Posted on Saturday, May 1st, 2010 by David Chen
Can a parking lot serve as a metaphor for America? Can it contain both our noblest of intentions and our basest of instincts? Can it teach us lessons about the nature of mankind, and about the joys and tribulations of work?
Director Meghan Eckman’s first film, a documentary entitled The Parking Lot Movie, answers these questions with a resounding “Yes!” The Parking Lot Movie recently screened at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Hit the jump to read some of my thoughts on the movie, and to see my chat with Eckman about the profundity of parking lots, and how she kept herself from losing her mind while devoting three years of her life to interviewing parking lot attendants.
At first glance, the Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia might look a lot like any other parking lot in the country, and in many ways it is. People drive into this 2-acre triangular lot, enclosed by buildings and a railroad track, leave their cars there for a few hours, then pay a modest amount to leave.
However, the attendants that work there are a group of the most thoughtful and eccentric collection of personalities you are likely to ever encounter at any parking lot. Parking lot manager Chris Farina advertised positions at the University of Virginia’s Anthropology and Philosophy departments, and most of the people that work at the lot are graduate school students. Throughout the course of the film, we’re introduced to them and given glimpses into their lives. We see them on their shifts, playing games, performing music, and discussing the nature of existence. We discover that while working at a parking lot offers some financial benefits, it also confers other intangibles: the satisfaction of managing a business; the ability to wield unsubstantial power over others; and the time and context to reflect on the nature of existence. The atmosphere of camaraderie is intoxicating. The attendants are thoughtful and reflective about the job, and eager to share their thoughts with the camera. “It was a lens of looking at the entire life experience through the Parking Lot,” says one attendant.
The film is thought-provoking, illuminating the idiosyncrasies of human nature in its approach to vehicles and capitalism. What is it about cars that make us so protective over them? And why do people flip out when others try to charge them for leaving their car somewhere for a few hours? Some of the film’s most amusing scenes involve people trying to talk their way out of paying a $2 fee, or simply driving away without paying. Coming from Boston, where parking in the city is regularly up to $10 per hour, I was also shocked at people’s unwillingness to fork over some cash for this simple service. “It is about the social contract,” reflects John Lindaman, one of the attendants. “And especially if you are talking to someone who’s in a $50,000 Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer and they’re getting in your grill about $.50, to you that $.50 is worth $50,000 worth of Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer and you just want to take it out of them any way you can.”
“I did not overcharge people to get more money,” another attendants remarks. “I overcharged people because they were dicks and deserved it. Vengeance is mine.” And we understand why he feels this way.
Eckman spent three years of her life devoted to the project, condensing over 140 hours of footage into an 84-minute film. It is easy to see why it consumed her life; there is so much richness to these characters, so much symbolism in the encounters of their daily lives. The Parking Lot Movie is a labor of love that manages to be funny and insightful at the same time.
Here’s my conversation with Meghan Eckman. This interview was held in the director’s lounge at IFFBoston, which, while lovely, doesn’t exactly have amazing lighting conditions. Nonetheless, Eckman offers some great insights into her filmmaking, and what exactly made a parking lot so compelling in the first place.
Check out all our coverage of IFFBoston.