In the very midst of Covid-19’s early panic days, I went for the first time ever to a drive-in theatre; a friend of mine took me there, in good parts because she couldn’t believe that the man who’d seemingly seen and done it all so far never watched a film from inside a car. Curiously enough, the day before I had talked with another old friend who researched drive-ins and has had some fascinating facts on offer and stories to tell incl.: that the FRG is the world’s drive-in nation #3; that drive-ins were the vanguard of American-style cuisine as their concession stands remained for a long time the lone place here serving burgers; and that drive-ins still exist mainly because the venues are turned into used car trading places on weekend mornings – a lucrative business. During the lockdown, drive-ins were the lone movie venues allowed to function; unsurprisingly, wily entrepreneurs seized the day by renting large spaces, setting up portable screens and calling those expanses cinemas. People didn’t care for the ramshackle nature of these contraptions, let alone the subtleties of drive-in culture – they wanted to watch a movie under circumstances other than their living rooms and computer screens. That some places chose to show films featuring drive-ins was a nice touch, albeit a telling one: the space, the “experience”, as they have it in neoliberist Newspeak, was the main thing, not the movie proper – but was it ever different at the drive-in? We remember young lovers making out (and too often getting disturbed by stupid friends, a guard, or a serial killer on the loose), but how often do we get to see that drive-ins were for young parents the lone possibility to watch a movie as part of a crowd while the tyke slept on the back-seat?
The movie my friend and I watched in one of the old and well-established venues was not made for this kind of space: Osgood Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel (2020) is simply too subtle on every level – drive-in movies must fight their way through more light and other distractions than any film should ever have to.
So far, I never felt the urge to visit a drive-in: I never had a thing for cars, and neither did my immediate surroundings when I was young; cars weren’t part of our lifestyle, we were city born and bred – only yokels needed wheels to get around, we had public transport and bikes.
The off-off cinemas with an air of the infamous, nefarious and facinorous cherished by my friends et moi were another variety seemingly particular to FRG movie culture: the Aki (= Aktualitätenkino) found in train stations. Originally these venues showed newsreels and other short subjects – stuff to watch in-between trains; with TV taking over cinema’s function as key provider of filmed information on current affairs, Akis changed their programming strategy towards the sensational side of entertainment: first action of all kinds, then also erotica and porn; the latter got also screened at drive-ins, reportedly resulting regularly in traffic chaos near some venues (hard to imagine now that half a century ago nudity was so rare in a semi-public space that folks would risk car crashes for a bit of titty…).
Drive-ins and Akis were both cinemas where narrative didn’t matter: car culture is about force and panache (or boredom, sameness and suicide), while the key to Akis was delivering the goods speedily and in-your-face; Akis had huge clocks beside the screen so that you could keep track of time, make it in time to your track. It’s nice to think that cinema once was so normal that people would dash into the dark even for a few minutes of information or fun or both. In the GDR these cinemas were actually called Zeitkino = Time Theatres, a hendiadys’ish expression of curious poetic potency.
As Akis served no other purpose than showing movies, they vanished in the ‘90s. And with them the idea of collective sex-watching: VHS killed the thrill of sitting with other people in the dark and getting aroused – and who knows where this might lead out there in the dark…. While we seem to be surrounded by eroticised imagery these days, as a culture we turned more and more prudish. It was very enjoyable to be horny together with other people.
Whenever I travel to Japan which usually means Kyōto, I make sure to stay there for at least ten days, so that I can watch three triple features at the Honmachi-kan, a pink eiga-venue – one of the last of its kind, certainly in Japan’s metropolitan areas. I always loved the story that back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, maybe even still the ‘90s a lot of pink eiga-cinemas were situated in the megalopolis’ business districts waiting for salarymen keen on spending their lunch break there, alone, often just taking a nap. If they ever really were there then they’re gone now. The elderly gentlemen attending the screenings at Honmachi-kan also often fall asleep – difficult to say sometimes who’s more shamelessly noisy: they or the talents on screen. I often imagine that they’ve kept the venue company for decades: that they’re regulars who by now come less for the T&A-kicks than to fulfil their duty as patrons; maybe they’ve spent most of their life with this cinema, and want to keep on watching films there till the end; they’re probably aware that once they’re gone the cinema will be gone as well – not pink eiga but its culture; OP Eiga e.g. now often offers their productions in two versions: 60min for pink eiga-venues and 90min for general release, the latter not containing more sex, only more talk, psychology and some such.
Consider it one of fate’s weirder jokes that Honmachi-kan shares its premises with a senior citizen daycare centre.
Due to its curious location it’s difficult to imagine that someone would buy Honmachi-kan and turn it into a venue like Demachi-za or Minami-kaikan, Kyōto’s two main independently operated, open-minded film theatres: splendidly vital spaces both offering an idea of cinema impossible to imagine between Lisbon and Helsinki in their inclusiveness. Both venues screen weird genre stuff side by side with the latest in arthouse, second-runs of local box office bonanzas and re-releases/restorations of classics, etc.; last December Minami-kaikan eg. advertised Tarr Béla’s recently digi-pimped up Sátántangó (1994) alongside Kawasaki Minoru’s then-latest essay in animal masks and vulgar surrealism, Robaman (2020), the latter stridently in line with their love for tokusatsu entertainment which they celebrate regularly with all-nighters whose content these days gets ever more obscure, third-tier, miraculous.
Looking at how the festivals deemed “relevant” get ever prissier in their choices and cinemas more segregated therewith bland in the tastes they offer, film culture in Japan feels like Paradise Lost – mādadayo. But would we have an audience here that would still know, remember how to enjoy playing with such plenty?
In-flight entertainment offers comparable instances of cornucopia deluxe propositions, at least with some airlines. For which reason I miss my trips to Japan now even more. Where else than on a KLM plane can you treat yourself to a feast like this: first Kemi Adetiba’s political thriller King of Boys (2018); followed by Sarkār 3 (2017), Rām Gōpāl Varmā’s latest instalment in his gangster actioner-series of à clef-exposés on Bāl Ṭhākarē, one of Hindu-fascism’s main ideological architects; next comes Hashimoto Hajime’s Aibō: Gekijō-ban IV (2017), another chapter in a series of Tōei big-screen adventures featuring TV Asahi small-screen stalwart police inspector Sugishita Ukyō; all capped by Dmitrij Meshiev’s impressively mounted, politically vile WWI drama Batal’on (2015)? It’s not the point that you can find most of these on fucking Netflix et.al., or simply download them easily in reasonable quality – it’s the fact that this is part of a selection made for an audience, like a little festival, albeit one unlike anything around on the ground. The world felt bigger after landing – the movies opened many an avenue to explore, posed questions to answer, suggested research to do.
Recently a student of mine kind-of complained a bit when in a course on studio-era Finnish cinema I screened not only established “classics” but also an iskelmä musical, promotional documentaries about a film production company, a traffic education short by a minor master of popular comedies etc. – stuff in many ways as run-of-the-mill back then as Aibō: Gekijō-ban IV, Sarkār 3 and King of Boys are now: here today and gone tomorrow. I explained to him that all those films we are in the habit of calling “classics” exist only because of all the Aibōs and Sarkārs that are remembered more by audiences than film history; and that without them they’re merely chalkòs ī’chō̂n ī̀’ kýmvalon a’lalázon – sounding brass or clanging cymbals.