(This note, jotted down after watching the film, is not intended to be a review. These are a set of first impressions. Additional material might be added in the future or the post altered completely.)
First of all, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes is a conceptual coup. It might be the best response to the Lumières’ earliest factory films this side of the 20th century, and a pertinent update to Harun Farocki’s work on the same subject. Unlike the Lumières’ films, there are not scores of workers pouring out of the factory at the end of day’s work. Nevertheless, the political, psychological and social transition that the exit from the work place represents – a transition that Farocki magnificently examines in his 1995 video project – persists in all its contrast. It’s well past the sunrise by the time the workers in Park Lanes leave the floor, and the blinding sunlight that awaits them at the gates directly impresses upon us the idea of a personal life beyond the threshold.
Having his film play out over a duration equal to the legislated eight-hour work day gives Everson a chance to establish a number of interesting parallels between industrial labour and filmmaking, an equivalence that avant-garde filmmakers have time and again emphasized. For one, shooting with the camera held in his hand, and not using a tripod, for almost the entire duration, Everson IS, in fact, involved in manual labour. Secondly, Everson, like the workers, is handling raw material for his work whose final shape he will not be able to see right away, though he might have a general idea of it in mind.
Further, the film’s structure is defined by the structure of the work on the factory floor. We are taken through various sections of the factory dealing with bowling alley equipment. We do not see how each of the tasks segues into the next or how it fits into the overall final product – which I think is how the film is also organized. We synthetically piece together the work flow as much as the film and its spaces.
Everson avoids the usual pitfalls presented by such a subject – aesthetization, condescension and, especially, the idea of worker alienation (the workers I wager know what they are working on and can well enjoy an evening bowling and appreciating in some basic what they have done). He pitches the film between humanist and post-humanist perspectives of industrial labour. But I get the feeling that, trying to avoid the pitfalls, he has boxed himself into some problematic false neutrality. I think the choice of not having a voice over or any explicit theoretical framework betrays a form of non-committal plurality inviting multiple interpretations. (Of course, I must admit that not having seen any other of Everson’s films perhaps deprives me of a pre-existing framework with which to approach Park Lanes.)
Moreover, I could sense a lack of transparency between Everson and the workers. Granted that the workers know and comment upon the director’s and the camera’s presence and Everson’s shooting at eye level intelligently preempts any similarity to surveillance aesthetic, but for long stretches of the film, the workers perform their everyday duty as if the camera’s presence didn’t matter, which I think is pretty impossible. I insist that there is nothing exploitative about this, at least not more than what is involved in the workers working in the factory in the first place, but the discrepancy between this obviously intrusive alien presence and the seeming normality of proceedings crops up to my mind as an unaccounted variable.
The film appears to have been shot with a relatively long lens, which results in a shallow field that helps Everson focus on either faces or hands or the objects and instruments of the factory. This, of course, has practical benefits of avoiding disturbances in the near field of the camera and being able to be at a distance from the work site and give the workers and the filmmaker some maneuvering space. And perhaps there is an ethical point to be made there.
I admit I found Park Lanes very difficult to watch, unlike similar films by Sharon Lockhart and Denis Côté. True that the smaller runtime is a factor, but I think that the ease of watching has more to do with the latter filmmakers’ direct and transparent aesthetic intervention into their material. Park Lanes is insistent upon not judging or even describing what it is showing. On one hand, this approach confronts us with the relentless, ritualistic, meditative and, at times, comforting simplicity of industrial labour today, allowing us heartwarming glimpses of multicultural utopianism and unfeigned proletariat camaraderie. At the same time, the multiple fields of inquiry that the film’s lack of commentary opens up appear to me to neutralize each other. We don’t know whether to read many of the passages from a political or a humanistic standpoint. Long stretches of the film depicting monotonous work in a space that employs safety measures and has advanced equipment go in internecine counterpoint with the recesses in which the workers are enjoying movies on tablets and smart phones. We don’t know what they earn. We don’t know if they are in a union and whether they want to be in one either. I must clarify that I am not arguing for pigeonholing the worker experience into an overarching Manichean thesis. I’m trying to say that I think the film conflates a kind of non-judgmental presentation of reality as it is with a nuanced irreducible perspective. They various elements of the film seemed to me to go off on tangents rather than dialectically conversing with each other. Perhaps an analogy from photography would help me articulate better. The opposite of capturing a scene in shallow focus and reducing it to a Grand Theory is not capturing everything in deep focus. It is to use the deep focus to relate the foreground to the background in ways that couldn’t be expressed by each of them individually. By subtracting personal subjectivity altogether, Everson renders the film subject-less.
Finally, I do think the film is not as rigorous as it should have been. Besides the demands placed by the framing concept, the length of many sequences – length of each one in itself but also in comparison to the others – does not seem to be justified, if I may be allowed to say so. There is a two-minute shot of a bunch of bowling pins towards the very end. Though that duration is next to nothing for an eight-hour movie, I can’t see the motivation for such a slack shot. Are we expected to ponder on the ontological nature of bowling pins? I know better than to try and hold a filmmaker intellectually responsible for all his decisions, but I’m beginning to wonder whether the freedom from considerations of resourcefulness, economy and preplanning that digital cinema offers has also started impacting directorial intuition for the worse.