The drive-ins opened last month. Spring is really, really here. And my weekend is shaping up to be rather fantastic. I don’t even care if The Avengers or Dark Shadows disappoints – because I’m seeing them at the drive-in.
There isn’t really that much in the world I enjoy more than the drive-in experience. It was a small but quintessential part of my childhood: my parents taking my brother and me to James Bond triple-features and Apple Dumpling Gang/Witch Mountain/Kurt Russell Disney movies. It also provided a stretch of greatness through high school: riding in the trunk to get in free or spending most of my time during the show in the back of a van, which in retrospect, was about as nefarious as it sounds.
If I seriously consider some of the most joyous moments of my life, I cannot honestly leave out seeing Zapped! at the drive-in. It wasn’t the movie; it was the drive-in. I wouldn’t have seen it anywhere else, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it anywhere else – and I’m not even sure how much of the movie I actually saw. What mattered was the drive-in.
I don’t think my parents thought they were creating lifelong memories by taking us to the movies until three in the morning and letting us play on the rusty playground (think the Sandy number from Grease) with iffy swings and a half-broken teeter-totter while they no doubt took a deserved breather from two obnoxious boys who never stopped begging to go to the movies.
And I know with certainty that as a teenager, I had no idea that I would look back at Zapped! with a nostalgia so fond that it clouds the reality of what was happening in the back of that van. Okay, that reality was cloudy even at the time, but it doesn’t matter.
It was the drive-in: not just a place, but an ongoing event, a meeting of the public and the private, a running spring of light and dark magic.
The drive-in to me is both innocent and illicit; awe-inspiring and quaint; gorgeous and decrepit. All of my selves, past and present, find a unique joy in it.
I imagine that I was part of the last generation who took going to the drive-in for granted. The surrounding area of Decatur, Illinois, not exactly a metropolis, boasted not one, but two drive-in theaters when I was small. Now, of course, it doesn’t boast at all, and probably barely remembers. I don’t even know if a trace of the drive-ins’ existence remains amidst the fields of corn and soybeans that surrounded them. I tried to find images of the drive-ins that introduced me to James Bond and teenage titty movies, but all I come up with are registers that state that the places are closed, or worse yet, demolished.
Now I live in the Twin Cities, which can still boast! We’ve got two as well: the Cottage View and the Vali-Hi, though the future of the former appears as dim as the -age in its neon sign – the last three letters have not glowed in years. Not only is the Cottage View set to close, shitspewing Walmart has its greedy, greasy fingers on the plot of land. Can you imagine replacing this splendiferous image with another damned Walmart?
There is a movement to save the Cottage View, but it’s looking like this season may well be its last. We’ve still got the Vali-Hi, and though it does not offer as grand a marquee, and there is only gravel, rather than grass, for sprawling out on picnic blankets, it does get extra points from me for consistently misspelling movie titles and for the motherfucking MOTORCYCLE MUSEUM inside the concessions building.
Minnesotans seem to really take the drive-in experience to the next level. I think it’s for the same reason that there are so many fanatical gardeners: we’re trapped indoors by the cold for half the year, and once spring fever hits, people have to be outside, in the garden, dining out on the sidewalk, or spending the night at the drive-in. Yes, the night. In June the movies don’t start until after ten when the sun goes down and they run until dawn, so you actually do spend the night there. Families still bring their kids, except in contrast to when I was a child, these kids are already dressed in their jammies and toting around teddy bears in the concessions building before showtime. They just fall asleep before the R-rated third feature begins.
And the patrons arrive prepared. Pick-ups pull in with entire living room sets: sofa, loveseat, and easy chair, maybe a beaten-up coffee table. Everything gets unloaded along with the barbecue grill well before the movies begin. These set-ups happen in the back of the lot. Just as in an indoor theater, I prefer to be near the front row, in this case, a row of cars. And just as in an indoor theater, I like to peek back at the audience behind me. It’s better outside.
I also like to eat. While I love drive-in concession stands, especially ones with motorcycle museums, I am now too picky to actually eat the food from one. Before going to Rise of the Planet of the Apes last October, we got an entire Vietnamese take-out dinner plus about $40 worth of snacks. For two. We ate through three films till near dawn. You can’t do that at an inside theater.
And you can’t really sit through absolute garbage indoors. Not me anyway.
I would never make it through half the movies I see at the drive-in if I were at a multiplex. If the movie turns out to be an unwatchable piece of crap, I can always check out the people who have brought a weather-beaten Ethan Allen living room set while they grill, or wander around the lot and take in the fresh (or muggy) spring/summer air, or visit the fucking motorcycle museum. Or just sit in a lawn chair (I haven’t graduated to upholstered seating yet) and talk and talk and talk. A sense of sociality prevails even through mosquito bites and dreadful rom-coms.
I am clinging with a desperate love to the drive-in now, as opposed to the past, when I blithely passed by the grand marquee and through the gate to the tiny ticket-house, never imagining that there might one day be a town without drive-ins, much less a world without them.
I spent the first half of 2006 anxiously awaiting Snakes on a Plane, and never entertained even the possibility of seeing it anywhere else but at the drive-in. I came away from that viewing with the same joy that I felt when I saw Escape to Witch Mountain, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Zapped! back in the day.
Except this time I knew to relish the experience while I had it.