The Parking Lot Movie

LOTIn 1986, Chris Farina purchased a parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In 2009, Meghan Eckman produced and directed a documentary, The Parking Lot Movie, about the attendants working at Farina’s ‘The Corner Parking Lot.’

Located near the University of Virginia, adjacent to the backs of several bars as well as train tracks, and featuring a wooden shack built in 1986, the attendants have face-to-face contact with customers as they drive by the lot’s shack to – hopefully – pay their parking bill, in cash or check, directly to the attendant.

Farina tends to hire college students, graduates, and musicians – men with higher-than-normal IQs than one would find attending a small-town parking lot. His management style is loose, care-free. Consequently, these young men spend their time between customers playing games and creating contests with the lot’s orange cones.

The attendants print words, phrases, and the names of extremely low Q-list rated celebrities on the vertically-swinging bar customers drive under after taking their automatically-printed, time-stamped ticket. They hang out with friends some of whom also work at the lot – or are alumni of it. They may play music, sing, listen to music, read, and, most critically, deal with rude, narcissistic, and combative customers some of whom simply drive by the shack without paying.

Oh, and one more thing: They reveal their souls to the filmmakers.

The power of both comedy and drama – whether narrative or documentary – rests in conflict. It is this conflictive contact with difficult customers that emerges as foreground for the attendants as well as us viewers of Eckman’s well-done documentary about a seemingly whimsical subject.

Some customers argue with the attendants, trying not to pay, or to pay less than the required amount. One customer argued over a forty cent parking fee. And, as previously mentioned, some simply drive by the attendant.

On top of all that, one of the reasons the attendants have so much fun printing on the vertically-swinging barrier is that said barrier is frequently, willfully destroyed by customers or pedestrians. As many as three barriers a day are broken – affording attendants even more opportunities to exercise their literary creativity on the replacement barriers.

The most intense conflict in The Parking Lot Movie occurs, not surprisingly, when a customer does the drive-by/no pay, followed by furious attendant running after the car, yelling at the customer, pounding on the car, struggling to get the license plate number. Those scenes are the most haunting, but as I contemplated both the humor and drama engendered by them I began to wonder:

Why isn’t there a vertically-swinging barrier at the lot’s exit like there is at the lot’s entrance?

That would surely discourage patrons from leaving without pay, and, indeed, reduce both the monetary loss and the customer/attendant conflicts. Perhaps the exit-way is more than an exit for the parking lot; maybe it’s also an alleyway between the adjacent bars’ rear-ends and the parking lot, and Farina could not legally block the public alleyway.

I contacted Meghan Eckman with this question. She confirmed that it is an alleyway, but that owner Farina could easily set up a movable exit barrier elsewhere; protecting the lot, and, especially, the attendants, from the conflicts and loss caused by miserly parkers.

‘Why doesn’t Farina put up an exit barrier?’ I wondered to myself. Perhaps he sadistically enjoys tempting his customers to betray moral, ethical, and spiritual values – like pet owners who place dog biscuits on top of their dogs’ noses.

Perhaps he delights in infuriating his attendants, or likes a good fight – but, if so, he misses most of them, or he secretly video tapes them. After all, Farina hasn’t replaced the haggard booth in 24 years of doing business, 24 years of Summer rains and Winter freezes.

About that booth, I wondered if he’s simply nostalgic.

I shared these speculations with Eckman, and here is her response:

“I will say this, Chris is very nostalgic – which is the real reason he leaves the booth in place after all these years. He does not have anything up his sleeve, I assure you.”

In one of his interviews Farina spoke about how he used to have a house
by the lake, and from the transcripts, it reads:

“I wanted to take the [parking lot’s] booth out to the lake. If I could sit in the booth out in the rain, it would remind me of some of those nice memories here [at the lot] which is when it’s slow, and no one’s in a hurry, you’re just sitting here and playing music. It’s funny, it’s a parking lot. Who would think you would have those kinds of emotions for it? But, it’s not just a parking lot, it’s the people here and the time for me that has passed in my life.”

His nostalgia is readily apparent in Farina’s interviews. Kudos to Eckman for illuminating this sentiment in this unexpected film, a film that clearly demonstrates the power of documentary to reveal the sublime treasures and intense passions buried in seemingly mundane life.

But enough of that. Back to our beleaguered attendants. These incessantly unhappy customer contacts bring the attendants into a direct experience of the United States population’s economic and cultural stratification and the ever-growing gap between these strata. The interviews of the current and former attendants capture the variety of emotions and attitudes chiseled by years of working the lot, dealing with recalcitrant customers.

One defense some of the attendants mount is to cultivate an inner sense of “Lord of the Flies” – with the customers, of course, playing the role of the flies. The attendants develop and nurture the “I’m Okay/You’re Not Okay” script described in the Transactional Analysis school of human interaction. One attendant, transcending the seemingly petty dramas at the lot concluded poetically, “We had all in a world nothing can offer us.”

But “all” is not dark. One of the attendants met his life partner at the lot, and she ended up being the token, and much appreciated, female in the otherwise all-male cast – excluding, of course, the drunk, high-heeled college girls who didn’t have speaking parts.

The film concludes with an Animal House-like montage of photographs of each attendant with a printed description of Where-They-Are-Now, with many of the former attendants finding impressive high-status positions. Apparently they benefited greatly from Farina’s de facto internship in life.

The DVD contains a massive amount of Special Features – ten of them, to be specific.

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