Monday, August 29, 2016

Drive-In (1976)

Recently, I took a trip into the past at the Mahoning Drive-In. It’s a lovely place showing retro films every weekend. I took in a John Carpenter marathon, six films over two nights, and had a blast! With so many films, it was only a matter of time until I hit the concessions stand for refreshments. The stand is adorned with posters, tapes, and various knick-knacks, creating a welcoming atmosphere. One poster caught my eye, promoting a film all about the drive-in experience, plainly titled “Drive-In.” The poster plays host to a bevy of colorful characters, smiling and laughing and causing a ruckus. The tagline reads “There’s nothing but action at the drive-in, and some good stuff on the screen too!” I knew then and there I had to see this film, one way or another.

I tracked a copy of the film down upon my return from vacation and waited patiently for its arrival. When it came, I popped it in immediately. What I seen on screen was reminiscent of how I felt at the Mahoning: a sense of joy. An innocent pleasure encapsulated under the stars, in the comfort of cars surrounding a gigantic screen. I could almost smell the popcorn overwhelming the air supply and taste the hot dogs hot off the grill. However one feels about the film, they can’t take its sense of atmosphere.

Rod Amateau so badly wants to make a love letter to the drive-in that he sometimes feels weighed down by the mechanics of storytelling. He relies on the script, written by Bob Peete, to carry him through. It’s of a madcap variety, with interweaving stories of high-school romance, gang warfare, discrimination, and armed robbery. They’re loosely tied together, with most flimsily stitched together on their own right. Even so, each has their own charm to them.

The stories exist to anchor the main attraction: the drive-in. The final destination for all is the drive-in, which plays host to many memories and important decisions. The drive-in itself isn’t important, but what it represents is. For some, it’s another activity to do on the weekend. For those in this sleepy Texas town, it’s the activity of the weekend. Pay no mind to what’s showing; just attend to get away from it all. The only other option in town is the roller rink, back when they were still a booming business. The teenagers occupy that, with the drive-in acting as a break from it.

To break down each story is inconsequential. Just know there’s a romance brewing between a preppy popular girl and a shy outcast, and of course he stands up to her abusive ex and wins the fight. Understand the gang warfare only exists to show off how intimidating the ex seems when surrounded by backup. Realize there are two bumbling idiots planning on robbing the joint near the end of the show, but they serve no real threat, just guffaws. Even their child hostage doesn’t deem them a threat, cracking wise at every turn. Accept the many go-nowhere subplots involving a doctor feeling discriminated against because of his color, the vigilante who brings his elderly and dismissive mother to the show (and eventually aids in saving the day), the clergymen sneaking into the show to save a buck, and the drive-in owner driven only by greed. These all exist not just because a film requires conflict, but to act as an entryway into the Alamo Drive-In (you better never forget).

Amateau is seemingly more concerned with the film-within-a-film being shown on screen, a parody of disaster films of the time simply titled “Disaster ’76.” A parody so well done I honestly believed it to be authentic. It tells the tale of a crash-landed plane in Rio, with the survivors trying desperately to survive. The captain, looking strikingly like George Kennedy, leads the crew through treacherous terrains, while officials back in safety spout out inane dialogue about the abundance of stairs in the building. The few scenes we see produce the biggest laughs of the film, so much so I had hoped they filmed an entire parody out of it. Alas, they did not.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found my interest waning quite a bit during “Drive-In.” The film meanders too often, producing as many dead spots as “Jaws” references. Two upbeat songs, one about the downfall of cinema and the other about God’s disapproval for your sinful ways, play repeatedly on the soundtrack. This becomes annoying, then almost endearing in its simplicity. Amidst all of the dead spots and soundtrack cues is a sense of geniality, even during the darker moments (such as the physical abuse of the popular girl, which is admittedly quite jarring).. The film may suffer from rickety pacing and construction, but it’s never without a smile.

MVT: The atmosphere. Amateau perfectly captures the feel of the drive-in and that feel alone is beguiling enough to keep one’s attention throughout.

Make or Break: The opening aerial shot of the drive-in. It shows off the grandeur of the drive-in, what with its large screen, while also showcasing its quaintness in the form of endless plains and a shack playing host to concessions. It sets the mood for the film quite well.

Final Score: 6.25/10

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