The do’s and don’ts of car-bound cinema
If you think the drive-in movie experience is epitomized by stuffing a friend in the trunk to skip out on the ticket price, think again.
First off, drive-ins are already the cheapest movie deal since the Birdcage Savings Cinema went talons up. You can’t even rent two new releases for the $6 double feature admission fee.
Secondly, like all creatures that thrive in open spaces, drive-ins have become an endangered species. In the last 20 years, California has lost 87 percent of its drive-in venues to the push for mini-malls and multiplexes. So thank your screen-obscured stars that your city has a drive-in, let your friend back inside the car and pony up the cash, cheapskate.
Drive-ins are worth supporting, not only because they are the one place teenagers can be alone to grope each other, or because they’re a nostalgic reminder of a bygone era of poodle skirts and pomade, but also because they fill an invaluable social niche. Car-bound cinema is the perfect entertainment for people who want the thrill of going out without feeling they’ve left their living room.
Everything walk-in theaters won’t let you get away with—bringing your own pastrami hoagie, putting your feet on the chairs, wearing pajamas, shouting pseudo-Chinese epithets during Kung Fu scenes, getting naked with your date—hey, it’s all kosher here. Drive-in cinema is all about freedom, that American spirit that says, “I can talk through the movie and throw Jujubes all I want! It’s a free country!”
Can you see the light beyond the windshield? Well, turn off the ignition, put your feet on the dash and settle in for a watch-it-yourself guide to drive-in culture.
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One of the great virtues of a car-contained social outing is invisibility. Break out the comfy sweats with the stain on the knee and the hole in the butt. Wear pajamas with pride. Bring pillows and blankets to further enhance the “I’m practically in bed” illusion and attain a deeper level of veg.
At the drive-in, you’ll never have to smuggle a lumpy knapsack of contraband refreshments past the scrutiny of suspicious theater ushers. Your menu for the evening is limited only by the size of your sedan. Pack a cooler full of hors d’oeuvres and lay out a dashboard buffet. Make it a theme night and hit a fast-food drive-thru before you drive-in. Those lacking in time or culinary inspiration can always subsist on traditional snack bar staples, but remember moviegoers, the floor you coat with soda is your own.
Other indispensable items include quarters for video games and, for cars with bad defrosters, a towel to combat mid-movie window fog. Do not, under any circumstances, bring a red laser pointer with the intent of shining it on the screen during the film. Not only has this oh-so-witty prank been done more times than Debbie in Dallas, but pulling said maneuver immediately renders you the most annoying person at the drive-in.
Which brings us to an important topic: how to park your car without becoming the second most annoying person at the drive-in, the person with their headlights on. If you arrive after the movie has begun, it’s imperative that you follow headlight etiquette and cut your beams. You’ll still have visibility, but you will need to drive slowly.
Since small children and stray cats are guaranteed to dart in front of your vehicle at unpredictable intervals, this is a wise course anyway. Target your space before moving forward. Weaving between cars while debating the merits of the front row with your passengers is to be avoided. A final note to drivers: once you’re parked, don’t rest your foot on the break pedal. People get testy when they’re being blinded.
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You’ve got the basics and you’re ready to explore more sophisticated concepts for the drive-in consumer. Let’s begin with film selection. The distraction inherent in watching a movie from a parking lot rules out any film requiring deep contemplation. Subtitles are out, since one squashed bug on your window can sabotage the translation. Fortunately, drive-ins hold no illusions about their place in film culture. They offer primarily horror, action, T&A comedies and the obligatory children’s double feature.
Deciding which film to see can be tricky, especially with the second feature variable thrown in. For example, two probably decent films may outweigh one sure thing paired with one sure-to-suck thing. Fortunately, longtime drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs has distilled the complex art of drive-in film selection into a simple formula.
When faced with uncertainty, Briggsian theory maintains that the optimal choice is the film containing more of the 3 B’s: blood, breasts and beasts. By this logic, Attack of the Spatula Slaughterer is less desirable than Attack of the Slimy Martians with Spatulas. Half-Naked Cheerleaders Attack Slimy Martians with Spatulas beats them both. It’s scientific.
Mastering Briggsian theory earns you the right to enlarge your drive-in domain. Since the transition from speaker boxes to radio-transmitted sound, drive-in lots are no longer sub-divided by poles. These days, an enterprising moviegoer can establish an entire movie-viewing empire. Arrive early and set up satellite folding chair camps around your vehicle. Those of you with trucks can park backward to tailgate or throw a mattress in the bed and recline under the stars. Bring portable radios for those sitting outside, unless your car has THX sound.
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Now we move on to the hidden secrets of the drive-in. These practices could result in either expulsion from the theater or a lecture from law enforcement, so proceed with caution and assume full responsibility for the risks involved. If you get caught, you’re on your own.
The first secret is how to switch screens, thereby maximizing your exposure to the 3 B’s. This skill is useful when a must-see film (such as the aforementioned cheerleader/Martian/kitchen utensil brawl) is paired with something utterly lame (i.e. an Oscar contender). Once the cheerleaders save the world and hose off their spatulas, pack up and drive to the snack bar. Pretend you’re too lazy to walk the 100 feet. Don’t worry, you’ll fit right in.
Head into the building and use the bathroom, play a video game, get some nachos, whatever. When you hop back into your car, simply drive into the next lot you want to visit. Simple and effective. Of course, every act of subterfuge has its price. In this case, someone will have to manually scan through all the radio stations to find the one broadcasting your new movie. A small concession for an entertainment upgrade.
Finally, the subject you’ve all been waiting for: how to get it on like Marvin Gaye without attracting the attention of your neighbors. As mentioned previously, the removal of speaker poles has eliminated the automatic aura of personal space around each car. Anyone can park right next to you. In fact, Murphy’s Law of Cinema Nookie dictates that, if you’re only at the drive-in for backseat action, a mini-van will pull alongside you and said van will be filled with small children who’d rather watch you than whatever’s on screen.
Unlike at the walk-ins, the back row is not the place for romance. Unless you park way off to the side, there’ll be a constant pedestrian parade past your window to the snack bar. Besides, parking in the back corner means a terrible view of the film—and what else are you going to do after your 15 minutes of sweaty paradise?
That’s why true drive-in sexperts know the front row is better. No one is walking by or turning around to stare. As long as you recline the seats below window level, it’s just as secluded as Motel 6 and you can still see the movie! Just be sure to park as far as possible from the cars on either side of you. If this proves impossible, you can always hang a blanket or jacket over the side windows to block out furtive, sidelong stares (roll the top edge into the window to secure). Your neighbors may guess what you’re doing behind the curtain, but for some of you cheeky monkeys, that’s part of the fun.
If you’ve gone this far, you probably don’t need reminding to steer clear of the stick shift and e-brake. However, do heed this final warning: Do not, in the throws of passion, let your foot, elbow, breast or battery-operated love toy activate the horn, unless you want to become the third most annoying person at the drive-in.