In a scene toward the end of The Parking Lot Movie, attendant Gray Morris says, “But if people weren’t lame and you didn’t get to complain a lot, then, like, you would just be a parking lot attendant. But in this way, you get to be some sort of arbiter of humanity and taste; you get to decide who’s good and who’s bad … usually, just based on their parking habits—and what kind of cars they drive.” The conflict between the parking lot attendant and those who park imbues Morris’ job with significance, but also exhausts him to the extent that he later says he must either quit or go crazy. The same conflict drives Meghan Eckman’s documentary, which explores the zeitgeist of the Corner Parking Lot’s attendants, a motley crew of grad students and malcontents who take parking tickets while they expound on the nature of car culture and service industry jobs.
The film addresses the larger question of how much people are defined by what they do for a living. Then, it subversively hints that people might be better defined by what they think.
Eckman (Col ’00) presents Charlottesville’s Corner Parking Lot as a haven for counter culture, the rickety parking lot booth as an incubator for free thinkers and the long hours collecting dollar bills as a meditative practice. In contrast, the parking lot’s clientele quibble over fees, drive through the exit without paying—often with an angry attendant holding on to their bumper—and sometimes shower the attendants with derision and abuse.
The film’s conflict is complicated by the fact that the parking attendants are not compelled to work in the lot. They are well-educated young men who have chosen to work at the parking lot as foot soldiers in a cultural war. They set themselves in opposition to a mass culture that they see as championing consumption and disparaging humble work. Yet the attendants aren’t entirely unlike their adversaries. Many of them own cars. And most of them will not work at the parking lot forever.
“Why do people work at the parking lot?” says Eckman, who both directed and produced the film. “It’s back-to-basics work. An attendant sits there, among the people. He interacts with the public and other attendants in a real and immediate way. Also, the attendants are autonomous within the limits of the parking lot. They make the rules.”
“There is something Zen about doing work that doesn’t require much of you,” says Christopher Hlad, co-editor of the film. “I washed dishes when I was younger. I was physically there, washing the dishes, but mentally I could be anywhere. There is a kind of freedom in that.”
“The attendants are like armchair philosophers from the vantage point of the booth,” says Eckman.
Though the film is about a job that is often tedious, it is never dull. Instead, its narrators—parking attendants past and present—are funny, often absurd, and always insightful.
“Cars are weird,” says John Bylander (Col ’03) at the beginning of the film. “They’re like this whole other species of animal. Humans interact with them and obviously we control them. But in this other way they have their own set of controls.”
Rick Slade (Grad ’98) concurs, “A parking lot is where people realize that a car isn’t just the means to liberation, but also an encumbrance.”
The film was shot over three years—the feature-length documentary was culled from 150 hours of footage—and shows how the job changes the lives of the attendants over time.
“The parking lot is a rite of passage for many of the people who work there,” says Eckman. The arc of the film resembles a coming-of-age story: young men come to the parking lot to buy time to think, learn its lessons and then move on.
“It gets to the point where they can’t get the joy out of it anymore,” says John Lindaman (Col ’92), who worked at the lot for 11 years and whom Eckman describes as the Platonic ideal of the Corner parking attendant. “And it’s just a grudge match against the world and the parkers.”
Lindaman married a woman he courted in the parking lot. “Actually being able to park your car well is one of the first things a parking lot attendant looks for in a potential partner,” he says to his wife during a scene in their New York apartment, “but also your car was very small.”
The Parking Lot Movie screened at festivals including South by Southwest in Austin, the Independent Film Festival Boston and the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. Its Charlottesville debut at the Paramount Theatre in March sold out all 1,040 seats. “I’ve been thrilled to find that the subject matter is relevant to audiences around the country,” says Eckman.