This week our class had the unique opportunity to take a field trip for our film screening. Our teacher chose Sharon Lockhart’s “Lunch Break” at the RedCat, the lovely little Cal Arts theatre abutting the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the heart of Downtown L.A. Lockhart, a professor of Fine Arts at USC, spent over a year conceiving and shooting the film with a crew of several dozen researchers and audio and visual technicians. When the original storyboard for the film fell through, she restructured the film into one take of a tracking shot through a corridor at the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine.
Initially I was under the impression that the film, shown with its companion piece “Exit,” was to total 80 minutes. Not so much: "Exit" would be an additional 40 minute film. An hour and 20 minutes later, my neighbor let out an elated sigh as “Lunch Break” came to an abrupt end and the audience was given a 10-minute Q&A before the next film began. Asking an audience to sit through 80 minutes of a frame-by-frame detail of New England miners eating lunch was extremely brave of Lockhart; asking them to sit through another film half that length about the men and women of Bath Iron Works going home from work was just cruel. If not for the fact that I was disillusioned about the duration of the piece I may have fallen asleep like my neighbor to the right, abandoned my seat like the person in front of me, or doodled on my arm like my neighbor to my left.
Fortunately for Lockhart, I kept myself attentive in hope of a climax while enjoying the beautiful visual detail. The film was really one extremely long photograph; each frame was slowed down to such an extreme frame-per-second rate that I began thinking of what each moment would look like if time were frozen (incidentally, Lockhart is an internationally renown photographer and professor of photography). Her camera remained carefully positioned and static as it trudged down the hall. The colors were deep and rich for a line of work that feeds off the mundane and her attention to detail had me reading the stickers on every cabinet and counting every screw and nail on the walls. The audio was perfectly orchestrated to give the illusion that what the viewer is seeing is in real-time with layers of machines, conversation and radio tones.
I wouldn’t call this film ethnographic so much as experimental. I didn’t learn anything about the workers, but I could easily say that if I walked into this hallway right now I would be able to know where every door, bench and light switch was located. Lockhart’s filmic style is to engage the viewer in a scenario in which one doesn’t gain knowledge of anything so much as simply absorb people, things and moments.
Making the film 80 minutes long begs the question if she’s making art “for arts sake” and further detracts from allowing it to be viewed as academic discourse. The viewer fails to gain any insight into the life of a blue-collar factory worker and is left wondering if the last 80 minutes of their life was well spent. I know I would have been happier if this was made into a gallery showing of a dozen photographs. I would also have been happier because I would have been 50 minutes richer.