Sunday, June 28, 2009

Up & Land of the Lost

8:15. Here we are the Skyline Drive-In on a warm, but windy Saturday Evening. We arrived at 7:40 to a line of about fifteen cars, and more quickly piled up behind us. It's just me and my daughters, ages 19, 14 and 7. This is our first venture to the drive-in since last summer, and this makes my first report from the drive-in nearly four years. I’ve been busy writing other things, and supposed that I couldn't write those things and do this blog at the same time. I’ve decided to poo-poo that notion and write both at the same time.

(It's a little over an hour until show time, and once the movie starts I don’t think I’ll load up much else information until the next day when I can reflect on the movies and the other goings-on here.)

8:30. The crowds are filling up with only an hour until showtime. With only a half an hour after the box office opened, the field is nearly half full. Most vehicles are trucks and SUVs (people are still stuck with these) and that leaves those of us with compact cars and station wagons to take the first four rows. Truth be told about the Skyline drive-in theater is that the grade of the field is a bit lousy. No matter—-

--Oh brother. Someone’s enormously loud car alarm is going off. My heavens. Sounds like we’re about to get skewered by a North Korean missile. Alert NORAD.

Anyway. The grade, or slope of the field, combined with the low height of the screen, makes viewing a bit challenging. Whereas most drive-in fields are flat, and car hills give you significant lift, this drive-in is at a slope, with gravity running downhill towards the screen. The tops of every car, truck of SUV, no matter what row you’re on, comes up to the bottom of the screen. If your kids like to lounge on the top of your car, or you rear-parked your SUV and lift the hatch to watch the show, the people parked behind you aren't going to be happy-campers. (Later, on my way to the snack bar, I see one of the field managers assisting a driver in tethering his lifted hatch a little lower with twine.) As much as I appreciate the fact that this drive-in is open, and reasonably close to where I live, I long for the drive-ins of my youth, of the professionally graded slopes and car hills and tall screens that allow you to park in any spot, in any direction, and view the screen unobstructed.

8:40. Where am I parked? Front row. Center. We have no speakers anymore here at the Skyline. It’s radio, 93.7 on the radio dial. I brought my MP3 player and I’m going to try to enjoy the movie outside the car by wearing headphones, which sounds like heresy. When you don’t have speakers in the field, you miss the romantic sounds of all that music, and the movie, pouring into the air, echoing around, no matter where you are. And this really doesn’t work with car radio, not unless it’s very, very, hot humid night and people have their windows rolled down, and it’s a really loud movie, like Transformers, which has the same decibel rating as a 1972s Who’s concert--

Finally! The hot boiling sun, roughly 94 million miles away, has dropped below the horizon of hills around us. We're only one week after summer solstice. The days are now getting shorter, slowly. But days and nights will be getting warmer, and less windy, but right now the wind keeps the skeeters away. Always come to the Skyline with repellent. Always.

8:49. We have two thick sleeping bags in front of the car, and pillows. I may have to sit inside the car. My seven year-old wants to sit with me, and she can’t because we have no radio outside, except for the MP3 players belonging to me and my 19 year-old daughter. The little one is clingy, and I figured that while she’s young and wants to be with me, I’d better enjoy this while it lasts. So it might be me, and my two youngest piled into the front seat of our Ford Taurus. My middle child probably hates this idea with a vibrant passion.

As I sit here in front of the car, staring across the empty field between the front row and the screen where dozens of kids and parents run around and toss footballs and Frisbees, my two oldest have just performed for me, and the entire front row, a display of sibling rivalry not unlike the song and dance Godzilla and Rodan oft do in downtown Tokyo. What did they wrestle over, giggling and laughing? The remnants of an energy drink, which wound up getting crushed as their hands clasped the can and tugged with all their might. The middle child, who bought the drink at the snack bar ($2.50), won the tug of war, and sipped from the can’s wounds the dripping fluids of intense caffeine.

I'll pause here and express my concern, as I did with my daughter, that the so-called energy component of the drink would have a horrific effect on her. Halfway through the night, I would hear strange sounds emanating from behind me, and that I would find her on top of the car, chittering away in the form of some half-cricket, half-cockroach beast before flying away into the night sky to go live inside underground subways to eat hobo and track worker meat. The movie Mimic? (No one?) Or she could become entranced by the projection light and attack it, crashing into the snack bar. I don't know what movie that would be. (Not Mothra.)

9:12. OK. It’s getting rather darker out. The middle child has taken the youngest to the rest room, so we're not having do this during the first feature: Up, courtesy of Pixar. Good things have been said of this film, which did rather well with the foreign audience at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. seems the youngest didn’t need to go to the bathroom. I then explained to her that she hasn’t gone to the bathroom since leaving home, around 6:30. “That’s three hours. You WILL have to go during the first movie, and we won’t take you then, and you’ll pee your pants. Do you want that?”

She shook her head no. Her oldest sister then took her, with the proviso that the second oldest take her during intermission.

