Why Do We Enjoy Movies In The Park?
via Jason T. Sparks, Our Man in Nashville
ed note: This was written in the Before Times, then held until the summer movie season rolled around. Things changed.
July 2019: It’s a beautiful June night in Nashville, my beloved home town. Lightning bugs raise from the grass, the sun sets gracefully. My oldest son and I are at Elmington Park, on the west side of town—and so are a few hundred other locals. To a great percentage of this lot, the term “hipster” could be applied with ease; there are straw hats, ironic t-shirts, dogs on leashes—sorry, doggos on leashes. There are also families with wee kiddos, and teenagers trying to impress each other.
The crowd, and the attendant food trucks charging them $15 a throw for artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches, are all in a semicircle in the middle of a large, grassy area that defines most of the park. At the centre of this semicircle is a curious modern invention: a wall of puffy black vinyl with a rectangle of white vinyl in its centre. This is an inflatable movie screen, and tonight, we have movies in the park.
I would assume, at this point, that most major cities have their version of Movies In The Park; Nashville has had this since the late 1990s, sponsored then and now by our alternate weekly newspaper, the Nashville Scene. When it began, the films were Cult with a capital C. Pink Panther films were common, as were B-movie classics like Zontar, The Thing From Mars. The crowd then was pure fin-de-siecle hipster; every tattoo, every piercing, and every unnaturally dyed head of hair in Nashville were present. That same crowd still attends, as I already indicated, but now the demographic has broadened.
The movies, likewise, are different; on this particular night, my son and I (and the rest of the crowd) took in Black Panther, which is a nigh-perfect example of how the films have changed. On the one hand, the epic saga of Prince T’Challa and company is A Great Big Movie. Set in the ubiquitous Marvel Universe, it was the first “comic-book movie” to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and it proved to be the usual runaway train at the box office. On the other hand, it could be said to be something of a cult movie—there are moments thrown in for Marvel devotees, it rendered a catchphrase of sorts in “Wakanda Forever!”, etc. In other words, we’re a long way from Zontar, and yet, maybe, we really aren’t.
Which makes me wonder: what does the Movies In The Park phenomenon say about movies, and about how we’re consuming them? Can something really have a cult appeal if it’s screened out in the open, with food trucks and leashed dogs in the mix? Does this turn certain movies into shared, communal experiences, less about the films themselves and more about the act of watching them, of gathering together to watch them? Is the movie in the aforementioned park more the center of the event, the focal point, or is it now a glorified background?
I can’t say that I know the answer to any of these questions. I can’t say that there is one absolute answer to these questions. Three things I can, however, say: 1. I had never seen Black Panther, and was completely impressed—and finally given a bit more of the voluminous backstory one has to know to truly appreciate this year’s Avengers: Endgame. 2. My son was completely impressed, and this is a young man who takes his comic-book flicks very seriously; when maximum buy-in occurs, the lad “geeks out” (his head nods violently up and down in adamant appreciation)—and that in fact occurred. 3. There were, several rows in front of us, two little girls who, taken by the African-influenced soundtrack (composed by Kendrick Lamar), were compelled to dance a lot, their silhouettes visibly performing the “baby dance” (essentially bobbing up and down while flailing one’s limbs about) in front of the screen—and they were every bit as delightful as the movie itself.
Given those three facts, I think I’d have to say that MITP does, in fact, turn movies into shared, communal experiences, akin in their way to the old practice of gathering in a park to hear a local band play under a gazebo—and by band, here, I mean the old-fashioned notion thereof, the kind you can imagine playing John Phillip Sousa, the kind of band Sgt. Pepper was meant as a burlesque of. No, seriously, especially given the meaning I’ve heard ascribed to that album’s cover: here, we imagine, is a band so unifying that the audience would contain folks from all walks of life, all times, all eras—Tom Mix, W.C. Fields, Alister Crowley, and Sonny Liston would all gladly sit together and listen. Likewise, the theory here (and it seems to be a valid theory) is that certain movies, screened in a park, will pull a cross-section of humanity.
That said, here’s a question that has yet to be answered: what, if anything, does that do to cult movies, and to our idea of them? What does it say about the “cults” themselves? Comic books, and all adjacent properties, enjoyed a long status as outsider fare, as prime cult material, and they still occupy that position. If you don’t believe me, walk into any comic-book store, walk up to the first heavyset guy in a black t-shirt you see, and say that Jack Kirby was overrated. But a cult is supposed to be small, a subset of society at large; if a movie made from cultic materials can gross in the hundreds of millions, and fill a park, is the fan-base for it really a cult? Is it possible that the cult (in this case) has always been this big, and most of its members hid beneath the veil of normalcy? If a Movies In The Park program offered films of unquestionable cult status—Rocky Horror, Pink Flamingoes, El Topo, etc—would there still be a huge crowd, with every demographic represented? Would, could, this experiment reveal that most of us have been freaks the whole time?
Or should I stop overthinking it and enjoy watching the dancing kids?