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Lot Lizard (dir. Alexander Perlman, 2013) Screening at SF Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival
Inspired by his hitchhiking trip across the country, Perlman’s film looks closely at figures he first barely glimpsed in the shadows of the nighttime truck lots. Over the course of the film, we come to see them in their fully complex humanity and as participants in an equally complex and interlocking economy of which we all are a part. Lot Lizard will screen at the SF Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival, May 25, 10:30 PM at the Roxie
Near the beginning of Alexander Perlman's brilliant and moving documentary, Lot Lizard, a long-haul trucker quietly but firmly asserts the centrality of the driver's work to the basic functioning of the American economy and the everyday lives of all Americans. "It's a job that's hard to do," he asserts, "and very underappreciated." His words also apply to workers in a satellite economy which revolves around the work of truckers and which includes truck stop restaurants and service stations, truck cleaning services, independent security firms, small-time drug dealers, and sex workers. It is this last group of people documented by Perlman in the elegiac and unflinching Lot Lizard, a title taken from the disparaging term truckers use to describe the women and men who palliate the loneliness of truckers through paid sex and companionship. Inspired by his hitchhiking trip across the country, Perlman's film looks closely at figures he first barely glimpsed in the shadows of the nighttime truck lots. Over the course of the film, we come to see them in their fully complex humanity and as participants in an equally complex and interlocking economy of which we all are a part.
Lot Lizard allows the participants in this hidden economy to speak for themselves. Apart from two or three intertitles which provide statistical information about sex work and fill in some detail in the lives of some of their subjects, the filmmakers avoid the trap of explaining away their experiences, emotions, and struggles. But this film is no talking-heads documentary portrait: Director /cinematographer Perlman and editor / musical composer Matthew Doherty paint a moody, lyrical, and evocative landscape of the working world of endless night and claustrophobic spaces which alternate with spaces of domesticity the struggling sex workers have tried to build off the lots with drastically limited resources. The gliding camera takes us through the labyrinth of rows upon rows of parked eighteen wheelers while the soundtrack eavesdrops on the CB radio conversations between the sex workers and their prospective clients. Behind all of this, an elegiac musical score creates an atmosphere of yearning and desperation.
The film follows the stories of three experienced sex workers from the truck lots. Monica sees herself as a skilled professional and lives in a motel adjacent to the lot. Her boyfriend Bobby struggles with Monica's profession and desperately wants them to enjoy a drug-free life of marriage and children. Betty is in the advanced stages of drug addiction and lives in a trailer near the desert railroad tracks with her boyfriend Mitch and her parents. She can't imagine a "normal life" away from crack cocaine and the lots. Finally, Jennifer is recently sober and has rented a small house with her daughter Bella and is frantically looking for non-sex industry employment which can pay her bills and rent. Her lifeline to sobriety and sanity is Chaplain Jim, a tattooed preacher whose ministry is run out of a truck on the very lot on which she used to work as a "lizard."
Like the more stylistically sparse "Direct Cinema" documentary films of Frederick Wiseman, Lot Lizard examines the intricacy of an institutional place and space, in this case the interweaving experiences and economies of the nighttime truck lot. A lonely trucker sits on a tiny four by six foot cot in the back of his cab and announces, "This here is my living room." A female sex worker uncomfortably crouches over the dashboard of another cab while using the driver's radio to contact prospective clients. The maze-like space of the enormous trucks between which the women alternately hide and reveal themselves recall the threatening chiaroscuro city-scapes of film noir. The chain-link fence around the lot itself and the security gate around the motel where Monica and Bobby live evoke prison bars and constricted movement. The sunny, open spaces of the desert become the place where Betty gives her unapologetic assessment of her life. Jennifer's fragile and precarious domestic space inside the rented house she shares with Bella is paralleled with the motel room shared by Monica and Bobby. Here the fierce and extremely intelligent Monica both resents Bobby's efforts to get her to leave the life and shares moments of true tenderness with the man who loves her.
Perlman refuses to bring on board sociologists, law enforcement officials, and other "experts" to tell us what to think about the people we see. In fact, law enforcement is portrayed as yet another cog in the economy of the truck lot: Thirty minutes into the film, we are introduced to private security patrols and local police squad cars, and when they descend on the lot, the drivers get on their radios and alert the women, even allowing them to hide in their cabs to protect them from the mercenary, often predatory police. "I've see the police beat up the girls," one trucker says while issuing a warning on his radio. Lot Lizard portrays sex work not as a social ill to be solved by reformers and police but as work, inextricably bound up with the same economic processes that bring American families the food at their local grocery store. The struggles of the sex workers portrayed in the film take place against the backdrop of other low-skill, low wage work in service industry professions. As Jennifer says while looking through job ads on Craigslist, "These are crappy jobs for $8.00 an hour, and I could work one day on the lot and make the whole $300 for the week and not have to find somebody to look after Bella." In Lot Lizard, Alexander Perlman has offered us a look into an unseen world which our everyday world makes possible and even inevitable.
Kevin Heffernan is Associate Professor in the Division of Cinema-Television in the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. He earned his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison 1997, and he teaches courses in film history, styles and genres, and Asian cinema. He is author of Ghouls Gimmicks and Gold, a study of the postwar American horror film from Duke University Press, and his writings on exploitation film, censorship, Hong Kong cinema, and film distribution can be found in many journals and anthologies.