One of the most memorable shoot-outs in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) unfolds at a derelict drive-in theater where the marquee is scrawled with graffiti and the white poles that once held car speakers now stand mute. From the high P.O.V. angle of Val Kilmer’s sniper, it’s like gazing down on a concrete cemetery of movie memories and summers past. Although the first drive-in appeared in 1933, the prosperous postwar 50s and 60s are when they came into their own, with double and triple bills that kept carfuls of wholesome American families and horny teenagers happily pacified. It was not ideal viewing conditions for Sontagian cinephiles. So many distractions: the long walk to the concession stand, car speakers that squawked with feedback, cigarette smoke wafting from all directions, the crying baby one car over. But the pop splendor of images projected onto a giant outdoor screen could transcend all these petty bothers—even schlock acquired an epic scale. Drive-ins began to die out on the landscape, the victims of changing demographics, smaller cars, and rising land prices. A condo development now occupies the acreage of Heat’s desolated drive-in.
The coronavirus has revived the drive-in from the dead. Walmart parking lots are hosting pop-up drive-ins this summer along with scores of other alfresco screens sprouting up wherever crickets gather. After all, with indoor movie houses still too chancy, as the postponement of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet indicates, what better, safer place to catch a film than from inside the bubble of a car? Or, for that matter, on the tranquil waters of a socially distanced boat, with perhaps a picnic basket packed? (So French.) The drive-in concept extends beyond movies to theater—in England, the Birmingham Stage Company is taking its Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain to parking lots across the U.K.—and art exhibitions, where lookie-loos can slowly cruise past artworks now that flatfooting it through museums and galleries has been curtailed. Etiquette question: If a driver lingers too long in front of a Calder or Kapoor, is it O.K. for the car behind to honk?