The Parking Lot Movie

God will hand us the sword of justice

I began working in retail at age eighteen.  Having become accustomed to employee treatment at the hands of the customers, as well as behind-the-scenes dictatorships, retail politics and enforcement of unethical practices, I was pretty excited at the chance to see The Parking Lot Movie.  The thought that a filmmaker would focus attention on this rare and misunderstood sub-faction of American people seemed a miracle in and of itself, but the fact that this little documentary has become one of the top-queued films on Netflix gives me (of little faith) some hope again.  For what, I can’t yet be sure, but it means one of two things: 1) people are beginning to care; 2) more educated people are unable to get “real” jobs and want to commiserate with us.

The goal of Meghan Eckman’s little gem is not clear from the start.  It seems to be something as simple as shedding light on a ne’er-thought-about group of workers, albeit in a special situation.  The film features footage taken over a three-year period at The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Parking lot attendants, both current and former, give testimonials about their experiences working at the lot’s money-collecting booth, edited together with candid footage of the daily/nightly goings-on of the workplace.  While this seems like a worker’s dream documentary, these aren’t your average retail employees: many are grad students or former teachers between jobs, and most (if not all) are philosophically-minded, educated, and speak eloquently.  Working in an employee-run parking lot also goes against the grain of the common job in that it throws one universally-enforced retail policy out the window: employee reticence.  These “kids” in their mid-twenties are smart, arrogant, creative, and listen to Minor Threat.  Piss them off or refuse to pay that $0.40, and you’re in trouble.  The guys are seen kicking cars, throwing things at cars, shouting profanity at rude drivers, and coming up with imaginative pranks to make it through the day.

As such, the film is more enlightening if you are currently working a job for which you are way overqualified.  Folks who might be “lifers” at a retail position may not like some of the comments given by the cast.  Refreshingly, the employees are widely opinionated despite being of the same proverbial “family”: one is a mid-forties retail-for-life man; two are musicians; one is married and working as a librarian after an eleven-year tenure at the CPL; and one is just a kid who “hate[s] all the customers equally” because they’re all “fucking morons.”  The spectrum of varied commentary represents, in a way, the ingredients that beget the adopted attitude of a person working in retail.  Some days you’re happy to be there.  You show up, you joke with the guys, you small-talk the customers.  Other days, they’re all morons.

A few essential members of the collective retail community are under (or not at all) represented here: 1) Women.  This is interesting.  No women seem to work at this parking lot.  Are the women of Charlottesville luckier in their job pursuits in the wake of education?  Do they just not want to hang out with these guys?  Does the owner of the parking lot (also featured in the film) simply not think females are suited to the job?  Are there women who work there who didn’t want to be featured in the documentary?  Did Eckman decide not to include them?  These questions are never addressed, and it doesn’t ruin the experience, but it takes something away from the film’s scope: the female hand is always a welcome one, especially when your principal cast is hosing down the pavement with philosophy and testosterone.  2) the Snow Crowd.  Would this job be as much fun if you moved CPL a few states north?  I’ve seen how pay-lots operate during the winter, and would love to see how this crowd would deal with the angry snow drivers, not to mention how they would keep themselves sane while sitting outside in below-zero temperatures, unable to skateboard, circulate blood, or chase down cars on ice.  3) The aforementioned “Common Worker.”  The run-of-the-mill “where are they now” at the end of the film informs us that several of the cast are now members of popular bands, college professors, and senior librarians, while maybe one or two still work at a parking lot or retail position.  As with my first two bullets, not much can be changed about this when you’re shooting real-life material in a college town, but it’s something to think about.  It’s also implied that the owner only hires people he knows: “You can’t get this job,” one worker says in response to friends who ask.

Perhaps the best parts of The Parking Lot Movie feature the ways in which the employees attempt to “create” while on the job.  They mess with newspaper headlines and comic strips, often in very clever ways, showcasing the lives and gutter-poetics of the parking lot attendant.  They paint and stencil the lot’s gate, which rises and falls over the opening to which they are the gatekeepers, with silly phrases like “Good Grief,” “Molly Shannon” and “Girl, You Know It’s True.”  Shots of the various gate-changes become a visual punk-rock poetry that encompasses the current life of the parking lot and its characters, perhaps best embodied when the gate is repeatedly broken by drunken vandals.

Ultimately, The Parking Lot Movie does not represent the universal retail experience, but it will touch the deepest parts of any and all retail employees.  This should be seen, even more so, by people who don’t work in retail, at least just the sections where customers shout at employees, complain about the prices to those who don’t determine them, or drive off without paying.  A certain attitude culminates in some of these workers throughout the years of working in the lot, something like being a god placed upon the Earth to punish people and deliver judgment.  It’s easy to fall into this retail-deity mentality when you’re in the booth or behind the counter, especially when you’re there every day.  You take the money, you’re in control, this is your turf – the commentaries on this subject become almost frightening, if not painfully true, until the laid-back owner of the CPL heartily chuckles, “It’s just a parking lot.  Don’t forget that.”

The Parking Lot Movie (2010); produced and directed by Meghan Eckman.

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