Nobody likes spending time in waiting rooms — they’re necessary evils between where we are and where we want to be. But waiting areas are exactly where Heinz Emigholz forces us to sit for the entirety of his film’s runtime. In The Lobby, a character identified only as Old White Male (John Erdman) takes up residence in lobbies around Buenos Aires. He talks to — or at — us in an unending monologue about death, and we have no choice but to listen.
Shot in the same city the narrative is set in, the film begins with long, languid shots of luxury lobbies but soon jumps to parking garages, doctors’ offices, and other waiting areas that feel like liminal spaces. Lobbies are transient: they connect rooms to each other and aren’t destinations in themselves. The Lobby takes its lobbies are a kind of purgatory metaphor to the extreme; Old White Man spends all his time talking to the camera about how he is dying, how he maybe is already dead, or perhaps we are already dead. Wherever we are, there is no easy escape.
Lobbies can be places for meetings or chance encounters, but this man is entirely alone. The camera remains ceaselessly focused on him as he stares the lens down, surrounded only by empty space and his own reflection in the mirrored entry halls. He seems oblivious to the shifts in location as his monologue continues unimpeded, and he never interacts or acknowledges the urban life around him. But while never get a chance to interject into his ramblings, the Old White Man addresses the viewer constantly. He places distance between himself and us, setting expectations that we will never get to know him. He’s quick to criticize us, to tell us we have no right to speak: “You have no say because you are not dying,” he says defiantly at the outset. “I am the one who is dying so I can tell you something.”
The level of wisdom he has in his possession to impart on us is questionable, but it’s entertaining to see just how much yarn he can spin about death. Is death terrifying or seductive? This man seems to think both, and describes dying with alternating bleakness and allure. Emigholz takes a similarly sardonic and psychoanalytical approach in The Last City, also screening at New York Film Festival, which takes us to five different cities as characters wrestle with age-old questions of death, dreams, and what it all means.
The Old White Man’s monologues grow increasingly metafictional as he discusses his awareness of the fact he’s in a film. Being in a movie can feel a little like being dead, he says, but watching one is not at all like dreaming: “You are not dreaming. A film is a fact.” While the man warns we will forget one another and tell lies about the dead, the film will record the truth long after we are gone and will still be here long after we have moved on.
The Lobby may be sparing and simple in its cast and restrained camerawork, but it finds a way to create an impact that reaches far beyond the confines of its setting. Denial gets us nowhere when it comes to our mortality — we can try to run or face it head-on. A lobby might be akin to limbo, but they’re also a gateway to somewhere new, and the Old White Man beckons us to follow him through his spiraling stream of consciousness as he tries to make sense of the inevitable place we will all end up. And we will go wherever he leads (we don’t have a choice) even though we can never be sure of what might lie on the other side of death’s door.