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VALLEY WEEKEND

En Route to a Simpler Time

With 'After Sunset,' Burbank filmmaker Jon Bokenkamp documents his search for surviving drive-ins on a road trip from Los Angeles to mid-America.

June 13, 1996|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These are dark times for fans of the drive-in.

It was recently announced that the Winnetka Drive-In will be razed to make room for a 26-screen megaplex. Now, a documentary from a young Burbank filmmaker has chronicled the demise of outdoor screens nationwide.

"After Sunset, the Life and Times of the Drive-In Theater" will be shown July 27 as part of the "Documental" series at the Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica. The 45-minute movie follows director Jon Bokenkamp on a road trip from Los Angeles to his hometown of Kearney, Neb.

Abandoned screens mark the way, blanched and dusty, bearing names such as the Hi-Way 39 and the Starlite that speak of a bygone era. Dismal statistics accompany the tombstones. At the height of their popularity, in the mid-1950s, American drive-ins numbered more than 5,000. Today, there are fewer than 900.

Interviewed on camera, author Michael Wallis bemoans the loss, longing for "the real America, the America of lumps in the potatoes and Kool-Aid stands and slow-pitch softball games under the lights and drive-in movies."

And Bokenkamp seeks to document this passing of a national icon. Except that, somewhere en route to Kearney, an altogether different tale emerges.

"This is the story of our journey," Bokenkamp, 22, says in a quiet, personal narrative. "And our search for the remnants of a simpler time."

Perhaps fittingly, "After Sunset" was born of disappointment. As a cinema student at USC, Bokenkamp competed with other students for the chance to direct one of his department's "480" projects. A chosen few are given funding and equipment.

Not chosen, Bokenkamp decided to make a film anyway, and three other students in the same predicament joined him. He put up his savings and a credit card. The others--co-writer Tony Carenzo, photography director Valerian Bennett and sound recordist Matt Kenagy--pitched in $75 each.

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That money secured a supply of videotape and Super-8 film left over from other student projects. The impromptu production company procured a vehicle, a 1976 Cadillac.

"I bought the car for $600 from a guy who told me to call him the Wolfman," Bokenkamp recalled. "He wouldn't sign away the title. He said, 'I've got arthritis, why don't you just sign it.' "

A route was plotted using road maps and a list of drive-ins. Bokenkamp called ahead. Often, he said, "there would be no one there or it would be disconnected or it would be a liquor store now."

But for every drive-in where weeds had wriggled up through the pavement, there was one that had survived.

At the Movie Manor Motel Drive-In in Monte Vista, Colo., all the rooms face an outdoor screen. Owner George Kelloff boasts: "You can go to a downtown theater or to a drive-in, but you can't go to a motel drive-in."

At the Sky-Vue, in La Mesa, Texas, customers come for the chihuahuas, a snack-bar concoction of chili, pimento cheese and jalapeno peppers wrapped in corn tortillas.

Theater owners allowed the movie crew to camp overnight and offered free food, "nasty greasy things and a lot of Cokes," Bokenkamp recalled. Wallis, who wrote "Route 66: The Mother Road," spoke of Americana while director John Carpenter recalled losing his virginity at a drive-in.

In Dallas, Bokenkamp interviewed John Bloom, who, as Joe Bob Briggs, has reviewed drive-in movies for newspapers and cable television. Exploitation films are Bloom's specialty, and one of his trademark reviews is included in the documentary:

"Sixty-two dead bodies, 12 breasts, four fistfights, four motor vehicle chases with four crash-and-burns, one pet iguana, face-mangling, hand-in-the-spinning-spokes torture, a great biker funeral scene, exploding car, exploding judge, heads roll, hands roll, ears roll, everything rolls, kung fu, pool-stick fu, tattoo fu. Four stars."

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In more serious moments, Bloom and others ponder the downfall of the drive-in. They speak of theaters built on cheap land, on the outskirts of town, now priced out of their own neighborhoods by encroaching suburbs. They describe the onslaught of high-tech indoor multiplexes. They lament an America where families no longer take outings together.

Bloom offers an additional thought: "The reason the drive-in still exists in the small communities is there's at least one person in each of those communities who loves that drive-in. That's the only way it stays open."

These owners also supply the lifeblood to Bokenkamp's film.

Part documentary and part road movie, "After Sunset" veers onto side streets that, while amusing, are not always germane. It also attempts to use drive-ins as an illustration of America's larger ills, encompassing everything from divorce rates to the recent baseball strike. The ambitious attempt occasionally struggles under its own weight.

But the voices of the people ring vividly.

Jennifer Miller, owner of the Brazos Drive-In in Granbury, Texas, says: "It's like a big party. We get out at 2 o'clock in the morning, come back the next night and have another party. . . . I will not be a rich person because of this drive-in, but I'll be rich because I have fulfilled keeping something alive and bringing something back to life that almost died."

Sam Kirkland, of the Sky-Vue, says: "The people of this town wouldn't let me live here if I closed the theater. I have to keep it open for them."

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When "After Sunset" aired on a Nebraska cable channel in December, Jeffrey Green, a reviewer for the Kearney Hub newspaper wrote: "Though [Bokenkamp] stumbles as he tries to move his audience from sights to insights, the stumbles are forgivable, the sights are delightful and his efforts are to be applauded."

Perhaps that is because, in the end, "After Sunset" is not so much a dirge as it is a celebration.

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