Back Row Thoughts: At the Drive-In

Time for a story!

It’s been almost a year to the day since the last time I was able to physically go to the movies. I know that inconvenience pales so much in comparison with the rest of the COVID tragedies that it might as well be albino, but that doesn’t stop it from stinging. It’s especially irksome because I’ve spent the last year doing what I was told and following the rules, while entitled assholes and denialists decided that whatever they wanted took precedence over the lives of half a million people, and actively made the pandemic worse. There’s a universe where we as a nation (from the top of the government to your next door neighbor) treated this disease seriously from Day 1, and everyone did their part, and we were all able to get mostly back to normal by last fall.

But in our reality, that didn’t happen, and as such, we’re looking at projections ranging from April (most optimistic) to December (most dire) for some semblance of a return to normalcy. Call me a pessimist, but I live in a state where Orange County dickheads are trying to recall the Governor because they can’t hold garden parties (never mind that the recall petition first started circulating the day Gavin Newsom took office two years ago), so my hopes are not high. Maybe when my birthday rolls around in August I’ll get to go back to a theatre.

So in the interest of trying to stay as far ahead of the prestige fare as possible in the leadup to the Oscar nominations (two weeks to go!), I did something this past weekend that I’ve never done before. Because it was literally the only option to see The Father before March 26 when it gets released on VOD services, I went to a drive-in.

It almost seems hard to believe that I’ve never experienced this particular aspect of Americana, especially given my zeal for film, but yeah, I’d never been. This is mostly due to a simple lack of availability. At one point in history, there were drive-in theatres near every place I’ve ever lived, but by the time I came around to this planet, they were all but gone. I have definitely passed by the empty lots and fallen signs a few times, though. The closest I had ever come to a drive-in experience beforehand was when I was 12 and went to Disney World with my family back in 1995. Back then the old MGM studios had a 50s-style drive-in themed diner where they sat you in booths shaped like classic cars, and there was a giant screen along the back wall, which was decorated like a rural drive-in. Instead of showing movies, however, it was just a loop of old monster movie trailers and the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” cartoon. It was purely for atmosphere and meant to be in the background. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, and I still remember craning my neck to watch the screen rather than eating my burger, but it was definitely not a real drive-in.

Fast forward to 2020, and the drive-in has a huge resurgence. There were fits and starts for the past several years, mostly thanks to hipsters in their “retro” phases, but with the pandemic, it became the only means for truly going to the movies. I had been tempted a couple of times over the last year to go to one, just for the experience and to break the monotony of streaming, but L.A. County didn’t have any open. I would have had to drive to Orange or Ventura, and no matter how much I missed a big screen, it wasn’t worth a 90-minute drive each way.

But now there are a few open in the county, and again, this was the only chance I was going to get to see The Father, so I decided to have an adventure.

First thing first was prep. I did some research on the theatre, and found that the classic “hook a speaker onto your car window” bit is very much a thing of the distant past. The tech is still the same, you just tune your car radio to whatever frequency they give you, or bring a portable radio from home. This particular theatre apparently normally sells radios for $25 each, but with the pandemic they’ve opted not to do that for the time being. I’m not sure why. They were sold at the concession stand with all the food, and the staff touches the food, so why not a piece of low-grade tech if I’m willing to pay for it?

Still, I’m glad I looked this up, because I know jack and shit about cars, so I very much needed to figure out whether or not I could listen to a 90-minute movie on my car radio with the engine off. Perusing the interwebs, I now know how car batteries work vis-à-vis the alternator. I’ve had to have it replaced before, but I never actually understood what it does. So if you’re as auto-illiterate as me, here’s the simplest of explanations. When you start your car, the alternator keeps your battery at a constant charge – I presume using an alternating current, given the name. When you turn your car off, you can still use electronics like the lights and the radio, but your battery will drain. I saw some websites and message boards saying that if your battery is relatively new, it can last for up to 8-10 hours with the engine off, especially if you turn everything off BUT the radio.

