'Parking Lot': Guys, Cars And The Meaning Of Life

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Dan Moseley, Harper Hellems, Patrick Baran and Daniel Sebring

Motley Crew: Dan Moseley, Harper Hellems, Patrick Baran and Daniel Sebring are parking attendants at a lot in Charlottesville, Va. — a place where complex stories and dreams lie beneath the surface. Jon-Philip Sheridan hide caption

toggle caption Jon-Philip Sheridan

The Parking Lot Movie

  • Director: Meghan Eckman
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 74 minutes
Not Rated

With: Dan Moseley, Harper Hellems, Patrick Baran, and Daniel Sebring

Odds are when you pull out of a parking lot and hand your ticket to the attendant, you don't think much about that person — just some man or woman in a booth. You don't make eye contact. You probably don't even say anything.

A new documentary will make you think differently. It's called — get ready — The Parking Lot Movie. But its subject is far more compelling than its title. The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Va., is populated by a cast of characters Terry Gilliam couldn't dream up.

As former lot attendant James McNew puts it in the film, "It was like a refuge from the rest of Charlottesville — like a wildlife refuge."

Poets, Philosophers ... Anthropologists?

The "refuge" is certainly nothing to look at: 2 acres of concrete behind a strip of bars and restaurants, not far from the staid grounds of the University of Virginia.

And the booth itself? In the film, attendant Harper Hellems describes it this way: "It looks like something you might discover in Albania at the border."

Director Meghan Eckman heard about the lot from a friend who worked there. Eckman spent three years on her first full-length feature, shooting more than 150 hours of digital video to document life on the lot and the people who make it hop.

Back in 1983, Chris Farina was one of the attendants. By 1986, he was running the lot. He hired friends to staff it and posted fliers at UVA's departments of Anthropology, Comparative Religion and Philosophy.

"The anthropologists are always the best," Farina says, laughing. "They have a perspective that allows them to look at oddness and be interested in it and not be bored."

And there is lots of oddness. Take the ticket gate — the one the frat boys like to break at least once every weekend night. There is a stack of replacements that the attendants spend hours thinking about — and inscribing with wisdom. Each day might see a different word or phrase stenciled or scrawled on the wooden board.

Corey Gross points to a favorite: "It says, 'This isn't just a phase,' but then someone put an 'R' there. So now it says, 'This isn't just a phrase.' "

Gross pauses. "But it pretty much is."

Tyler Magill i

In The Parking Lot Movie, attendant Tyler Magill and his co-workers — most of them artists or anthropologists — describe doing nightly metaphysical battle with arrogant trust-fund babies and rowdy frat boys. Jon-Philip Sheridan hide caption

toggle caption Jon-Philip Sheridan
Tyler Magill

In The Parking Lot Movie, attendant Tyler Magill and his co-workers — most of them artists or anthropologists — describe doing nightly metaphysical battle with arrogant trust-fund babies and rowdy frat boys.

Jon-Philip Sheridan

Fun, Games And Anger

The attendants have a lot of time to think. They talk about culture and sociology, often quite thoughtfully. They read; write; play music, dominoes and "flip cone" — kind of like ring toss with traffic cones. One takes tickets while dancing in boots and an earflap cap. Another parades around with traffic cones on his legs, arms and head.

"I didn't know what to expect," says filmmaker Eckman. "I'd just show up, and usually something would happen. They might start building a little addition to the booth, and it wasn't just because I was there. That's what they did on a day-to-day basis anyway."

But the easygoing vibe can change quickly when patrons behave badly. The Parking Lot Movie shows drivers trying to negotiate fees, refusing to pay, or simply racing past the gate — often with an attendant in hot pursuit, intent on collecting the fee or exacting revenge.

"I hawked the wrench," Harper Hellems remembers in the film. "It hit and blew the mirror up, almost like a pistol shot had hit it. And no doubt the car belonged to Mommy or Daddy, and they were going to have some 'splaining to do in the morning."

The boss does not approve. At 51, Farina feels it's better to let it slide. But he's never fired anyone for mouthing off. Because at the Corner Parking Lot, the customer isn't always right.

"Whether it's snobbery or rudeness or just people being idiots," Farina says. "I mean I'm not going to sit there and say they should be damned. But at the same time some of the behavior is absolutely appalling."


Most of the attendants have caught Farina's easygoing zen. Lot alum Rick Slade voices a kind of enlightenment.

"You develop a strong sense of self," Slade explains in the film. "You get to know who you are fundamentally in the absence of any other external trappings ... that typically frame our identities and make us who we are. Y'know, 'I do this, or I do that.' Well, when you're at the parking lot, you do nothing."

By the end of the film, it's clear that many of these guys — and they are all guys — are destined to do something. One parking lot alum is a Fulbright scholar; another is the senior librarian at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. James McNew plays bass with the band Yo La Tengo.

And the lot's guru, Chris Farina, is also a filmmaker. His latest documentary, World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements, is premiering at the South by Southwest Film Festival this weekend along with Meghan Eckman's Parking Lot Movie.

"It's weird to go to a film festival and think, 'OK, finally I'll get some recognition as a filmmaker,'" Farina says with a chuckle. "And instead I'll get recognition as a parking lot attendant."

But as The Parking Lot Movie makes abundantly clear, that's something worth recognizing too.

Sandy Hausman reports for member station WVTF



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