But guess what? My daughter came back, apparently afraid of the bathrooms. (She has this thing about foreign bathrooms. So I quickly took her to the men’s room and went into the stall with her. (I turned my back.)

9:24. I've moved into the car, with my two youngest. The oldest is out front on the sleeping bags. Radio music has just stopped. Now the snack bar announcer is welcoming us. The movie will start in seconds--

Here it is. The movie’s starting, but it's too light out. I can hardly see what's on the screen. Some Disney preview for a cell animation film. Something about a talking frog and a dark-skinned princess. Indian? Pakistani? Wow, what’s this other preview? A stork in the clouds… Oh. It’s a Pixar short!

(My daughter is having problems getting a full radio signal on her MP3 player...)

11:17. Intermission! Just went to the bathroom. When I came out of the bathroom (And by the way, two of the three toilet stalls were down and out, leaving one with six urinals) a short old time intermission snipe played on the screen. Black and white. Very old time. I place it circa 1958. But I only caught the end of it.

(During the Pixar short before Up, my oldest daughter couldn't get a clear radio signal on her MP3 player, which she didn’t suffer from last year. I had to go to the snack bar to rent a radio, but there were eight lines, seven people deep, so I went back to the car, changed places with my daughter and I sat outside with my player. I did manage to find a signal by finally placing it under the car behind me.)

11:20. Intermission previews are starting. One for a gerbil secret agent movie. The next is for Ice Age III. Here’s some Adam Sandler comedy-drama with Seth Rogan. It's chilly outside, but I'm wrapped up in a blanket. Girls are snuggled in the car. We’re ready for Land of the Lost. Will Ferrel, make me laugh!

11:29. Showtime!

1:55. We're home now. We got the youngest up the stairs, into the bathroom, then into bed pretty quick. I finished getting the car unpacked while my older daughters headed to bed. The leftover food was put into the fridge, the ice chest with remaining cold soda set on the kitchen floor. Must hurry. We have church at 11:00 am.

Land of the Lost was not great, nor terrible. Just visually interesting enough to keep me awake, and boy did I want to knock off, like my youngest did in the backseat. Will I get this movie on DVD? No. It's simply a weak movie in light of the expectations of the old TV show pairing up with Will Ferrel. You get a sense that the humor was reaching to be more adult that the studio wanted, to keep the PG-13. Think of it like an Adam Sandler booger-fart-penis-betchyourgay comedy with science fiction visual effects. But Up was spectacular. (I laughed far more watching Up than I did with Land of the Lost. Ten to One.) Pixar is batting a 1000 so far. Go see it. Get it on DVD. Out of this world!

Goodnight. See you later at the drive-in.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Double Feature

Much has been written and spoken regarding drive-in theaters and its appeal to the American way of life. Admittedly, car and movie culture played key roles in the drive-in’s invention by Richard Hollingshead Jr. in depression era 1932. His notion was that the Americans would never give up--no matter how difficult economics became--going to the movies and driving their cars. Both were fairly new technologies in their own right, continually evolving the rapidly changing culture of American, and the marriage of the two was a sustaining magic. For me, the allure of the drive-in has always been the DOUBLE FEATURE.

“What’s playing at the drive-in?”

I loved hearing my parents utter those words. Yet, I was always way ahead of them. When reading the Las Vegas Sun newspaper every morning as a kid (we never subscribed to the Review-Journal), I quickly scanned past The Redrock 4, The Redrock Americana, The Parkway, The Huntridge, and The Fox theater ads until I found the drive-in ads for The Nevada, The Skyway, The Sunset, The Desert 5, and The Las Vegas 4 (the closest D-I to our house), and found what was playing:

Live and Let Die…
The Legend of Boggy Creek…
Mary Poppins…
The Battle for the Planet of the Apes…
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry…
Enter the Dragon...
Now You See Him, Now You Don’t…
Bedknobs and Broomsticks…
The Bermuda Triangle…
Gone in Sixty Seconds...
The Swarm…

Yes, these movies date me, and most of these films are crap (then and now). But this is no matter, not when you’re at the drive-in, or an impressionable child. Watching a machine-generated wave flip a 20 ft. model of an ocean liner upside down and seven panicky survivors shouting inane dialogue back and forth (no, not Gilligan’s Island, but you're close) is worth its weight in gold. Once the movie ended, and the lights from the snack bar came up across the field, and the speakers once again pumped out radio music, we took solace knowing another movie was on its way.

It wasn’t often that a great movie like The Poseidon Adventure was paired with another great flick. (Frankly, I can’t remember what followed that movie. It could have been The Ruling Class with Peter O'Toole and Alastair Sim for all I know.) In truth, I often fell asleep after the first feature and usually woke up as we drove away, or the next morning in bed. Once I was forced by my parents to sit through a triple feature of torture: Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Magic Christian, and Paint Your Wagon. (Yep, you read that right.) All I recall is that Paul McCartney song "Come and Get it"--performed by Badfinger, people thrashing around in sewage for free money, Alan Arkin arguing with a woman in bed, and a bull rampaging through a gold mine. Blame this on the biology of my seven-year-old body, or a very boring movie. Or in this case, three.

