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This morning you get a special two-parter edition of FLASHBACKS. Late summer 1998 I finally attended Hermiston's drive-in theater for the first -- and, it turned out, last -- time. The last double feature for the season was Brian DePalma's Snake Eyes and F. Gary Gray's The Negotiator. I wrote enough about the night to fill two weeks' of columns in the Hermiston Herald's entertainment section. A few years later the theater officially closed the drive-in.

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Here’s an idea for next time you go to the drive-in: bring a Walkman. Probably all drive-in movie theaters have taken those transmitters off their poles (leaving the poles, though, which sprout like the world’s most regular weeds) and broadcast the sound on radio instead. This way, if you need to go to the restroom or grab snacks, you can still get part of what’s on-screen, like you’re carrying the film with you.

It’s a change to the drive-in experience, but at least you can still have one. Hermiston has one of the 825 or so screens still in use in America, and whether the drive-in tradition is dying or is alive and kicking depends on who you’re talking to.

When I learned a year ago that this town had a drive-in, I told myself to support it. Of course, I didn’t actually make it to a show until the last week of the season: either I didn’t have the time, or the lineup wasn’t interesting, or I had seen the movies before and was feeling too poor to spend more hard-earned samolians for them. But that screen was still there at the end of August – and will remain there even if the movie theater expands to seven screens, which it could.

You can tell the age of the place. You can tell the age of pretty much all drive-ins, which started sprouting in the 1930s. I first glimpsed the abandoned one just east of Pendleton not too long ago, and it seemed so isolated and so not-like a drive-in at first that I thought it was a billboard; why would people go that far out of town to see a film?

I brought my old and worn Walkman to the Friday, Aug. 28th show of Snake Eyes with Nicolas Cage and The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. I was there for the movies, yes, but I was also there for the entertaining nightlife surrounding me and the night sky above me. I don’t see either enough.

There were little touches on the drive-in grounds that could not be explained, like what looks almost but not quite like an old swing set just below the screen. What most closely resembles a swing is way too narrow to sit on and more than four feet off the ground. Curious. (The “Play At Your Own Risk” sign doesn’t clear it up, other than to say you shouldn’t play on it. No surprise; it looks like a torture device.)

The ground moves in waves, giving people better angles from which to watch the screen. I had to resist recreating a moment from the crime drama Heat, which was a money-dropoff-turned-gun-battle at a drive-in; this car drives right across aisle after aisle at high speed, bouncing up and down. I did drive across aisle after aisle, but at close to a walking pace so as not to jar the car. It was fun, the closest I get to off-roading.

Then I got settled and comfortable, and watched people as they waited for the film to start – and kept visiting with each other even after the movie started. Usually I get uptight when others are talking in a movie, but at this time, in this place, it added to the entertainment.

If I got a little bored, I’d just lean out the window and look up: watching the moon duck (okay, duck very very slowly) behind the trees, figuring out which lights were planets, and following planes as they flew through Oregon’s desert skies.

You don’t go to a drive-in to be a critic, but I want to keep pondering movies, so here are some critic-like thoughts: Snake Eyes was good just for sheer energy. Cage is Rick Santoro, a corrupt cop at ground-zero of a Secretary of Defense’s death at the hands of a military-industrial complex conspiracy. The twist is that the death happens in an Atlantic City arena during a pay-per-view boxing event; the next twist is that the corrupt Santoro winds up doing the most upstanding act in the film; and the twists become even more twisted because the famously aggressive Brian De Palma is directing. There’s also a twist that’s not a twist, if you’ve seen Ransom.*

Arms dealers and government co-conspirators killed the Secretary because he wouldn’t support a major missile system, and Santoro pieces together the conspiracy in the sad chaos following the shooting. (The film does a good job of portraying the simultaneously heavy and empty sort of boredom that often follows a horrendous event – when life tries to continue despite of what happened** – while keeping it both energetic and interesting to watch. It’s an engrossing film about what should be sad or boring.)

At the very end, Santoro’s efforts boomerang on him; he mends his ways during the investigation and becomes a hero, but later he’s dragged down by fickle public opinion when his own less-upstanding acts come to light. Even though he solved the far more corrupt conspiracy, even though he mended his ways, the birds still came home to roost. (At least he got together at the end with this Carla Gugino babe who’s in the film; he deserves a nice Italian girl like her…)

On top of all that, a hurricane is bearing down on Atlantic City during the boxing event/assassination, but they cut out the reason it’s in the plot. The hurricane seems to be a symbol of attempted cleansing, but a cleansing that doesn’t work; to make a classical allusion, it’s like Alexander the Great slashing the Gordian Knot instead of untying it, destroying the problem but not solving it. The problem comes back, of course, and keeps screwing things up. At least, I think that’s what was going on; De Palma does try to add mythic-level touches to his films, even a potboiler like this.

But then, mythic overtones or not, the film was over – and it was time to get snacks and watch The Negotiator.

I’ll tackle that next time.

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2009 footnotes:
* Two words: Gary Sinese.

** Which was one of the qualities Joss Whedon brought to his famously tough Buffy episode "The Body" three years later.

Part II of this piece is here.