The drive-in is back, in all its retro, slightly annoying glory

Ann Hornaday

THE WASHINGTON POST – If this summer had a jingle, it might go like: Let’s all go to the drive-in.

As the coronavirus era extends into summer, social-distancing mandates have turned out to be perfectly suited to drive-in theatres, where we watch movies from the safety of autonomously operated self-isolation pods also known as cars. At the onset of the pandemic, about 300 drive-ins were still operating in the United States (US).

Many of them have experienced an unforeseen resurgence at a time when audiences crave not just health and safety but the reassuring cocoon of nostalgia.

People are attending concerts at drive-ins; meanwhile, restaurants, weed-strewn parking lots and even indoor theatres are turning into drive-ins. Multiplexes may be on increasingly shaky ground – will people really risk their lives to see the new, delayed Christopher Nolan movie? – but the drive-in has proved its durability against all odds, including expensive digital conversions which threatened to wash them out forever.

We’re still here, those lonely, looming screens seem to whisper. We knew you’d be back.

Of course, much has changed since many of us saw our last drive-in movie, when the bulk of the evening’s entertainment value was indexed to how many friends you could smuggle inside in the trunk.

All food must now be ordered with a phone app and picked up outside the concession booth. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has made drive-in theatres more popular

Gone are the days of rolling up to a wooden post, turning off the car, cranking down the window and affixing a speaker that looked like surplus from FDR’s last fireside chat.

Today, the windows are automated and the cars are computerised – and, tragically, festooned with lights wherever you can possibly conceive of putting a light: inside, outside, along the side, whirling in the wheel rims. During a recent visit to a beloved Baltimore drive-in, if you couldn’t turn off every white light in or on your car, you were asked to pull over and cover them with whatever you had on hand.

“Folks, please!” a sign read upon entering. “Read the rules before you leave your vehicle!” So many rules. Not only have cars changed, but people have, too: The long list of regulations reflects a social contract frayed beyond repair.

We really shouldn’t need to be reminded not to cook or brandish laser pointers at the drive-in. But we do. During the pandemic, there’s a whole new list of rules, having to do with masks, restroom use and visiting the snack bar.

It’s in that bustling mid-century masterpiece of Americana that, just after sunset, everyone stops and turns to the 120-foot-wide screen while The Star-Spangled Banner plays. Some hold hands to hearts. Others grip their hot dogs a bit more solemnly.

Back in the car, masks mercifully doffed, windows and moon roofs open to the starry night, ET the Extra-Terrestrial begins.

Escapist, uncynical, unfolding mostly at night – could we ask for a more perfect drive-in movie? And is there a more suitable drive-in auteur than Steven Spielberg?

With John Williams’ swelling, lyrical score booming out of radios tuned to the pre-assigned frequency, the static-ridden tin boxes of yesteryear feel like fondly remembered but unmissed hardships, like outdoor plumbing or those rabbit-ear antennae your big brother forced you to adjust while he watched Gunsmoke.

Nearby, a car alarm wails and is hastily extinguished, only to go off again – and again. Here and there, patrons engage in brief moments of bootleg illumination, by way of quick glances at cellphones or flaring brake lights. Tense moments, to be sure. But no one’s busted.

Meanwhile, ET and Elliott pursue their mystical bond over Reese’s Pieces, hearts and bicycles soaring right on cue. Still, even on what is claimed to be the “BIGGEST movie theatre screen in the USA,” their adventures are rendered less than pristine by virtue of being seen through a windshield and several yards of heat-thickened air.

Everyone, it seems, is falling back in love with the drive-in. But there’s no sense in denying that, as an aesthetic encounter, it’s not entirely uncompromised: The point isn’t the total, pristine immersion that so many blockbusters have been striving for in recent years. Like 3-D and other cinematic novelties, what you lose in visual definition and aural precision, you make up for in the experience itself – its retro rituals, sense of shared history and ambient pleasures.

To wit: After the last bikes have flown and ET has been safely dispatched home, a disembodied voice comes over the speakers, encouraging the audience to express our approval by flashing our headlights, and reminding us to enjoy “funnel cake intermission”, before Back to the Future gets underway. It’s almost 11pm. We turn the car back on, preparing to be hermetically resealed. For a moment, though, the slightest hint of a cooling breeze makes its way through the open windows, while crickets chirp outside.

Blink and you’ll miss it, but a firefly has found its way to the drive-in, punctuating tonight’s double feature with its own light show. Oblivious to the rules, and gloriously, blazingly above them.