One of the things that we take for granted in this age of instant and inexpensive digital photography is that somewhere someone is always taking a picture of something. If a celebrity walks down the street or does something disturbing in public, or if our public servants press the boundaries of their mandate to serve and protect in full view of God and everybody, then someone is probably going to whip out a phone or a digital camera with a video recorder and capture the whole thing for posterity and infamy. And beyond these instances of individual and fraternal meltdown, you could probably Google just about any name of any place on Earth and cough up at least an image or two-- I randomly entered “pupuseria” and “tire shop” and was treated to a digital cornucopia of pictures, most of them taken by regular folk, documenting the storefronts and somewhat mundane goings-on in these establishments. By 2007 82% of Americans had a cell phone (four years later those numbers are likely only bigger) and around 90% of those are camera phones. Somebody might be taking your picture right now, or maybe a shot of the front of your favorite restaurant or bar, or maybe a local gas station.
Putting aside for the moment thoughts of privacy and all the other implications for how we live our lives in an age of such excessive digital documentation, there’s an aspect of all this coverage that is in a way kind of comforting. Our strip mall landscapes have become so mundane, so uniformly franchised and alike, that there wouldn’t seem to be much unique out there to document. Andy Warhol might have suggested that the world we live in as interpreted by our digital camera obsession can yield its own kind of beauty, shining through even the most routine, corporatized imagery. And we preserve the way our individuality, in the mom and pop manifestations of businesses like bake shops and eateries and places that fix our cars, through our incessant documenting and sharing of those places, in our family photo albums and on the Internet. The mundane beauty of the ho-hum storefront where inside a woman is making a pupusa by hand in an environment comfortable and personal for her and her customers can be its own cultural reward. It conveys the feeling that the world, in a strange way, isn’t being taken for granted.
When I was a kid, my friends and I grew up in a small town in Southeastern Oregon with an indoor movie house that operated from approximately mid-September, when the weather would traditionally become less reliable, until around Memorial Day, when the outdoor drive-in theater on the northern outskirts of town would open its gates. The end of the school year was frequently celebrated by a mass migration out to the Circle JM Drive-in on the first Friday of the drive-in season, where some of us would be every weekend (and some weeknights) as long as the summer lasted. We knew the drive-in wasn’t technically top-notch, but we loved it just the same, and we enjoyed it in the way that most kids enjoy things, without a thought that someday it might be gone, leaving us nothing, no evidence of our enjoyment except what we’ve preserved in our memories. My friends and I used the drive-in lot as a location to shoot a couple of Super-8 movies, but it never occurred to us to take pictures of the place as it routinely functioned night-to-night (the way some people, myself included, love to snap photos of the marquees of theaters like the New Beverly). Some might say we were right to just enjoy it as it was meant to be enjoyed, that today people too often experience life and its most important moments not with their own discerning eyes but mostly through a lens that distances them from an experience as much as it may preserve it. But for those places like the Circle JM that are now gone, all we can do is shoot pictures of what’s left, trying to reconstruct the special quality of our drive-in through the images of the buildings and constructs that still stand and conjure the physical presence of screens and signs that are long gone.
Today though the drive-in multiplex has experienced, in relative terms, of course, a bit of an unlikely renaissance, the kind of rustic, small-town, single-screen ozoner that I grew up with, the least economically viable iteration of the drive-in movie in the 21st century, has largely disappeared. (One happy exception: the Sunset Drive-in in San Luis Obispo, where I hope to visit again in May.) The modern drive-in multiplex is, make no mistake, a blessing for those who miss the drive-ins of old and who wish to pass along the experience to their children. But the sense of the drive-in as a place for local social gatherings, not unlike a roller rink or a high school football game, has been largely supplanted by the economic imperative of appealing to the largest possible family demographic, in terms of film programming and physical volume of customers served. Most everyone—families, groups of friends—who goes to the drive-in in 2011 really does come to see the movies, albeit in a unique environment, whereas during the heyday of the drive-in in the '50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the theater was a hub for social interaction in which a movie might serve as a lively background instead of the evening’s central source of entertainment.
