After graduating from college, I drove a car to the Pacific Ocean under the influence of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road." In the late 1970’s, I participated in that same pop-cultural feedback loop as I sat in the backseat of my friend’s 1968 Ford Mustang watching a double feature of Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point and David Cronenberg’s Fast Company at the Hilltop Drive-In. Cars expressed individual freedom in the modern American narrative and the drive-in movie theater was one outgrowth of this idea.
The collectivist social philosophy of Belgium, in which public transportation is an essential value, did not produce a theater for cars and so my partner Hilde’s first exposure to the drive-in was with me at the Cottage View in 2003. We watched as two boys in footed superman pajamas sat in the back of a pick-up truck, trying to stay awake through The Devil Wears Prada. I explained to Hilde that drive-in theater of my youth had not been mainstream family entertainment, describing the exploitation films and the dingy atmosphere with my Texas Chain Saw Massacre story. The only remnant of my 1970’s drive-in experience that had survived into the twenty-first century was a ten-minute package of damaged intermission films that showed between the features.
When I moved to Minneapolis in 1986, there were still a half dozen drive-in theaters screening triple features during the summer. The St. Croix Hilltop, the site of my teenage fascination with the “dusk to dawn gore-a-rama,” operated until the early 1990’s. Subject to the same erosion of audience as repertory theaters, by the mid 1990’s only two area drive-ins remained in business: The Vali-Hi and the Cottage View, both located on the periphery of St. Paul. In addition to the competition from VHS and DVD home viewing formats, rising exurban real estate values made selling the land more profitable than the seasonal management of an outdoor movie venue, which in Minnesota was open six months of the year at best. In 2010, when DCP (Digital Cinema Package) began to replace 35mm film as the standard for projection in commercial cinemas, the remaining two drive-ins were required to make a big financial investment or to close.
In August of 2012, the Cottage View announced that it was going out of business. Hilde and I paid our final respects in early September on a night when it was still warm by Minnesota standards. The Cottage View was situated on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River and the 1960’s neon marquee was visible from a distance as one approached on Highway 61 from the north. We always arrived early to watch people before the movies began, but a long line of cars had already formed at the entrance. We’d taken out sushi from a Japanese restaurant and bought a bottle of Cava, so we ate our dinner while we waited to enter. The gates opened, we chose a spot (it was always a little livelier near the screen) and the drive-in’s version of Playtime began through the frame of our car window:
A heavily tattooed man on a motorcycle with a sidecar set up lawn chairs, comically awkward in low-slung jeans. The ten-year-old boy with him wore a bushy foxtail. We initially labeled them ‘father and son,’ but after a few minutes of watching our interpretation had evolved into ‘slightly wild uncle indulging nephew.’ A pair of middle-aged women unpacked an entire living room from a minivan. They carried two chairs and a table into the space next to the van. Then they diligently marched out a pair of audiophile speakers and a receiver, a cooler, a battery powered heater and a small puffy dog that they leashed to the table. Young hipsters with ironic mustaches smoked weed and juggled glowing balls as the sun began to set. The older man directly behind us sat at a table in front of his car and seemed to be preparing his taxes amidst a pile of loose paper.
When it got dark and the The Bourne Legacy started, our attention turned to the social life adjacent to our car. On our left was a pickup truck turned backwards to the screen. A young couple played with their baby on folding chairs in the back. The woman, silhouetted against the remaining light in the west, was utterly absorbed by her new baby. She dangled the child close to her face; the child giggled with delight and the mother glowed. Her husband, somewhat disconsolately, walked a collie puppy on a leash back and forth at the foot of the truck. He’d glance supportively at his wife and child, but his attention wandered more intently to the group in front of us. Three teenaged boys and two girls climbed in and out of a parent’s car in an ambiguous theater of childish chase that also suggested courtship. They glanced around and sipped discretely from beer bottles. The new father with the dog watched them nostalgically. Ten years earlier, he had probably been part of just such a group and missed it now. On our right, a couple about our age sat in a giant SUV eating fried chicken out of a paper bucket. Two teenage boys stood outside the car separately, ignoring both their parents and each other, talking sullenly into their cell phones and glancing at the group with the beer.
The atmosphere was charged with longing for me that night, likely due to the imminent closing of the Cottage View. As Hilde and I finished our Cava, I said, “We’re still behaving like the kids in front of us.” In some conventional ways, we had never really grown up and I recognized that I wanted the drive-in to confirm that something young, at fifty, was still alive in me. I remembered the days of the St. Croix Hilltop, projecting my own desires and nostalgia on the scene.. The film played and only the couple to our right watched with real attention, having moved on to a paper bucket of popcorn. The mother on our left held her baby between her eyes and the screen. Her husband paced with the puppy. The sons of the couple to the right had disappeared.
The Bourne Legacy ended and the intermission films began. Hilde went to the bathroom while puppies played in slow motion on the screen, edited to a generic 1970’s funk soundtrack. “There are just eight minutes until show time, be sure to visit our concession stand now. Unappetizing hot dogs and burnt pizzas rotated slowly in a series of dissolves. The deeply scratched and buckled surface of the film print abstracted my attention from the familiar images and I fell into reflection. The atmosphere of my youth drifted through my mind in a jumble of non-specific impressions: rolling down a hill on my three-speed banana seat bicycle, the splintered wooden floor of a ski chalet, “Up Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon” on an a.m. car radio, the metallic taste of my trombone mouthpiece at band rehearsal, the odd smell of a wallpaper store . . . each memory following the previous one randomly, dream-like and irrational. “There are just six minutes until show time.” A German-accented animated character from the 1960’s drew my awareness back to the sales pitch. The professorial cartoon hawked ‘day-lee-shus hot doggies’ and ice cream bars that rolled on a factory assembly line behind him. I had seen this ad many times at the St. Croix Hilltop. It had probably played on the night of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre drama. Maybe this was the same print. “There are now just four minutes . . .“ The distinctive wah-wah guitar sound returned and a helicopter shot of the California coastline segued into kittens rolling with balls of yarn. These sounds and images were my native element, the pop cultural landscape that shaped my understanding of the world. I was merely the sum of the influences into which I had been accidentally born; my identity was made of the 1970’s. “Only one minute to go, last chance to visit the concession stand.“ Hilde opened the passenger door and startled me back into the present.
“Tom . . . are you crying? Ooooh, it’s the intermission films . . . you are so melodramatic!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Show Time!”