It's 9am and I'm taking my seat for the UK premiere of Park Lanes - the latest from experimental documentarian Kevin Everson. After carefully unpacking my supplies (water and silently consumable foodstuffs) I count six other audience members out in the dim light of this BFI screening room. Will we all still be here at [quick mental arithmetic] 5pm?
There's a palpable tension in the room, as if we're all about to witness some next-level transgressive Japanese ultra-horror, filled with incest, eyeballs and viscera. I feel a sudden rush of camaraderie with my fellow attendees. I picture us all heading to the pub afterwards to back-slap and clink pints and rowdily swap war stories about arse-ache and boredom – hardy heroes, one and all.
What is the best-case scenario here? Is there any chance I might actually enjoy – rather than endure – an eight-hour, narration-free documentary about a bowling-equipment factory in Virginia?
HOURS ONE TO THREE
Within 30 minutes it's clear than the answer to that question is a big, bellowed “nooo”. It becomes apparent that the film consists entirely of long, unbroken shots – most between five and 10 minutes long – of factory workers performing intricate, inscrutable tasks: connecting components, stacking parts, bending metal, sorting screws. At one point I am literally watching paint dry.
There's none of the geeky, nosy satisfaction you'd normally derive from How It's Made-style footage: the machines built in the factory are so large, complicated and unfamiliar that it's always unclear what any one worker is doing, or why. We get little insight into the workers themselves or the relationships between them – precious few conversations are shown, and those that are are mostly inaudible due to mumbling or industrial noise. Even on purely aesthetic terms, the film shrugs and offers naff-all: bluntly shot on shaky digital cameras, it's as raw and ugly as a pop-up pound shop.
Park Lanes is anti-entertainment, and it is brutal. It has the appearance of being a film – there are moving images and there is sound – but there's absolutely nothing to get a purchase on, so you're left free-falling through space, lost and untethered in the dark, wondering whether it's okay to slip your phone out for a sly scroll of Facebook.
It's going to be a long day, and I'm going to be a slightly weirder person at the end of it.
HOURS FOUR TO SIX
The world turns. Empires rise and fall.
Tedium hangs in the air like a dying giant's final fart. The man to my left is slumped, head in hands, clearly struggling. Another is sleeping, or at least attempting to through the relentless industrial clanking. Two others have fled, broken by ennui.
Man this film is boring – provocatively, extravagantly, intergalactically boring. Take the most intense boredom you ever experienced – the drabbest bank holiday spent with bleakest relatives – and times it by a trillion. Now add 500. It's twice as boring as that.
Seeking to occupy my flailing mind, I scrabble to find meaning in the endless procession of fiddly, baffling tasks being shown to me. Am I watching a meditation on the nature of entertainment? A comment on our internet-zapped attention spans? A tribute to the dignity of skilled labour? An indictment of capitalism's dehumanising effects? A weird (if admittedly kinda funny) joke, the punchline of which is the very fact that I'm sat here watching it?
As I watch a man silently and painstakingly sort bolts of varying sizes into a set of plastic drawers for a quarter of an hour, I unexpectedly find myself first smirking, then openly laughing at the majestic pointlessness of what we're all doing here today. Out in the dinge, heads swivel to look at me.
Later, on-screen, a worker we've been trailing for 10-plus minutes breaks his silence to acknowledge the monotony of his current task, a stock-check: “Guess you can just delete this bit, huh?” he mumbles to the camera operator. Oh Jesus. If only. You've got no idea, mate. This is it. This is the film that they're making. I know!
HOURS SEVEN AND BEYOND
The final stretch. A strange calm has enveloped the audience, now down to four. Maybe it's Stockholm Syndrome, but I think I'm starting to... enjoy this?
But then just as Park Lanes and I are starting to build a grudging respect for each other, it turns on me during its final hour with two sequences – one featuring sawing, one welding – that are so inert, interminable and migraine-inducing they can only have been intended as some kind of final test for those of us who've battled through The Wall and are now heading towards the finish line. I notice that my fists are clenched and my teeth are gritted. The guy to my left is fidgeting badly, shifting and sighing, but he's come too far to quit now. We all have.
Then, praise be to Jesus, we enter the final 10 minutes (yes, I've been clock-watching... wait, is that the point of the film? Actually sod it, I don't care anymore). A tiny part of me is holding out for a last-minute pay-off that "explains" Park Lanes as some grand exercise in delayed gratification. Like, maybe it'll turn out they've all been working on a huge robot that'll then destroy the factory in a frenzy of spectacular, cathartic violence? Or maybe there'll be some thigh-slapping Cannonball Run-style bloopers over the credits? (Spoilers: no and no.)
Finally, after 480 mind-bending minutes, it ends – starkly and suddenly. The film's producer takes the stage. “Kevin himself will be answering questions at next week's screening, if you'd like to attend.” Yeeeah I'm probably all set for Park Lanes viewings now, cheers.
“He's just completed work on his latest documentary,” she continues, “about a trap house in Cleveland.” Wait, what? Now that sounds like something I'd want to watch: the extreme human dramas that unfold inside a house where drugs and guns are sold. “He set his camera up across the street and filmed people coming in and out the property for eight hours.” Ah. I see. So close.
Reading the mood of the room, the producer keeps her comments blessedly pithy. And now I've grabbed my bag, and I'm pushing a door, a second, a third, and now I'm out on the South Bank, breathing crisp autumn air and striding briskly away. I am free. Ha. I could cry.
Park Lanes was showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival.
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