Now, my car is old. It’s a 2005 with close to 170,000 miles on it. I’ve replaced the battery twice since I’ve owned it. I have been shopping for a new car for the last two years, but I just can’t afford it right now. The last time I had the battery replaced was probably 2-3 years ago, and I know I got the cheapest one I could with the lowest shelf life. Part of this was a cost consideration, part of it was the hope that I’d be able to replace the vehicle itself sooner rather than later, so no point wasting the extra money on a battery I’m not going to fully use. What all this means is that I had absolutely ZERO confidence that my battery was going to last even two hours with the engine off, so I needed to buy a radio.

I go down to the Best Buy with gift card in hand (thank you for the Christmas present, roomie!), and I find two basic radios to fit my needs. The more expensive one was compact, a little cube, and had batteries built in to the unit that charged when it was plugged in. A sales clerk saw me digging in the box and scolded me, but there was a crucial bit of information that I couldn’t see on the outside, so I wanted to read the instructions. That key issue? Was the radio tuner digital or dial? This should not be worth mentioning at this point. It’s 2021, there is no excuse for a manual radio dial. We’ve got drones on Mars, we should be able to tune a station precisely on a simple clock radio. I apologized to the clerk, and he told me the cube had a dial. That was all I needed. The cheaper option was bulkier and included batteries that I had to install myself, but it had a digital tuner. Sold.

I plop the radio in my car, grab some lunch, and head home to relax for a couple hours before setting out for the theatre. It’s on the other side of town, which is still a half-hour drive when there’s no traffic. On a Saturday evening, it’s more like an hour. Now I am punctual to a fault. I was a theatre nerd growing up, and it’s drilled into your head that five minutes early is 10 minutes late. So with the uncertainty of L.A. traffic, I decided to give myself about two hours to make the trip. If I ended up massively early, I could stop off for a quick dinner. Maybe I can even smuggle in some take out. I mean, it’s a drive-in. They have to expect a few people will cruise through a Wendy’s or something on the way, right?

Sure enough, I arrive about 50 minutes early. To my surprise, there are already some cars in line. But I’ve got time, and there’s a Subway around the corner, so I detour. I haven’t had Subway in like, six months, basically since Ireland’s Supreme Court declared its bread to essentially be cake due to its sugar content. So I grab a sandwich and some iced tea, because I’m suddenly feeling very tired and Billy needs a caffeine jolt. The last thing I want after all this is to fall asleep watching the film. When I get back to the drive-in, it’s about 6:30 and the show starts at 7:00. Easy-peasy.

When I pull in, there are four marquees, each identifying a different film showing on one of the four screens that night. Thinking logically, I drive underneath the one for The Father, presuming that this will guide me to the proper line and eventual lot. Then I round a corner and see that it’s basically a clusterfuck. There are about six or seven lines of cars with no rhyme or reason to them, and the theatrical equivalent of airport workers with flashlight wands directing incoming vehicles to the next shortest line.

I go where they send me, and as I advance a few spaces, the ticket booths come into view. After it’s way too late to change lanes, I see that there’s one worker per booth, alternating between both sides, and I’m lined up as if my non-existent passenger was going to pay. Thanks, fake airport guy! Would have taken you two seconds to look in my window, notice I was alone, and line me up to pay out of my window. Instead, this poor girl and I have to stretch way the fuck too far out to complete this transaction. Despite that difficulty, the young lady in the booth gives me my ticket, a concessions menu, the radio frequency to tune, and directions to my appropriate lot and screen, with the social distancing rule of keeping at least one full car length in between once parked.

I get to the screening area, and the road is basically one long path of speed bumps. I imagine this is meant to give the cars a little bit of an angle to see the screen better and to prevent rolling issues if the brake gets released. There are a few cars already there when I show up, and initially I take my spot in the back row, because that’s what I love, and it’s right by the concession building. However, from that distance, the screen was tiny, so I moved up about eight or so rows to one that looked completely empty.

All four screens are visible depending on where you’re looking, and at this point all they have is a cycling screen of the theatre rules, written in English, Spanish, and Mandarin. The big rule I noticed was that all lights in the car had to be turned off. I was going to do that anyway to save the battery if needed, but it’s good to know that my instincts were correct. And they were determined about it, too, warning that they would not even start the film until all lights in the lot were turned off. I appreciated that.

