'Parking Lot': Guys, Cars And The Meaning Of Life One of the buzz movies at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival depicts the denizens of the Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Va., whose attendants are a surprisingly lively bunch of poets, philosophers, musicians and anthropologists. Sandy Hausman reports from member station WVTF.
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'Parking Lot': Guys, Cars And The Meaning Of Life

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

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

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Well, now, you might think that a movie about a parking lot would be, well, dull, but at the South by Southwest Film Festival, which begins today, one woman hopes to prove otherwise.

Meghan Eckman spent three years shooting "The Parking Lot Movie." It's a documentary about the quirky world of parking lot attendants in Charlottesville, Virginia. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman has the story.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Parking Lot Movie")

Unidentified Man #1: How's it going? One dollar, please.

SANDY HAUSMAN: It's hard to imagine a job more tedious: sitting in a tiny booth, taking money from people leaving a parking lot.

(Soundbite of film, "The Parking Lot Movie")

Unidentified Man #1: Three dollars, please.

HAUSMAN: But Meghan Eckman had a friend who worked at The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, and discovered it was home base for a band of creative, sarcastic, wisecracking guys.

Ms. MEGHAN ECKMAN (Filmmaker): They were just all characters. They made my job easy.

HAUSMAN: Eckman shot 150 hours of videotape to document life on the lot, a two-acre space behind bars and restaurants near the staid grounds of the University of Virginia. She interviewed James McNew, Harper Hellems and John Bylander(ph).

Mr. JAMES McNEW: It was like a refuge from the rest of Charlottesville, like a wildlife refuge.

Mr. HARPER HELLEMS: The booth is rather informal-looking. It looks like something that you might discover in Albania at the border.

Mr. JOHN BYLANDER: That's the kind of building that Jesus would've collected parking fees from.

HAUSMAN: Another attendant, back in 1982, was Chris Farina. He took over the lot three years later, hiring friends and posting fliers at the departments of anthropology, comparative religion and philosophy.

Mr. CHRIS FARINA: To be honest, the anthropologists are always the best.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FARINA: They have a perspective that allows them to look at oddness and be interested in it and not be bored.

HAUSMAN: The lot is also favored by musicians.

Mr. MARK SHOTINGER: Chris Farina gave me the interview over the phone, which consisted of him asking if I could be trusted not to steal the money, and the answer to that was yes, and the rest is history.

HAUSMAN: Mark Shotinger embraced a job with time to practice, compose and listen.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SHOTINGER: (Singing) I think I'm going down. Somehow I don't care. There's a band that's playing pretty and a lot of ladies there.

HAUSMAN: The creative muse is in the air, on the booth and the gate where patrons stop to get their tickets. Each day might see a different word or phrase stenciled on the wooden board, something for Corey Gross and the other attendants to ponder.

Mr. COREY GROSS: I like this one. 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. But it is just a phrase, pretty much.

Unidentified Man #2: Think about that.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, nice, smart, good. That's really good.

HAUSMAN: When the attendants are not reading, writing or contemplating, filmmaker Eckman shows them on skateboards, playing dominos or parading around with traffic cones on their legs, arms and head.

Ms. ECKMAN: I didn't know what to expect. I'd just show up, and usually, luckily, something would happen. They might start building a little addition to the booth, and it wasn't just because I was there. This is what they did on a day-to-day basis anyway.

HAUSMAN: But the easygoing karma can quickly turn when patrons behave badly.

(Soundbite of film, "The Parking Lot Movie")

Unidentified Man #1: You owe me $9.

Unidentified Woman #1: No, I don't.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, if you want to leave without getting a ticket, then you're...

Unidentified Woman #1: Give me my money back.

Unidentified Man #1: Look at the sign. Why did you park here if you can't give me the money that you owe me? This is my job.

HAUSMAN: Some customers don't bother to argue, they just drive away, and many attendants feel obliged to pursue and punish.

(Soundbite of film, "The Parking Lot Movie")

(Soundbite of people shouting)

Unidentified Man #4: I got it, I got it. I hawked the wrench. 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.

HAUSMAN: The boss does not approve. At 51, Chris Farina feels it's better to live and let live, but he's never fired anyone for mouthing off because at The Corner Parking Lot, the customer isn't always right.

Mr. FARINA: Whether it's snobbery or rudeness or just people being idiots, you know, I'm not going to sit there and say that they should be damned. But at the same time, some of the behavior is absolutely appalling.

HAUSMAN: Eventually, Farina figures, his employees will learn to let it go. Already, John Lindamen(ph), Matt Datesman(ph) and Rick Slade have achieved enlightenment on the lot.

Mr. JOHN LINDAMEN: If 600 times a day, you are taking a ticket from somebody, you have 600 opportunities to take a ticket from somebody with your full awareness and to really be present in that action.

Mr. MATT DATESMAN: If you're looking to cultivate things like detachment and understand a Buddhist notion like impermanence, a parking lot's a perfect opportunity.

Mr. RICK SLADE: You develop a strong sense of self, and you get to know who you are fundamentally in the absence of any other external trappings or anything that socially, people recognize, you know, that typically frame our identities and make us who we are. You know, I do this, or I do that. Well, when you're at the parking lot, you do nothing.

HAUSMAN: But at the end of the film, it's clear that many of these guys are destined to do something. One parking lot alum is a Fulbright scholar, another 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 debuting at South by Southwest too.

Mr. FARINA: It's weird to go to a film festival, thinking, okay, finally I'll get some recognition as a filmmaker. And instead, I'll get recognition as a parking lot attendant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAUSMAN: For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Virginia.

(Soundbite of rap song)

Unidentified Male (Rapper): I got a choice to make every day. Well, I could try to play god or I could just plain play. And you might see my job as being in your way, yo, but if you drive out, I'm gonna make you pay. And though I know likely you won't believe me, the job is simple but it sure ain't easy. In the summertime, my fan is all that keeps me breezy. In the wintertime, I work out here freezing. We're a secret society for all to see. I can leave the lot, but it won't leave me. I will point you to the sign if you ask the fee, but a parking lot attendant always parks for free.


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