In my youth I watched a lot of important films at the drive-in. Prior to moving out of my parent’s house, it was the preferred hangout after dark. When I started going there it didn’t really matter what was on screen as long as it had sex. Ideally, I would watch a little and practice behind my windshield at the same time.
Though motivations have changed for me, my drive-in days remain a sacred movie-watching experience. I can still recall the warm breeze, fryer grease, a girlfriend in my arms, and the erotic magnet of the car’s backseat.
Because I could be smuggled into the drive-in inside the trunk of a car, outdoor cinema allowed me to take in restricted dramas like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Carnal Knowledge,” and “The Godfather” long before I was of age. My eyes, which had seen only fourteen, fifteen, sixteen summers, cherished those films as opportunities to scout adulthood. I also recall plenty of nights filled with juvenile laughs watching silly flicks like “The Pink Panther” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Up in Smoke.”
My hometown did not offer teenagers much to do, so we often took in the same picture three nights in a row. We learned, from years of watching every movie that came through town, that there was occasionally something besides fleeting amusement to be found. Some movies worked like intricate puzzles that came clear only after repeated viewings, stimulating deep discussions among friends and heated encounters with lovers.
The drive-in was a place to party and make-out with girls, for sure, but it was also an informal study group, as close to film school as I could hope for. Watching lots of movies broadened my understanding of, not only sex, but of the larger world, and gave me an enduring appreciation for the actors and artists that create them.
So why didn’t we just stay home and watch a TV movie? Because they were riddled with commercials, and cable TV was not what it is today. Back then, films with adult themes had to be censored before going out over the airwaves. Besides, TV sets belonged to our parents’ generation. It is because they stayed at home watching them at night that we were free to go out, unsupervised, in search of hipper scenes and bigger screens.
Drive-ins captivated us by capitalizing on size. Movie stars were framed by the night sky with real stars and airplanes for a backdrop. Those gigantic onscreen images initiated our culture into the joys of super-sized entertainment. As soon as you’ve seen the gorgeous, young Faye Dunaway in forty-foot tall close-ups, in “Bonnie and Clyde,” or these days, even Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada,” for that matter, you’re hooked for life.
We watch movies on the small screen now more than ever, but nearly everyone still likes to sit in a crowd of strangers and take in a good story, preferably on a screen so huge that you have to look up at the characters as if they were gods.
It comes as no surprise that the first IMAX films debuted in the 1970’s, the same time in which drive-ins were closing en masse. However, though the standard IMAX screen is 30% larger, IMAX will remain forever inferior to the drive-in. You can’t smuggle much beer in there, nor can you sneak your friends in inside a trunk.