Several movies since the mid ‘60s have memorialized the experience of the drive-in movie and its importance in the social rituals of the young, and usually in an incidental way. Certainly even the least of these movies, in terms of ambition, scale, budget and/or simple entertainment value, easily bests director Rod Amateau’s Drive-In, (1976), a crude, largely forgotten American Graffiti-inspired comedy that is currently only available on VHS, a format whose glory days, like those of the drive-in, are also long past. But no other movie I can think of captures the ambience and the operational detail of the small-town drive-in, as well as the casual appreciation (and disregard) of its customers, the way this one does. Drive-in is barely even modestly successful as a comedy, but as a piece of cultural anthropology it’s top-notch.
Drive-In is an artifact of small-town Texas Americana that exists in real time-- it was filmed in Terrell, Texas, approximately 200 miles from where, and during approximately the same time frame in which Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused takes place, in the much larger and more familiar confines of Austin. As such it serves as a terrific complement to Linklater’s recreation of ‘70s small-town verisimilitude, confirming nearly every detail of the director’s acclaimed generational portrait as the act of a sympathetic and accurate memory. For better and worse, Amateau’s movie feels less created than observed. The tooling-around that Drive-In’s cast of characters engages in hasn’t much narrative energy—subplots involve a plan to rob the theater’s cash box; a run-in between two very unconvincing gangs; the efforts of a group of strangely sagacious clergymen to smuggle themselves into the lot in the trunk of a car; a paranoid African-American doctor’s attempts to relax with his wife and enjoy the movie; a cranky biddy and her son slowly getting stoned in a pickup truck; and the movie’s obligatory romantic entanglements, including a couple’s hesitant consideration of getting engaged and another younger couple’s first moments of confused attraction. And in terms of volume of laughs, the entirety of Drive-In is probably bested by Cheech and Chong’s seven-minute “Pedro and Man at the Drive-in” from their 1973 Los Cochinos album.
What's on screen: Disaster '76, a pre-Airplane mash-up of disaster movie cliches is the main feature at the Drive-In
But as a portrait of what attending a drive-in could feel like (just replace your own scenarios for the cockamamie hijinks the movie itself supplies), as well as a glimpse (however brief) into the inner workings of a drive-in, from the snack bar to the box office to the projection booth, it has no peer. Drive-In is valuable simply because it exists, regardless of the degree to which it succeeds as entertainment, as a visual record of a form of movie exhibition that just doesn’t exist anymore, even though the drive-in itself in 2011 is far from extinct. I worked at the Circle JM for several years before I left my hometown for college, and I can personally attest to the movie’s realistic ambience.
I could almost smell the butter and grilling hot dogs during the opening montage that details the readying of the operation to open for the night, scored to that marvelously backward-glancing ode to family values on the silver screen, the Statler Brothers’ “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?” (“Tex Ritter's gone, and Disney's dead, and the screen is filled with sex”); and a glimpse of the projectionist inserting a fresh carbon-arc rod into the projector lamp housing made me gasp with nostalgic pleasure for all those dimly-lit presentations of the past, Planet of the Apes, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, White Line Fever, Gone In 60 Seconds and hundreds more sometimes seen, and just barely, as if projected by a high-powered flashlight.
Drive-In doesn’t suppose to make us believe that the drive-in was all kids in a small town in Texas (or in Oregon, or California, or anywhere) had to do on the weekends. The movie also features a terrific extended scene staged at the local roller rink that is in its way as anthropologically oriented as anything else in the movie. It’s here where some of the central relationships of the movie are established in a neat and tender evocation of the kind of kids’ entertainment that will likely read even more quaintly to today’s audiences than the drive-in itself. This scene cements the movie’s artlessness as not exactly an anti-style, but instead a guileless sort of point-and-shoot naturalism; here the movie settles into an unforced rhythm that suggests a community theater’s ragged charms and ease among its players, almost as if someone (Amateau, the screenwriter Bob Peete?) said “Hey, kids, let’s put on a movie!” and folks from Terrell to Austin—actors, nonactors, nonprofessionals of every stripe—whooped and hollered and pitched in to get ‘er done.
As I stated earlier, the movie complements Richard Linklater’s funky realism in many ways, not the least of which is its hesitation to traffic in broad geographically oriented stereotypes (with the possible exception of that wide-eyed, perpetually blinkered African-American doctor)—everyone is painted with big, broad strokes. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that just about every character in the movie including Orville, the Ronny Howard-esque romantic lead (Glenn Morshower), with his leaden line delivery, stiff body language and great shock of red hair stretching to the heavens in all directions, is illuminated by a carbon-arc rod that could stand to be several foot-candles brighter, but the actors never inspire our derision. Against all likelihood, they’re never obnoxious, and we stay with them in the pursuit of the modest comic returns of their various situations.
