Friday, February 5, 2021

Dancing at the Drive-In: The Joys of Dance Camera West

Yes, I worked on this drive-in classic

 When I worked at New World Pictures, we all knew that drive-ins were the key to our B-movie success. One of my many duties was to keep track of the distribution of films like Night Call Nurses (“It’s Always Harder at Night”) and Caged Heat. In that pre-computer age, I had to record in a ledger how many times our films had played in such outposts of American culture as the Dogwood Drive-In in Palestine, Texas and the Yazoo Drive-In in Yazoo City, Mississippi. But even then, drive-ins were going away, victims of the high price of real estate and the ongoing spread of the suburbs.

 Who knew back then that one day, under pandemic conditions, a drive-in might be the only way to leave home and see a movie on a giant screen? It used to be easy, if you lived in West L.A., to watch any sort of film that interested you – art house, blockbuster, genre flick, classic – from the comfort of a multiplex theatre seat. Now, though, you need to drive a long distance to search out the few drive-in theatres in the area, including the Vineland Drive-In in the City of Industry and the seventy-year-old Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair, where you can watch a movie while sitting (how Southern California!) behind the wheel of your car. Other venues are trying their best to get into the act, showing movies on roof-tops and in parking lots. Which is how I came to see two nights of something called Dance Camera West, under the auspices of Santa Monica’s Broad Stage.   

 Dance Camera West is an organization promoting dance on cinema, by way of an annual festival of short films from all over the world. What I saw at the drive-in screening, in the parking lot of a satellite campus of Santa Monica College, was a Best of the Fest selection of 16 short pieces (eight each night). It was not, to be honest, the full drive-in experience. No popcorn for sale; no concessions shack; and -- as far as I could tell – no one was making out in the back seat of a souped-up car. We all watched quietly behind our windshields, signaling our enthusiasm at the end of each piece by honking our horns.

 And what were the films like? They were a well-assorted bunch: some funny, some tragic; a few ponderously “meaningful”; most joyous in their affection for bodies in motion. Though all contained dance of some sort, the spotlight was really on the film director, whose imagination and daring showed off the dancers from new angles and in surprising contexts. Several of my very favorites (one from Portugal, one from Australia, one made in Moab, Utah) filmed the dancers in exotic outdoor settings – leaping on desert bluffs, undulating on the shore of a great sea, suspended from the walls of monolithic modern buildings. (Cameras mounted on drones allowed for an otherworldly perspective, which in the Australian film made the dancers look like giant insects surging across the landscape) A few films made a direct comment on our current safer-at-home predicament: one German-based director enlisted a handful of dancers who managed to photograph themselves all cavorting to the same tune from their individual bedrooms and kitchens. A somewhat traditional-looking Argentine film, featuring paired tango dancers gliding gracefully across the floor of a glass-walled studio, broke free of its location at the close to show one participant leaving the gathering, climbing onto a bus, and heading back home to her everyday life.  

 Afterwards, did these movies make me feel like dancing? Yes indeed.   


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