You Belong To Us

A public parking lot seems the most average of places—but, in fact, as we discover in The Parking Lot Movie, it offers some telling insight into American society. 

A city parking lot seems, well, the most pedestrian of places. You pull your car into the lot, the car gets parked, you go off, come back, then pay the attendant when you leave the lot. Nothing could be more quotidian, right?

Wrong! Meghan Eckman, a filmmaker and 1990 University of Virginia grad, had a friend who worked at the little Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, which is located directly across from the university and behind a bunch of downtown shops—and one day he said to Eckman: “You’d better come and film me, because I’m about to lose it”—“it” being his mind.

In January of 2007, Eckman did start filming at the parking lot, and interviewing its group of iconoclastic, overeducated, philosophical attendants—and the result is the proverbial gem of a movie. “The Parking Lot Movie” essentially deconstructs an American parking lot through the insights of the self-styled “ragtag group of poets” who worked at the lot during filming. And we are not talking minimum-wage, low-education layabouts; this being Charlottesville and UVA, we’re talking about individuals who have degrees in archeology and philosophy, who are artists and musicians and intellectuals, with, yes, the odd marginal character or two—and for 78 minutes, we listen to these men talk about their job in the lot, and their customers, and the meaning of cars, and capitalism, and it is utterly fascinating. “I thought it would be a short film, but then I started doing interviews with the attendants, and I could tell it would be a feature because they were telling a much larger story.” Indeed, it is almost an existential film—it is a very French take, really, on a very American subject.

Indeed, in some ways this movie might be called “Revenge of the Parking Lot Attendant,” because the attendants spend a lot of time venting about customers and cars and America’s absurdist consumer society in general, and the fact that parking-lot employees get little respect. As attendant Harper Hellems puts it: “No parent looks down in the crib of a newborn child and says, ‘Gosh, I hope he or she grows up to be a parking lot attendant.” Attendant Scott Meiggs says that they all have the potential to do great things, but “we’re all too arrogant and hard-hearted to achieve them.”

We hear the attendants heap scorn on the ginormous SUV’s who come into the lot and try to squeeze into tiny spaces. We hear them complain about attitudes of drunk students and rich parents who want to argue about whether they owe an extra 40 cents or not. Says attendant Tyler Magill: “My first reaction to seeing a trustafarian getting out of a $40,000 car that gets eight miles to the gallon is, ‘I hate you.’”

But there is humor in this film as well. We see the attendants building a fake ticket hut out of cardboard, stenciling quirky messages on the gate arm, chasing down individuals who drive through the gate, singing songs and more. And we hear from Chris Farina, who has owned the lot business (he leases the property) for more than 20 years and is a guy that the attendants all seem to like very much. Indeed, Farina, who is a filmmaker himself, seems to almost share their unorthodox sensibility—to a point. He says that it’s “pretty absurd” that he’s owned a parking lot for so long, and he expects to get arthritis in his fingers soon “from straightening out one dollar bills” for decades.

And in the end, says attendant John Lindaman: “We are the victors. Ultimately, you have the car and you need to park the car somewhere, and sooner or later you will come back and need to park with us. And then, you belong to us.”

Seek out this droll movie if you can. Eckman has shown the film “at a number of good festivals,” she says, including South By Southwest, “and it’s getting a lot of critical acclaim.” It was recently shown on the PBS show “Independent Lens.” If you go to the Eckman’s site—parkinglotmovie.com—there are links to purchase the DVD and stream it on iTunes.

There is a lot more to a public parking lot than one might think.

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