Big Screens and the Teen Scene

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.

Storytelling, and particularly popular film, in this modern era, have done their best to warn us of the shapes of things to come.

Thirty years ago, the China Syndrome (1979) and Silkwood (1983), both Academy award nominated films, educated us on one of the most urgent issues currently threatening human survival. It took a mere two and a half weeks for the events in “The China Syndrome” to come to pass in the near meltdown of Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, but we did not stand up then like we should have. Now, toxic nuclear byproducts have fouled the ocean and even come blowing to your hometown a result of negligence and corruption by the energy companies and the governments whom we have invested with the responsibility to watch over them.

Motion pictures engaged the debate on the nuclear agenda with a vote of no confidence, but we seem to have ignored them.  They cautioned us not to trust nuclear industry “experts” whose careers depend on strong demand for their electricity and bombs.  Soothing statements on the nightly news are calculated to make us feel at ease living in a toilet. Both films point a huge, blinking red arrow up at those energy giants who are currently squatting over us, excreting their dung and assuring us that this is what’s best for everyone.

Pay no more attention to their experts.  The unfolding of recent events in Japan are playing out precisely as predicted by filmmakers.  Both implicitly and explicitly, those filmmakers were inviting us to assume personal responsibility to prevent this.  There must be a limit to the crap we will take.  It is well within our power to stop them.

The massage is clear. We have denied the power of movies to instruct us. Will we finally learn by listening to the people of Fukushima, and surrounding prefectures, recently forced to abandon their dreams, livelihoods and property to escape nuclear chaos?  They are the real nuclear experts.

If nuclear power provides 20% of this country’s energy needs, we could rid ourselves of it instantly by voluntarily reducing our energy consumption by an equal percentage.  If that seems impossible, maybe you’ve been watching too much nightly news. You could begin immediately reducing your energy needs by turning it off.

Good people formerly living in and around Fukushima are now adrift as a consequence of trusting the nightly news and denying the truth in the movies.  The Japanese are also presently consuming a great deal less energy then they were before this nightmare overwhelmed them. Why wait until we are forced from our homes by a similar disaster before we undertake drastic reduction? Unless we do, the change we are all bound for is what they’re all waking up to now in Fukushima. With foresight and determination we might still preserve here at home, what they have lost there forever.