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Brianne Johnson: Drive-in movies haven't lost their charm

By Brianne Johnson, Daily Film Columnist
Published September 25, 2012

Number 312 on my bucket list, scribbled between “Eat a macaroon” and “Build an igloo in which I can actually fit” was my single summer goal. More than taking last-minute trips to Cedar Point, more than achieving the tan of a Brazilian beach goddess (Insert image of self basking in the glow of a computer screen; Cue hair tangling in the breeze of an electric fan), I wanted to indulge in my summer lovin’ dreams. I wanted to gaze at the stars (Ryan Gosling, preferably) while lying under them (also Gosling, but the night sky will suffice).

Number 312: Watch a movie at the Drive-in Theatre.

It’s the cliché date of cliché dates — a movie, a hand to squeeze as you feign fear at a “Paranormal Activity” premiere, a car and the great, polluted outdoors. It’s a recipe for romance … or mosquito bites. As young offenders everywhere downloaded shoddy clips of “The Avengers” to their laptops, nothing seemed more exciting, or more American, than a night at the Drive-in. But, of course, nothing is as it seems.

Expectation: It’s 1956 and my cardigan is adorned with poodle appliqués, varsity letters and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s face (“I still like Ike!”). My T-Bird boyfriend has just offered me his leather jacket because the night is nippy, what with our convertible Ford Sunliner and lack of regard for parental warnings to “Wear something heavier; you’re going to catch a cold!” But we don’t care because we’re at The Drive-in.

Reality: “ ‘ParaNorman’ or ‘Step Up 3?’ ” my mother asks, one hand clawing the passenger-side headrest as she cranes her neck to eye my two cousins. An empty soda bottle rolls across the floor of our Ford Expedition, ushered by my dog’s snout. There are no poodles in poodle skirts, just a miniature Pomeranian named Moses in a red bandana, one corner chewed. He yips. I moan. “ParaNorman,” it is.

Expectation: Ford Sunliners, more Ford Sunliners and even more Ford Sunliners (I have a vast knowledge of vintage cars) huddle close before the giant screen. Eager teens lean forward, craving a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle. They cheer for the milkshake-curdling screams of a mistress caught in the grips of a body snatcher, or in the slimy fists of a black-and-white swamp monster. John Travolta has promptly elbowed me in my brassiere, and I excuse myself to indulge in a teary-eyed rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” that would bring Rizzo to her knees.

Reality: Cousin No. One fiddles with the radio, his brow furrowed deep into his hairline, as each station spits out that Fun. song (again!). We’ve propped the back window open in order to watch our now-silent movie in a tent of blankets, leather interior and crumbs. Channel 89.7 eludes my cousin once more, so we content ourselves with the banter of middle-aged DJs. Dialogue — who needs it?

But the car’s interior light refuses to darken, and the Expedition’s battery will surely die before Cousin No. Two can substitute ParaNorman’s lines with armpit farts. Jumper cables — who needs ’em?

Expectation: The screen towers over the lot, illuminating the audience with its glow, and flickers over the faces of couples cuddled in backseats, families camped around their cars in lawn chairs and pajamas, and that one dude who finds no fault in a solo cinematic experience. (We cast him strange looks. If only we were so brave!)

This is no longer a mere public venue, nor a congregation of consumers isolated in aisles and edging over polyester seats and sticky floors. No one makes a Dane Cook reference.

The air is tinged with far-off campfire smoke and mosquito repellant, that standard summer scent, and a child buried in his father’s half-zip wags a finger toward the Big Dipper. No one fusses with their 3-D glasses. No one claps along to off-beats of the MJR theme song. No one shuns my neighbor as he slithers a box of milk duds from his sleeve. No one shushes me for whispering, again and again, “Oh, Paul Rudd! Oh, that looks good! I want to see that!” No one can deny that this is the real charm of the drive-in theatre.

Reality: Refer to above.

Once the film had ended and we’d climbed back into our seats for the quiet drive home, I turned to my cousin. "What do you think it is about drive-in movies," I asked him, "that people seem to like so much?"

“I guess it feels more personal,” he said with a shrug, “It’s like you get to take a bit of home, and that comfort, with you to the movies. And it’s just different, y’know? Like a holiday tradition that you appreciate more because you only get to do it once a year.”

Maybe my night at the Drive-in hadn’t lived up to my sock-hop-heavy imagination. But it’s an experience that offers movie-goers a different breed of escapism — an escape into the past and into the wild (or a parking lot, but who’s judging?).

“That,” my cousin said, “and you get to wear pajamas.”