But Drive-In also counters Linklater’s acute employment of ‘70s classic rock with its own indigenously accurate soundtrack—the movie is powered by precisely the sort of country hits that permeated the radio dial in small rural towns across America at the time which were resisting the sublimation of pop culture by the dominating forces of rock and pop chart toppers. The Statler Brothers and their paean to lost innocence at the movies is an apt musical theme for a movie that is at least in part about making out and smoking pot at the drive-in, but there’s also Ronnie Millsap, Ray Stevens, and my favorite of the bunch, Tammy Wynette (“God’s Gonna Get You for That”) to certify the movie’s corn-fed credentials. These country tunes position Drive-In within another stripe of realism that acknowledges a world where the soundtrack of kids striving to break their hometown chains and dreaming of a better life still had more in common with their parents’ tastes than with the kids from bigger towns.
The cast isn’t exactly chockfull of faces who became recognizable and/or widely famous later on, but it does carry its share of surprises from the credits as the movie unspools. The late Trey Wilson, probably best known to audiences as the minor league baseball manager in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham and as the most famous unfinished furniture dealer in the Southwest in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona (“If you can find lower prices anywhere, my name ain't Nathan Arizona!”), appears as one of the hoods plotting to steal the drive-in’s cashbox; he’s accompanied by the lesser-known but equally familiar-looking TV actor Gordon Hurst. You’ll undoubtedly recognize the tubby fella who plays Orville’s little brother, Gary Lee Cavagnaro, as the incomparable candy-bar-smuggling catcher Engleberg in The Bad News Bears, which was released the same year.
And the spidey-sense of those who had your noses in Playboy magazine in the mid ‘70s will surely tingle with abandon upon witnessing the debut screen performance of Ashley Cox as Mary Louise, the none-too-happy recipient of a marriage proposal from a well-meaning oaf who may not really know what he’s asking. Cox is pretty in a very plain way, but it’s hard to gauge what exactly attracted Hugh Hefner from this movie; she seems about as interested in being on screen as she did in baring it all in the magazine’s December 1977 issue.
But the man with the least apparent talent among Drive-In‘s featured players is the one who has emerged with the longest résumé. As unlikely as it may seem, Drive-In kicked off a long and healthy TV career for Glenn Morshower, during which he was able to shape his initial discomfort and affectless manner as Orville into whip-smart deadpan caricatures of humorless (or at least dead serious) governmental figures of authority. Morshower’s repertoire of officialdom has afforded him appearances as various government agents, law enforcement officers, politicians and military bigwigs of all stripes, but most viewers will probably most immediately recognize him, as I did, from his stint as the loyal Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce, who stood by Cherry Jones’ President Allison Taylor through one crisis after another during season 7 of 24. This local boy, whose first role was that of the insecure Orville, has indeed made quite good.
I recently saw Drive-In in an extremely astute pairing with Dazed and Confused at the New Beverly Cinema—it’s probably the most thematically resonant double feature of all the ones Quentin Tarantino personally programmed for the month of March. The two movies feed off each other in fascinating ways, and if Drive-In can’t begin to approach the electrifying and perfectly precise generational portrait on display in Linklater’s classic, well, its own modest, unpretentious charms and value as a snapshot of a lost world of small-town living and movie-going are hardly misplaced in the comparison. The beautiful new print seen at the New Beverly makes me hope that some kind of digital release is in the movie’s future—it probably never looked this good even on the day it was released. But if no such release ever happens and we’re left to our smeary memories of Drive-In on VHS (where all the images from the movie seen above were taken), that would be somehow appropriate as well. The film can then be left to play in the theater of our minds along with the memories of the single-screen rural drive-ins whose image it evokes so well.
For those in Los Angeles whose appetite has been whetted by either the recent New Beverly screening of Drive-In or by this piece, keep in mind that I’ll probably be announcing some kind of SLIFR caravan out to one of the outlying Los Angeles area drive-ins coming this spring and summer. It may not seem like it, what with the rain pouring down on us here in L.A. from God-sized buckets, but drive-in season is nearly upon us, and I’d love to share with you the fun of hitting a double feature under the firmament of a cool, breezy Southern California night, the way we used to do it. Stay tuned. And keep clicking on the web site for the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society for further event updates as the season draws nearer.