Back To The Drive-in (2022)

MARCH 11, 2023


Note - this isn't much of a standard review, just a sort of Collins' Crypt type unloading about my conflicted feelings about the closing of one of our drive-ins, with a little bit about the movie for good measure.

Five weeks after theaters closed down in March of 2020, I ventured out to the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, CA, which was about a 70-75 minute drive from where I live. I saw The Hunt and watched a bit of The Invisible Man (which I had already seen in regular theaters) before heading home, feeling it was a fine way to get that moviegoing itch out of my system while I waited for theaters to reopen in "a few weeks", as was the plan then. Of course, that didn't happen, and it would be over a year until they reopened in Los Angeles. Naturally, this meant I was heading to the drive-in on an almost weekly basis, to see new movies of course (it's my thing!) but also just to get out of the house. So I was pleased to see that the Tiki was one of the many drive-ins featured in Back to the Drive-in, a documentary that focuses on their resurgence thanks to covid and how they are now struggling again in 2021, making it a bittersweet experience because they closed for good about a month ago.

Not that it was too much of a surprise; for starters, the Tiki was already set to be closed in 2020 anyway, as the owner had sold the land to some tech company who plans to make it a warehouse/business park of some sort (I've heard Amazon, not sure if that's true or just rumor). Since construction was a silly endeavor with covid running rampant, they basically got an extended lease on life as they were filling up the lots for all four of their screens even on weeknights, something that probably hadn't happened in decades. Not that it would change their fate, but it seemed as long as they were turning healthy profits, they'd stick around for a while. Unfortunately for them, theaters did reopen, and the crowds dwindled again. For a while I kept going once a month even with theaters open, because they would occasionally book a movie that wasn't playing in any of the theaters anyway, but as the world slowly got back to normal(ish) it got harder and harder to justify that drive. The last time I went was in June of 2022 for a double of Bob's Burgers and Dr Strange 2; a few other plans to return (in December they had the very amusing double of Violent Night and Christmas Bloody Christmas) just didn't work out.

Still, I figured they'd have some kind of announcement, like "We will be closing at the end of the month if you'd like to say goodbye!" but they didn't bother with anything like that. An online rumor from a very rude reporter was the only indication that the end was nigh; the theater itself didn't even bother to confirm that a certain Sunday was their last night until the next morning, denying folks a chance to make one last trip. So I had to laugh that they were barely featured in the film compared to the other venues, wondering if their same terrible communication skills (they'd also routinely neglect to use their existing social media channels - Twitter, IG, Facebook - to alert customers about things like the credit card machine being down, meaning if you didn't have cash you'd have to leave to go back into town and find an ATM) also kept them from being as accessible to the documentary crews as the other places were.

So why am I sad that it's gone? I mean, it's a fair question: it was a long drive, shoddily run (the hand dryer in the men's room was busted the entire time), and the programming wasn't really inspired, as they often showed the same movie twice (sometimes on two screens, so something like Black Widow or Spider-Man was taking up four of the eight available slots on a given night). But they also gave me something to do when times were darkest, and since I was one of the few people she felt comfortable with in the peak covid days, allowed me to spend time with a friend who I hadn't gotten to hang out with much in the years prior, and, natch, now I once again barely ever see. I find myself now weirdly missing getting out of my car to go to the bathroom and watching silent clips from things like Tenet or Croods 2, or the time I finally got sick of the headlights behind me and when walking over to ask them to turn them off, realized the car's occupants were in the backseat and most likely not watching the movie (or seeing the very tall man approach their car in the dark - sorry for the scare, frisky young lovers!). It was a fun little thrill, sneaking a couple beers in to watch the likes of Unhinged (the Russell Crowe road rage movie), while also catching a heavy whiff of nostalgia from the old school snack bar, with its cracked/ancient light up menus and (bless!) plastic straws for the fountain soda. It reminded me that while I use Amazon as easily as the next guy, I actually do prefer the simple life, and find a lot of the world moves too fast for me as I get older. The drive-in, with its antiquated ways, was like having that slower world again, even if it was for the most undesirable of reasons. And now it's gone, and I have to commute to work again (I was work from home for the first two years of the pandemic; slowly but surely we are returning to being in the office full time), and I see my friend once every other month if that... all the weird benefits that covid-life brought to the table are now gone. And we still have covid. It sucks! I never thought I'd be nostalgic for the summer of 2020, but that's exactly what this doc did, and seeing it so close to losing the Tiki forever probably didn't help.