As I got older I could stay awake and partake of the second feature. When 1974’s The Towering Inferno finished, the second feature had me just as excited. 1972's Skyjacked starred Charlton Heston and James Brolin and was directed by John Guillermin, who co-directed Towering Inferno with Irwin Allen. Here was the story of a jetliner highjacking by a whacked-out Vietnam veteran (Brolin) and his on-board bomb (I don’t know who played the bomb). How could I not stay awake? Something had to explode! I just watched hundreds of people get barbecued and flooded, all in one movie, so why not one more?

I didn’t stay awake. Somewhere in the middle of the first act, waiting for events to happen, I passed out from the boredom and woke up late in the third act, just in time to see Brolin shoot Heston in the shoulder (allowing the hero to live another day), and the Soviet police shoot Brolin (all about the face and chest). My father assured me I had seen all the action anyone who stayed awake had seen. But I blame it on The Towering Inferno, which was so bloody long it had an intermission. In retrospect, the skyscraper was very, very tall (136 stories), and there were all those arrogant rich people to kill and maim in rather interesting ways. (Actually there's only one way to burn to death, but you know what I mean.) At the film's core were the numerous interlocking love stories, either romantic or familial, seeking resolution amid a torrent of dysfunctional communication typical of American culture in the 1970s. The film's Academy Award winning song, We May Never Love Like This Again by Maureen McGovern, best exemplifies this struggle:

We may never love like this again
Don't stop the flow
We can't let go
We may never love like this again
And touch the sky
Though we may try

So, while we're here,
Let's give out all,
Release the dreams inside--

Oh, who gives a crap...

I was rather fortunate to go to the drive-in as a kid and see movies I was interested in viewing. Disney movies never failed me. I still fondly recall seeing The Living Desert and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in the very early 70s. You bet I stayed awake through both of those! What a great double-bill. When I was higher up on the throes on puberty, I enjoyed The Outlaw Josey Wales and Freebie and the Bean. While I did not ‘get’ Freebie and The Bean starring Jimmy Caan and Alan Arkin (it was very adult with a transvestite serial killer and tons of F-words), I did manage to stay awake. But much of that film is a blur, and from what I hear an equal blur with most critics. (It’s not even out on DVD yet.)

Sometimes you get a mismatch of films that don’t jive with one another. For a modern day example try last year’s The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! A little something for everyone, right? But have you seen Mamma Mia!? (Have you ever gnawed off your own foot like a crazed raccoon? There's not much difference from what I've seen.) This is why movies like Mamma Mia! are shunted to the tail end of a double feature.

Naturally, this leads us to our next topic, the notorious nature of the second feature as a wasteland of disjointed plots, hyper-extended characters, odd camera angles, bad lighting and overamped sound. In my impressionable youth these would include 1970s car chase movies, those ultra-creepy Billy Jack movies (which I love!), and films where black cops put the beatdown on corrupt Whitey. (And Skyjacked.) Drive-ins were these film's last--or sometimes only--refuge to earn money for their distributors by piggy-backing them on more reputable films. Here's just a sample:

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls...
Women in Cages...
Foxy Brown...
The Car...

If you want a great-bad movie for a second feature you can't go wrong with 1982's Megaforce, starring Barry Bostwick and directed by Hal Needham of 'Stoker Ace' fame. Forget Plan 9 From Outer Space (overrated as a bad movie, much the way Duck Soup is overrated as the Marx Brother's best film, which is A Night at the Opera). Megaforce is the mother-god of all craptastic films, hands down, no contest. Just to quickly illustrate how deliriously lousy this film is, the next time you're saying good-bye to someone you romantically love (or not, just to creep them out), stand like Superman with your cape blowing in the wind, kiss the tip of your thumb, and then give them the thumbs-up sign as you smile, utterly confident that no one suspects that you and your motorcycle riding, pastel headband wearing, anti-terrorist commando squad are as gay as French toast.

What we drive-in goers most want is a great double bill, and sometimes we get it. Sometimes not. If I could go back in time and order up the perfect double bill at the drive-in I’d line up the following:

Forbidden Planet and The War of the Worlds
The Blob and Fast and the Furious
Lady and The Tramp and The Shaggy Dog

The Magnificent Seven and Spartacus
Ice Station Zebra and The Planet of the Apes
The Nutty Professor and The Pink Panther

Dirty Harry and The French Connection
Airport 1975 and Earthquake
The Omen and The Exorcist

This year I wouldn't mind seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen paired up with Land of the Lost. But truth be told; I'd go see Transformers with Mamma Mia! any night at a drive-in. Or Skyjacked. Skyjacked and Megaforce! Oh, yeah...

Hey, it's the drive-in!