My Last Picture Show

I’m nostalgic for an era I never knew. Not just any era, but (even more absurd, I know) an era

I’m nostalgic for an era I never knew. Not just any era, but (even more absurd, I know) an era I likely wouldn’t have enjoyed very much, or at all—the 50s.

To be sure, I have no great longing for poodle skirts or leather jackets—I’ve never even watched Grease in its entirety. I don’t miss the cold war nearly as much as Donald Rumsfeld (in fact, despite all its troubles, I rather prefer the post-cold war era). I don’t like hanging out in diners; I think tailfins on cars look silly; and I think Elvis songs are irritating.

But my near-loathing of the vast majority of 50s accoutrements has not kept me from latching onto one particular 50s icon: the drive-in movie theater. Ironically, up until recently, my entire conception of drive-in culture came from movies themselves—and just a few films, too, which I could probably count on a single hand. But it’s what I didn’t know about the drive-in—the mystery of its appeal—that so appealed to me.

Over spring break, I paid a visit to the drive-in theater in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. For whatever reason, in all my youth, I never once went there, and so I decided spring break was as good a time as any. I went to the drive-in determined to understand the ins and outs of drive-in culture.

The theater (and by “theater,” I mean “giant parking lot”) is located just minutes from the Air Force base. In the center of the lot is a small brick building that resembles what I imagine a bomb shelter might look like—only instead of survival gear, this building is filled with bright yellow nacho cheese sauce and hot dogs. Visiting the theater was a bit like traveling through a time warp: the whole place looks pretty much exactly as it’s looked for decades. (And the bathrooms look like they haven’t been cleaned in just as long.) Nonetheless, with all its flaws, the De Anza drive-in—decaying and dirty—stands as a bold testament to a disappearing era.

It was a weeknight, and there were very few cars parked for the double feature of Dawn of the Dead and Club Dread. We arrived early and staked out a spot near the center. We listened to Simon and Garfunkel on my car stereo—I had no 50s music, but they’re close enough—while we ate packaged sushi from the supermarket for dinner. One of the most curious benefits of the drive-in experience is that the range of concessions one can legally smuggle in is virtually limitless. As the cars filtered in, I learned my first lesson in drive-in movie etiquette.

Rule #1: Park so as to minimize any and all visual access to any other vehicle’s interior.

This lesson simply makes practical sense, and luckily I didn’t need to learn it the hard way. The idea of the drive-in is romantic in its own right—regardless of the bizarre subculture that has developed around it. There is no better place to watch Hollywood stars than under the stars. (Although, I have to say, last summer I watched The Matrix outdoors, and by the end I was shivering cold with an excruciating cramp in my leg.) Being outdoors is nice, and so is watching a movie: why not combine the two? Better yet, throw in a car, and you’ve got just the right combination of privacy and risk of getting caught that leads directly to cuddling and making out (and beyond). In my case, my friend and I were far more interested in our wasabi than locking lips, but a quick glimpse of the nervous expressions of the people in the nearby cars was all I needed to glean my first drive-in lesson.

Rule #2: Drive-ins are made for horror films.

Perhaps it’s the fact that you are all alone in your vehicle and any stranger could sneak up on you unsuspectingly. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can sit there through the whole film talking to your companion without anybody throwing popcorn or shushing you. You can even yell all you want at the idiot characters on screen as they stupidly “go through that door.” To be sure, you can do all that in the comfort of your own home, too, and at least then you wouldn’t have to put up with the tinny factory speakers inside your car. But it’s the unnaturalness of the drive-in experience—the perfect marriage of entertainment and machinery—that makes viewers uneasy and easily fright-able.

Rule #3: Don’t expect the usual viewing experience.

Most obviously absent from the drive-in setting is the plush womb-like feel of the typical modern movie house. (Yes, “womb-like.” According to film theory, it’s an important aspect of the viewing experience.) It is probably this womb feel that made regular movie theaters ultimately so much more popular. But in my opinion, the drive-in’s lack of total absorption makes it a special and preferable viewing environment. The impersonal Brechtian detachment enhances the viewing pleasure—at least on the analytic level. Then again, maybe I’m just the kind of person who likes to talk during the movie.

Okay, to be honest, I’m not really nostalgic for the 50s; I’m just drawn to drive-ins for their kitschy aspect—the same reason prep school guys recently took to wearing trucker hats. But when it comes down to an evening of entertainment and five bucks—that’s enough motivation for me.

Apparently though, that’s not enough for most Americans. Across the North American continent, more than 4,000 drive-in theaters have gone dark since the boom years of the 50s. Arizona used to have 49 theaters in operation; today it has four. The decline in Massachusetts (once home to four of America’s earliest drive-ins) has been just as severe—plunging 94 percent in the past five decades from 90 cinemas to just five today. It would be tragic if every one of these theaters were to close its, well, front gates—depriving moviegoers of such a unique viewing experience.

The decline of drive-in theaters is the central metaphor in the 1971 classic The Last Picture Show. The film examines the monotonous lives of two high school seniors in a small town in Texas. It’s a coming of age story about—not surprisingly—nostalgic endings and new beginnings. (According to reviewer “AJJAS” on “After 2 hours, I was ready to nuke that backwater Texas town and put the group of those characters out of their misery.”)

Perhaps it’s end-of-the-school-year, beginning-of-the-spring-nostalgia that explains my newfound appreciation for drive-in culture. Too often at Harvard we think everything we do must be on the level of a 32-screen megaplex with stadium seating, but there’s no shame in enjoying a dilapidated drive-in from time to time. After all, the opportunity to go back in time is rapidly disappearing.

Benjamin J. Toff ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. As co-editorial chair of The Crimson, he doesn’t actually get out much. But when he does, you know where you can find him: at the bars, wishing he were at the drive-in. (Boston doesn’t have one.)