Luckily for people elsewhere, the other drive-ins still offer those simple pleasures! The doc showcases venues across the country, in Nebraska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Texas, etc. so we get a variety of the different things they have to deal with, weather wise (the one in Massachusetts is beset by fog; the midwestern ones are susceptible to tornadoes and floods) and also how they operate. Many have playgrounds for the kids to enjoy while they wait for the movie to start, others have beer gardens. Some have themed merch/snacks to go along with the programming (one theater is showing Big Lebowski, and we see the owner make a White Russian with an extremely upsetting vodka to creme ratio). Programming the pre-show entertainment, having the right number of staff on hand for the crowd (or lack thereof), dealing with the weather, etc... by the end of its 100 minutes you'll get a pretty good idea of the day to day routines of these joints. Some are clearly operating with the mindset of "let's make this place super great!" while others are just hoping to turn a profit at the end of the night, but they all seem to genuinely care about movies and offering families an alternative option for their outings. More than once I thought "I wish our drive-ins did that!" (we had three during covid; the Tiki and another has since closed, the other is still open but costs more and doesn't offer double features, so again it's that "bang for my buck" dilemma); one even had an inspired double feature of Fast 9 and Streets of Fire! In contrast, ours paired Fast 9 with Fast 9.

Unfortunately there isn't too much else to it; by the hour mark you'll probably have your fill of seeing drone shots of nearly empty lots while the owner laments that the theaters reopening (based on the marquees we see, the bulk of the film was shot in summer of 2021) has cut down on their crowds again. You almost wish most of the movie had been shot the year before, when it was packed, with the 2021 stuff being the third act "the show must go on!" kind of material that now makes up the entire movie. Without "spoiling" things, the obligatory on-screen text for the end of a documentary is pretty bleak here - the Tiki isn't the only casualty since production began. And it takes a bafflingly long time for the filmmaker to focus on the actual patrons of these places. Do they care if they close or not? Did they come to the drive-in prior to Covid, and will they return when the theaters reopen? And how far are they coming to enjoy the venue? I admit I let my patronage lapse once I could just drive to the theater down the street, but I would have kept going more often if it wasn't such a long drive. When there's no other options, fine, but two and a half hours round trip to watch a dimly projected Jungle Cruise is a hard sell. Once my friend lost interest in joining me it got even harder to muster up the energy, especially in the summer where the shows started later (waiting til sundown) and I had to take that long drive back by myself. So it would have been nice to hear from the regulars, even if only in a montage of testimonials ("I live next door", "I drive two hours to get here every Saturday!", "I was conceived here when my parents came for Top Gun and now I'm here for Top Gun Maverick!", that sort of stuff) to get an idea of how these places impact the lives of anyone outside of the owners, even if just to break up the repetition a bit.

The director/producer/editor/etc April Wright made a documentary before about the drive-in (2013's Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie) as well as one about the decline of movie palaces, so perhaps she's already covered this stuff in detail before and wanted to focus on something else. And that's fine, and it's not even that it's a bad movie, just a somewhat meandering one; it seems it could be cut down to 30 minutes and presented as a bonus feature on the Going Attractions' 10th anniversary blu-ray. It was my own personal connection to the Mission Tiki - which was just ripped away without warning only a few weeks ago - that kept me as engaged as I was, and that obviously won't be the case for everyone. Best case scenario, the people who live near the drive-ins that are still open will be inspired to frequent them a little more often, now that they've seen the blood sweat and tears it takes to keep them up and running from day to day. Unfortunately for folks like me, it's a little too late.

What say you?

P.S. Obviously this isn't a horror movie, but one theater does note that the horror movies showing are pretty crowded while the family films are not, so it's a nice reminder of how our genre can be counted on even in times of trouble.


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