class on China and Mexican immigrants to deflect from capitalism’s failures.
But where it comes to emotional appeal, a movie certainly gets the job done, and we can justifiably accuse Paul Blart: Mall Cop of a hegemonic function: it tells us that we feel sad, small, uncool, unsexy and powerless because we have not reached our full potential as warriors for the financial market. (And to think we’re shocked when conservatives on TV argue for a return to work despite coronavirus — that civilians will have to die to save the billionaires’ portfolios.) In a credit sequence, Blart and Amy are married in the mall, each on their own Segway, the last gesture of their devotion to the economic pyramid scheme that trapped them there to begin with. Of course the sequel is set in Las Vegas. The house must always win.