The unbearable summer ritual of watching movies outdoors.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 6 2009 7:04 AM

Let's Go See a Movie in the Park!

I've got a better idea: Let's not.

Every summer, cities across the United States host open-air film series. For many, this is a delightful tradition. For Slate's Juliet Lapidos, it's unbearable. In a 2009 article, reprinted below, Lapidos argued that "sincere movie-watching cannot, in fact, take place at outdoor screenings."

Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

At a cocktail party recently, a fellow guest asked me whether I'd ever seen Double Indemnity. "Yes, of course," I said, dismissively and untruthfully. I did once sit in front of a screen playing Billy Wilder's famous noir, about a femme fatale who schemes to kill her husband, for the full 107 minutes. But the screen was located outdoors, at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. And I was located on a damp patch of grass, peeved at a friend who'd eaten more than her fair share of the hummus. Meanwhile, an acute pain throbbed in my lower back. So I can't say I really followed the storyline, or that I developed an opinion—even a small talk-ready one—about what I had watched.

You can find open-air screening series in just about every major American city—among them Baltimore; Chicago; Portland, Ore.; Raleigh, N.C.; San Francisco; and Seattle—and in smaller cities and towns too (Rosslyn, Va.; Florence, Ala.). Here in New York, you can subject yourself to the vagaries of the weather and watch a movie in Bryant Park, in Central Park, on the Hudson River, by the Brooklyn Bridge, or on a number of Brooklyn rooftops. But why would anyone willingly attend such an event?

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The most common response I get to that question is: "It's free!" True, most outdoor festivals don't charge for admission, but what about the fancy picnic you're expected to bring along? At nearly every Bryant Park film I've attended, either Camembert or Prosecco has been in evidence—sometimes both. Besides, the cost of a movie ticket is quite low if you consider that it protects you from the indignities of the outdoors. I'm not a cinema-experience snob—really, I'm not. I rarely notice when I'm viewing something in the wrong aspect ratio, and I regularly watch movies on my laptop. But I have three basic requirements: Darkness, comfort, and quiet, none of which a crowded lawn can provide.

The usual protocol at outdoor events is to start the screening after sundown—a futile attempt to satisfy the darkness requirement. In New York, the buildings, cars, and street lamps give off so much light that you might as well be watching at midday. Although the lighting problem may be confined to big cities, general discomfort is not. The human body was simply not intended to sustain either of the customary outdoor screening poses: legs straight ahead, upper body weight resting on the elbows, no neck support; or cross-legged, elbows on the knees, back bent like a comma. Certainly not for the duration of, say, Dog Day Afternoon (125 minutes, playing at Bryant Park tonight).

But streetlamp glare and neck strain are nothing compared with the real problem with outdoor screenings: The people who attend outdoor screenings. Before the movie starts, they prattle ceaselessly about the best nursery schools and the best cheese shop to get a good Camembert. After the opening credits, they still won't shut up. They chat in stage whispers, making banal yet dubious observations, such as "Isn't it great that we're watching a movie al fresco?" Like the denizens of art house cinemas, they guffaw and chortle operatically at the slightest provocation, so that everyone in a three-blanket radius will think they're paying close attention—which they're not. Case in point: Right after the climactic scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much, my neighbor let out an audible "Mmm." He then turned to his date to ask what was going on. That, anyway, is how the adults behave. The teenagers are worse. Influenced, perhaps, by Hollywood depictions of youthful necking at drive-ins, there's always far too much underage action at outdoor movies—with none of the privacy afforded by a back seat.

If it were universally acknowledged that sincere movie-watching cannot, in fact, take place at outdoor screenings, these events might be less irritating. I wouldn't feel guilty about kicking back, noshing on a cucumber sandwich, and ignoring the plot of Viva Las Vegas. But the programmers of outdoor festivals insist on filling their lineups with highbrow films—or, at least, films that actually require attention. One of the worst offenders is Chicago's Outdoor Festival in Grant Park, which this summer is showing Sunset Boulevard (poor Billy Wilder) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (the story of a sexually frustrated wife and her sexually confused husband—perfect for a family outing!). Other movies that really ought to be viewed indoors include A Street Car Named Desire (featuring a rape and a nervous breakdown, playing in San Jose, Calif.), The Class (a French film about a teacher in a low-income Parisian school, playing in Raleigh), and Kramer vs. Kramer (Meryl Streep abandons her young son, playing in Bryant Park).

My friends may never again invite me to an outdoor film festival, but you, dear reader, will surely field such an offer sometime soon. When the subject comes up, explain that you've heard of an even better venue for movie-watching. You can sit in a comfortable chair, there's air conditioning, pitch darkness, and it's considered common courtesy to pipe down when the previews come on. Prosecco is not typically served, but you can order a Sprite, the Prosecco of soft drinks. It's called a movie theater; I highly recommend it.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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