The stairway to the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art leads me directly toward a long, narrow, darkened space, at the end of which is the image of another, much longer, passageway. In that image, a concrete floor below and light fixtures above trace a trajectory toward infinity punctuated by pipes, wires, hoses, storage boxes, tools, and lockers. The scene is not monochrome—red, blue, yellow, orange, and green are common—nor is it dark, but the fluorescent lights, the faded floor, the absent windows, and the constrained path—no more than five feet wide—suggest that this as a place to travel through, not a place in which to settle.
This sensation is amplified by the fact that the image, I slowly realize, is moving. Inch-by-inch down the corridor, the slow-motion journey of what turns out to be Sharon Lockhart’s film, Lunch Break (2008), might be confused with a series of stills.
Lockhart, who says she is interested in “duration,” describes her method of filmmaking as “photographic.” Despite appearances, the film is not typical slow-motion; Lockhart has digitally inserted eight repetitions of each frame, ballooning a 10-minute, 1,200-foot traverse into an 80-minute encounter. It is a film engaged in repeating moments, in suspending, not slowing, time. It asks me, in effect, to witness the moment once, and then again, and then again. It proposes that I might answer the question “What do you see?” only by pondering yet another, “Do you see what you see?”
All of a sudden, a person moves, and I recognize the objects dangling off a storage bin down the corridor as human legs. In this otherworldly place, everything that seems obvious at conventional speed becomes a mystery, a puzzle to be solved only by the closest attention. A young man with short blond hair in a white jumpsuit raises his hand to his forehead, or more precisely, raises———–his———-hand———-to———-his———–forehead, where the hand rests for two minutes of my time, or only about 10 seconds of his time. His hand settles back in his lap, and he looks down. Is this a moment of despair? As the blond man turns toward me, I recognize a gently waving hand below him. The hand is speaking, and it is attached to the green hoodie of another man. I assume the co-workers are friends; I want them to be friends. There is something emphatic in the gesture of the green-shirted man, something that could be advice or reprimand. The blond man’s lips part briefly. Then he turns away and looks down for what seems to be an eternity. Is he pensive or despondent? His hand returns to his forehead. The camera inches onward, never turning. There in front of me, two distinctive characters in a distinct place have enacted a story with no ending, one of some two dozen the procession reveals. Were the men talking about a spouse, a boss, a co-worker, a sports team, or the union? Were they complaining or sharing a story? Was the hand to the head about despair, exhaustion, a thought, or an itch?
It turns out that although this place looks like a passageway, it functions as a destination, a place for moving in rather than moving through. The film documents shipbuilders at the Bath Iron Works in Maine during the moments when they are not building ships. The procession down the hallway reveals one “all of a sudden” after another, its repeating moments of apparent stillness both facilitating contemplation and kindling suspense. I cannot make out the messages of these subdued bodies: body language needs the fluidity of its natural pace to achieve clarity. Further, the slow-motion procession foils the normal capacity to anticipate a movement the moment before it happens. I cannot join the rhythm of life in the corridor, and everything—a woman biting a sandwich, a man microwaving popcorn, a hand brushing a knee—becomes a riddle. While ordinarily I might compensate for these limitations through closer inspection, I cannot manage this: the procession, while inching, is inexorable, and the camera’s wide-angle frontward gaze, while inclusive, is unyielding.
The beauty of Lunch Break is that its attenuated moments make it difficult to lock onto a single interpretation: the slow shifting disturbs the storyline, twists it into another shape. I cannot resolve what has happened between the two men, but the film incubates a dozen possible answers, confounding the normal snap of my judgments. I have witnessed not simply the recorded event, but also the event of my own wondering, the activity of my imagination, which is often unconscious, extending over time. Lockhart has found a way to viscerally demonstrate the elasticity of the temporal-spatial experience. The event of the two men has taken only five minutes of my time, the camera traversing only 50 feet of corridor. Yet, within these repeated moments and movements, Lockhart has packed the narrative of a short story, one of many in the bursting anthology that comprises Lunch Break.
The word “duration” refers to the period of time it takes for an event to occur, but I cannot sever its kinship to “endurance.” Both words stem from durus, Latin for “hard.” As I sat down to watch Lunch Break, I intended to stay, to endure, but I anticipated that the 80-minute experience would demand a sacrifice that would exceed my capacities. SFMoMA Curator of Media Arts, Rudolf Frieling, says of the experience, “The viewer’s attention and perception are constantly at work,” meaning that Lockhart’s film forces the viewer not only to attend to things that he or she might normally overlook, but also to attend to attention, to perceive perception happening. There were moments when this was exhausting. In fact, the film asks me to perform the very labor the workers will soon resume: a repetitive effort. It was, however, never boring.
Lockhart gets to the crux of the activity common to both workers and viewers: the skill, ingenuity, and variation at the core of undertakings usually dismissed as trivial or onerous simply because they are repetitive. I cannot claim that my attention never wavered, only that Lunch Break inevitably rewarded the patient process of discovery. If speed seems to be the bugaboo of our age, critiqued for its narcotic-like capacity to gratify a sensation-seeking society’s desire for stimulation, then slowness, particularly as it unfolds here, offers another avenue toward the great rumbling revelation of experience: an opening—one story after another—into the expansive world of the imagination.
It seems accurate to say, as one description does, that “Lunch Break’s gradual passage through the aged factory offers a meditative and melancholic reflection on the architectural, social and phenomenological space of a notably anachronistic mode of industrialized labor.” And I might easily reflect—as Lockhart did during her gallery talk—upon the bookends that coincidentally bracket Lunch Break’s making and showing: the real estate bubble’s pop in 2007, and the union rupture in Wisconsin and the Occupy movement, both in 2011. But what is it about the film itself—rather than my projections about its subject—that evokes melancholy? It is true that the corridor is filled neither with laughter nor even many smiles. One man stretches, perhaps relieving an ache; a woman stares, perhaps fatigued; many read silently, as unanimated as the figures in the Duane Hanson sculpture that initially inspired Lockhart. It may well be that melancholy unavoidably surfaces in this claustrophobic underground world, but it may also be that the restraint and deliberation of Lockhart’s procession forces me to consider not only the practices of perception and attention, but also those of reflection and judgment. Although the film inevitably raises associations to the conditions of factory labor, I found myself suspending—far more often than reaching—easy conclusions.
Lunch break, indeed.
Exhibition press release, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, August 30, 2011.
Harvard Film Archive “Timestage. The Cinema of Sharon Lockhart,” 2009 [accessed October 19, 2011]. ”Anachronistic” may reflect both an actual trend toward automation and, particularly in industries like shipbuilding, a fantasy of completely automated processes that discounts the persistence of human labor.
Lockhart’s triptych, Lunch Break Installation, “Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life,” 14, December – 23 February 2003, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2003), documented the installation of Hanson’s Lunch Break (Three Workers with Scaffold) (1989). Lockhart’s photographs of live workers installing fiberglass ones marked the beginning of the project that resulted in Lunch Break, the film.
Among these associations are: contemporary globalization and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs; 19th-century industrialization, the conditions of factory work, and, ironically, the increasing automation of manufacturing; and the work ethic itself.