Photos by Jon-Philip Sheridan and Alexandra Miller
A parking lot isn't the first place you'd think of as a great setting for a documentary. "At first, I thought it was going to be an experimental short," in the vein of Kevin Smith's comedy Clerks , says director and producer Meghan Eckman.
A University of Virginia graduate, Eckman had just moved back to Charlottesville from New York City in 2007 and was hanging out with a friend who worked at the Corner Parking Lot, a paid lot that sits near U.Va. and accompanying restaurants, bars and shops. Since 1986, the lot has been the workplace for probably the most overeducated group of parking attendants in the country.
Doctoral and law students sit in a handmade, unheated, un-air-conditioned booth at the exit gate, taking payments and occasionally chasing scofflaws. Some of their time is spent reading, talking, playing music and clowning around — and you'll see all of the above in Eckman's 60-minute film, which is simply called The Parking Lot Movie . It's airing nationally on PBS' Independent Lens; on WCVE Channel 23, it will be broadcast Tuesday at 10 p.m.
Eckman, who started filming at the lot in January 2007 and continued through two summers, adding interviews with former attendants (among them Richmond native Tyler Magill and James McNew, bassist for the indie band Yo La Tengo) along the way. All of them got the job through a friend, "passed like a baton," Eckman says.
Although the movie could have been just a goof, it reveals class distinctions, sometimes in humorous ways. Drunk college students snap off the wooden bar at the entrance, U.Va. alumni try to park their enormous SUVs in the lot, and McNew tells a story about a girl he knew who tried to get out of paying a 40-cent fee. When he stands up to her, she puts him down for working at the lot. The movie ends with a hilarious rap video (performed by attendants) about "parking lot justice."
"I was basically carried by the fervor of everyone who worked there," Eckman says. The lot "epitomized that sense of community that I love." She returned to Charlottesville after working as a video editor in Manhattan and feeling "overstimulated by the big city," Eckman notes. "I feel like I need to cut out a lot of the noise."
Because of its greater themes, the documentary is appealing to more than just people who've worked or parked at the lot — it's been shown at several film festivals, even in Norway, South Korea and London. Both New York magazine and the New York Times have printed positive reviews of the film.
If you miss the PBS broadcast, an extended version of The Parking Lot Movie (still just 74 minutes) will be shown Nov. 5 at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, including a discussion with Eckman.
The director has several projects in play right now, but at the moment, she's relishing the success of the documentary: "I felt there was something special early on."