Heavy Metal Semiotics Parking Lot
by Jake Lemkowitz
Heavy Metal Parking Lot is screening at PhilyMOCA on Friday, September 28th.The director, Jeff Krulik, will be in attendance to host the event. 8:00 PM. $8 general admission.
I can’t ruin the plot of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, because there isn’t one. I’ll just tell you what happens: Someplace in suburban Maryland circa 1986, fans prepare for a Judas Priest concert by standing around, driving around, drinking, yelling hilarious things, and occasionally getting interviewed by a public access filmmaker named Jeff Krulik. To the uninitiated, this probably sounds dubious. The fact that Krulik’s finished documentary clocks-in at only sixteen minutes makes its success that much more absurd. And yet, Heavy Metal Parking Lot has been dubbed and screened and re-watched by an intense subculture of fans for twenty-six years. It’s not just shlock value, either. There is something about this grainy video that touches a collective cultural nerve.
Cult classic cinema is about inadvertent greatness. Troll 2 was released as a horror movie. It boldly reached for that genre’s conventions, fell flat on its face, and subsequently achieved underground immortality as a comic farce. In his 1985 essay, Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage, the film critic Umberto Eco makes a similar argument about Humphrey Bogart’s most enduring film. Eco describes Casablanca as “a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly.” But this very mediocrity allows modern audiences the immense pleasure of picking apart its clichés and archetypes. “Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie” Eco writes. “It is ‘movies.’ And this is the reason it works, in defiance of any aesthetic theory.”
While Heavy Metal Parking Lot is surely a cult movie in every sense of the term, it actually does manage to have some aesthetic charms of its own. I’m talking about cars. The film’s fleet of beat-up Camaros and Torinos aren’t only great to look at, they are the contextual keys to what makes Parking Lot so compelling. This is a movie about American youth culture, and it takes place during a moment of intense national de-industrialization. When those iconic American cars finally break down, they will be replaced by cheap imports and tragically uninteresting domestic gas guzzlers. Jobs are disappearing. The working class American teenager is at a tipping point.
Or as one of Krulik’s interviewees puts it: “Life is shit. Heavy Metal rules.” Yes, Heavy Metal! What better escape from disempowerment than en epic mythology of demons and monsters, a healthy serving of traditional masculinity, plus plenty of drugs and alcohol? It’s no coincidence that Judas Priest came from Birmingham, England – whose unemployment problems and social unrest had already started to ferment, and sold-out stadiums in declining Landover, Maryland.
In the face of Reaganomics, the irrevocable march of history, and good taste, these fans are nevertheless a community. Sure, it’s a community of burnouts with feathered hair, but they’re together. There’s still something hopeful about that, even after a quarter century of re-winding the tape and pressing play.