By Fergus Henderson. Cinema is the healthiest it has been in years. In the age of streaming people are still making the trip. It will never, however, reach the heights it knew half a century ago. A cinema trip now is for many simply a thing to do when other plans fail. Back then it was the thing to do, something filled with excitement and discovery, buoyed by the apparently never-ending cultural ascendance of film.
Back then film reigned over the cultural landscape. Back then you could erect a huge screen in a field and people would drive for miles to sit in their cars and watch a film on it. This documentary, directed and edited by Alexander Monelli, is about one of those drive-ins, the Mahoning, and the passionate nerds trying to keep it alive.
To anyone devoted to film the concept of a drive-in seems self-explanatory. And yet to take a look at one, a sight that immediately transports one to the mid 20th century, it is clear why the Mahoning is floundering. It is a relic. Aging head honcho Jeff, a projectionist since the 70s, is nervous about its future. As the film reminds us at the beginning, of the past 4000 plus drive-ins, only 300 still operate.
Monelli is discreet and unassuming behind the camera, and indeed the subject and surroundings speak for themselves. When we meet Jeff he is railing against digital and proselytising the value of 35mm film. The town of Lehighton, Pennsylvania where the Mahoning resides is a sleepy rain soaked place. A lonely image of obsolescence and sadness begins to form.
Jeff is joined by recent partners Matt and Virgil, two much younger film-grads, who hope to lead the Mahoning into the present day. They share Jeff’s passion for older technology (Matt, a somewhat uncomfortable and anxious man, prides himself on not owning a smart phone). But things are different for Jeff.
Without wishing to psychoanalyse them too much, it is clear that both Matt and Virgil are two nerdy guys who do what nerds do, expressing and realising their love for a specific aspect of culture that resonates with them. Virgil in particular ties it to memories of childhood, when things were “pure” and he had not yet experienced how one loses one’s love. There is a complex of cultural history, a wealth of historical signifiers, a desire for an imagined place outwith the present, which draws them to the drive-in.
For Jeff, this is and has always been his life. He has been there since it was a hot business, and has stayed with it as it has dwindled. Monelli does impressive work in inferring that despite Matt and Virgil’s deification of Jeff, he is at a very different stage in life and viewing the whole thing very differently to them. We learn, in one poignant moment, that he regrets not having children, having never been able to make a relationship last.
Indeed, the changing face of film fandom and film culture becomes a kind of unaddressed subtext. Here is Jeff, who worked as a projectionist during a time when your average punter wouldn’t think twice about going to the drive-in. Now, as his occupation becomes increasingly obsolete, its protectors and celebrators are nerds and film geeks, far outside the mainstream.
The documentary follows the Mahoning’s 2016 season, curated by Matt and Virgil, as they try and recoup their losses (securing prints and running electricity keeps the profit margin very high) They’re trying to rebuild the Mahoning brand. We follow the unglamorous beginnings as they set everything up, sleeping on air mattresses over long weekends, desperately trying to spruce up the degraded cultural artefact, animating it with their passion and dedication. Eventually, things turn around.
The film reaches a beautiful high when the nerdery of the film community, something Matt and Virgil keenly tap into with their horror film festival, proves that though film may not be the total cultural force that it was, the people that celebrate it will keep it alive through their support.
All of the efforts the team put in, as sad and futile as it appears at the film’s beginning, are justified and redeemed. Here Monelli basks in the beauty of the community’s passion and dedication. Film going might have lost its glamour, but instead it has drawn in those that need it. Many people towards the end use the word family to describe the experience. It is a triumphant and heart-warming end to a skilfully made, unassuming documentary that totally blindsides with its insight and depth.
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