I was too claustrophobic to ever hide in the trunk of a car to earn free admission to a drive-in theater, but just about everything else in Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie, rang true for me.
I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of the drive-in era, and remember being taken by my parents to see various James Bond or Clint Eastwood movies. For some reason, I remember being scared of Clint Eastwood. He seemed sinister. I remember my mother putting pillows in the back seat of our car so I could sit on them to see over my dad's head. If I got sleepy, the pillows came in handy. I remember my uncle Eddie and his wife taking me to see Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard, with a badly matched co-feature of Alive, the one about the soccer team stuck in the Andes after a plane crash, surviving by cannibalism. I recall others: The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, and an early '80s horror stinker called The Children.
I don't recall particular details about the drive-ins, and I couldn't name them if you put a gun to my head. I only recall them as big, barren places in various Massachusetts suburbs, with broken speakers and lousy food from the snack stand. What I recall more vividly was the cozy feeling of being in a car with people you liked, enjoying a movie, even if the sound was bad. I remember the way certain friends or family members slouched in their seats, or nodded off, or played with the knob of their door handle; this was probably the most relaxed and vulnerable they'd ever be in my presence.
April Wright's documentary, a feature that came out in 2013 but is now available VOD, is a feisty, good-natured look at the origins and history of the drive-in, reaching back to the very first one in 1933, which was basically a sheet on a tree, made because the owner's wife was a heavy woman and couldn't fit in a regular theater seat. Through the suburban sprawl, the rise of the teenager, and the rise of porn, drive-ins thrived for about three decades. The demise, due largely to home video services and the rise of shopping malls and multi-screen cineplexes, was evident by the time I started going. The places didn't seem vital, they seemed faded and grungy, probably making more money during the weekend mornings when they doubled as flea markets. At one time, though, there were thousands of them in the country, blossoming along the roadways. Wright does a nice job of capturing the golden era of the drive-in, and to her credit she doesn't get too sentimental about the passing of the time.
Nowadays there are slightly less than 400 drive-ins spread out across the country. I don't know if I'd go to one now. There are none in my area, and I'm not interested in traveling a great distance to see, say, Pirates of the Caribbean or the remake of Robocop. Most of the movies I watch are a bit obscure, and wouldn't be picked up by any drive-in owners. Ironically, I can't imagine a drive-in showing Going Attractions.
Wright interviews a lot of drive-in owners and historians, and they seem like a nice bunch of people. They were often at the mercy of bad weather and changing attitudes in society, but they don't seem bitter. They were around to witness a small, interesting piece of history, and they contributed, in their way, to a kind of kitschy Americana.
The movie doesn't mention one of my favorite drive-in related phenomenons, though. This involved driving along the highway late at night, and unexpectedly seeing a drive-in in the distance. In those days you could see them from the highways, and it was always a weird thrill to see what was playing. You'd be coming back from some dreary family gathering, or a night out, and in the distance you'd see a movie star's head on a 65-foot screen, in glorious color. I remember one night seeing Richard Burton's head, which looked to be as big as an airplane. We all tried to read his lips to figure out what he was saying to Liz Taylor. There was always a race for those in our car to see who could identify the movie. I don't remember anyone ever naming a title. The car would be moving too quickly, the screen would pass by us in a flash, just long enough for us to see some movie star's head lighting up the night sky. It was the strangest sort of illumination. I'd give anything to see Richard Burton's head on a drive-in screen now. Highways are drab now, and so our most of our current movie stars.