I pull out my sandwich (they didn’t even look inside the car; I could have easily smuggled in a few extra viewers) and took a bite, then immediately spat it out. The meat tasted weird, and despite it being toasted, it was stone cold (we’re talking maybe 10 minutes since I bought it). So, humming the classic tune to myself, I shuffled off to the lobby. Popcorn and an ICEE was all I needed. Incidentally, one of my favorite things to do is to get an ICEE, and when the attendant asks what flavor, I always just say, “Blue,” because in this sole context, Blue is not only a flavor, but there’s an understanding that this is what anybody would say.

Back to the car, snacks in hand. I pull out the radio I just bought, unpack the box, and install the batteries. I tune my car radio to the station so I can compare output and make sure I’m on the right frequency, but apparently there’s no sound until they start rolling the ads and trailers. No matter, I’ve got a DIGITAL TUNER! I put the batteries in, close the case, hit the power button… no power. That radio had apparently been sitting in its packaging for so long that the included batteries were already dead. Are. You. SHITTING ME!?

Okay, well, good thing I was already planning to save my car battery, huh? Fingers crossed and now nervous as fuck about being stranded there once the movie was finished, I powered on the car, shut off all the lights, then killed the engine once the trailers started rolling. In my car, when I turn off the engine, the electronics will stay on for 10 minutes before shutting off automatically unless I open the door. I formulated a plan in my head that every 30 minutes, I’d start the car, run the engine for a minute, shut it off, then at the 9-minute mark, turn the key into the OFF/Electronics position and let the battery drain for the next 20 before starting over. It was the best I could come up with, and maybe it wasn’t even needed. Maybe my battery would have lasted the full 90 with no problem. I’m a naturally anxious person anyway. I was taking no more chances than necessary.

During the trailers, I test the radio. The sound comes in clear enough, but the signal is fairly weak. There’s a constant buzzing sound, and in quieter moments you can faintly hear a Spanish music station and a Christian station bleeding in from the neighboring frequencies. Oh well, I can cope.

Once the movie starts, I’m zoned in. The screen is a bit blurry, but maybe, given the subject matter of the film, that was intentional. I mean, it’s about a man with dementia, maybe the picture’s as fuzzy as his memory. The screen wasn’t out of focus, per se, but it just seemed a lower resolution. Contrast that with the next screen over, showing the Billie Eilish documentary (her music is terrible and she needs to go away; end of documentary) in crystal clear HD. As I thought about this, I did remember the rules slates being slightly less clear on my screen as the others as well. Guess I lost the screen lottery on this one.

For about the entire first act of the movie, several cars were still rolling in looking for parking. The lot is fairly wide open, it’s just the first three rows that are full. Hell, there’s still no one else in my row but me. For a fleeting moment I was worried that I parked in a driving lane, but no, it had the same markings for parking spots as all the others. I guess my car has bad B.O. or something. All the same, I was chuckling, because these were clearly people who were more used to the normal theatre experience where before the movie you have a half hour of commercials, and once you hit the start time, there’s still 20 minutes of trailers before the film actually begins. Not here, though. Two ads right at 7:00, followed by three short trailers. That’s it. Movie started at 7:06.

As the evening went on, I calmed down a bit, and noticed I wasn’t the only one concerned for their batteries. At different points I saw no less than a dozen cars doing the same thing I was. Start the car (their lights popped on, that’s how I could tell), kill the lights instantly, wait a few minutes, turn the engine off, resume watching. My cycle went about as well as it could. I missed about five seconds of sound when I got too into the film and forgot to turn the key after the 10 minutes post-shutoff, but that’s it.

Once the movie was over, I gathered up my garbage, went to the bathroom, which was also where the only trash bins were, and set off home. Sure enough, as I was returning to my car, there was another vehicle getting a jump start. I was certain someone’s battery would die that night. I’m just glad it wasn’t mine.

As I mentioned in the review, The Father is an intense, emotionally devastating film, so I can’t exactly say I “enjoyed” being there to see it. But I was glad I went, and I was happy to finally get something close to a normal movie-going experience again after nearly a year away. The whole affair was lightly-controlled chaos, and a lovely little exercise of Murphy’s Law, but it was still a net positive.

I got my fix. I’ll be able to make it the rest of the way until I can really go back to the movies again.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you ever been to a drive-in? What was your experience like? Seriously, a Billie Eillish documentary? Let me know!

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