The Days of the Drive-In & Counter Cultural Cinema

As we live in the day and age of the multiplex, it’s difficult, if not entirely impossible, to recall the days of the drive-in. Film has become so much more of a visual experience than it has remained a social one. The atmosphere of the drive-in aside, film used to be about something. It used to be filled with the kind of urgency and purpose that is all too absent in most the films of today. Those movies that do have something to actually say, often stumble over themselves trying to articulate it or riddle it with heavy-handed symbolism as to remain safe. However, to say that all films have lost this urgency would be criminally negligent. It seems that some filmmakers still pride themselves on their sense of purpose. Few filmmakers embody this spirit more than the aggressively dysfunctional John Waters and the ultra-violent Quentin Tarantino. While many other commercial Hollywood filmmakers outnumber these auteurs, they use their cult following to their advantage. With some of their more recent films, namely Waters’ Cecil B. Demented and Tarantino’s Death Proof, these directors have glorified the dying culture of the drive-in, when movies had purpose whether it was topical or strictly social.
With Cecil B. Demented, Waters seems to be mourning the loss of anger in filmmaking. By the time of this film’s release in 2000, Waters had not lost his edge, but rather, he had underestimated the tolerance of the general public. His 1994 film, Serial Mom, featured Kathleen Turner as a sadistic serial killer in a direct assault on the values of suburbia. Whether audiences understood that he was making fun of their values or not can only be speculated, but Waters certainly suffered from the general acceptance of this movie. Cecil B. Demented seems to be a return to his roots. He revels in the chaos that he creates upon Honey’s kidnapping and delights in detailing her descent into, arguably, madness. However, the real victim in this picture is Hollywood itself. With this film, Waters criticizes the accessibility of film and, more over, the ability of film to shock. While in the first part of the film, Honey is kidnapped, creating mass hysteria in the film community, it’s not long before we see the film community disown her. Waters doesn’t take this time to demonize the film industry, he quickly re-directs Honey’s purpose in making this film. She works outside of the system and only then is she able to make something truly remarkable, something revolutionary, something with a driving sense of purpose. Although Waters captures the necessity of film to communicate with urgency in a rather unorthodox manner, the climax of the film is one of the few instances in modern cinema of shock value with a sense of purpose. Furthermore, the setting of the drive-in is crucial to the film’s recollection of drive-in cinema. One of the issues that most drive-in films discussed was the concept of authority. Waters may be heavy-handed in having the final showdown between the law and the underground at a drive-in theater, but once again, this drives the film’s point home, the necessity for a return to drive-in cinema to truly stimulate the audience. Needless to say, Waters engages his audience throughout the film, but the climax, as with most Waters films, is unforgettable.
The other instance of modern cinema throwing back to its roots is Tarantino’s Death Proof. Once again, as with Cecil B Demented, the references to the drive-in aren’t as visual, except for the clear case of Stuntman Mike’s car driving through the drive-in marquee, but are often more thematic. This infatuation Tarantino has with the counter-cultural issues of drive-in cinema come across painfully transparent. While some students enjoy the work of Tarantino, more often than not he takes large chunks of other movies and calls them his own. Death proof is no exception. The first scene of the film is filled with drug references, which is an important aspect of the counter-culture in the days of the drive-in. Even his choice of leads recall the days of exploitation, although it’s difficult to establish the “leads” of the film as they are introduced almost halfway through the movie. Regardless, the use of women in the film is directly out of the 1970s, calling upon such classics as Coffy and Foxy Brown. The dialogue of the film communicates the personalities of these women who, at this point in the film industry, are no better than caricatures. Of course, the women are bold and beautiful, but more importantly, they’re independent. Although it takes all 3 of them to do so, they’re able to take down Stuntman Mike. One of the things about the film’s conclusion that indicates Tarantino’s willingness to have fun with the formula, is his handling of the male figures. More than anything else, they’re established as sexual predators, preying on the supposed vulnerability of these women. The most interesting change to the male characters isn’t out of keeping with the time of exploitation film making, by stripping him of his masculinity and having Stuntman Mike break down and cry, but the emasculation of the male is heightened to a comical extent. All in all, Tarantino fondly reminisces about the days of exploitation filmmaking and the drive-in, but in creating his own exploitation film, he falls short. It seems too reminiscent to faster Pussycat Kill Kill to be credited as a Tarantino film, nevertheless, he does leave his indelible mark.
Although the days of the drive-in are behind us, the days of counter-culture are not. While the drive-in attacked issues of “outsiders” through its films, the drive-in theater and the atmosphere it created has since been rendered archaic. Nowadays, films revel in their ability to manipulate their audience, to remove them from reality and to amaze them with special effects, but there are still filmmaker who remember. Filmmakers like Waters and Tarantino have passed down their interpretations of drive-in cinema to modern movie audiences today. Whether this was a last failed effort or it will have a lasting impact on the generation of filmmakers, none of us can claim to know. However, one can hope that the memories of drive-ins and what drive-in culture stood for will never fade from America’s identity completely.


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