Why outdoor screenings are better for watching people than movies.
A new mainstay of the Toronto summer, the outdoor movie screening creates a busy meeting place for city dwellers whose trajectories may not intersect in any other context. You’ve got the tykes who are jazzed to be up and out after dark, along with the parents who’ve already begun to regret making the outing. Then there are aging-but-still-with-it downtowners and younger nightflies who are thrilled to have an evening experience that’s more culturally stimulating than boozing on a patio. And we can’t forget the weird couples who—like the pair in a memorable Portlandia sketch—annoy their fellow patrons by recreating their rec rooms, complete with sightline-destroying chairs, inane conversation, and the noisiest possible snack foods.
That’s just a smattering of the many groups whose shared enthusiasm has created a veritable boom for al fresco cinema, with weekly outdoor screenings running all summer long in venues like Harbourfront Centre’s WestJet Stage, Yonge-Dundas Square, and David Pecaut Square at Metro Hall. (The first of the big programs to get rolling, the Open Roof Festival, launches June 21 with a screening of Marley in the parking lot of the Amsterdam Brewery.*) Of all the folks who are eager to enjoy these events, though, one type may be scarcer than the rest: people actually paying attention to the movie.
For all of its power to enchant, the outdoor screening can be a lousy place to experience a film. Audio problems are a regular pet peeve, whether that means straining to hear quiet dialogue in a drama or enduring the muddy blare of explosions in an action flick. And while sprawling out on a blanket with your partner can be romantic, it’s more conducive to relaxing—or heavy petting if you’re up for the PDA—than viewing.
But the biggest knock against outdoor screenings may have more to do with human nature. While al fresco cinema events certainly demonstrate our enduring and Netflix-defying desire to experience a movie with a crowd, we in the crowd are vulnerable to an equally strong urge, which is to spend more time scrutinizing other moviegoers than anything happening on screen.
In that respect, patrons of Toronto’s outdoor-screening circuit are not so different from earlier generations of moviegoers who enjoyed their open-air viewing at the drive-in theatres that used to cover the continent (and can still be found at places like Oakville’s gloriously old-school 5 Drive-In). Sure, the folks enjoying Dirty Dancing in Yonge-Dundas Square don’t use up as much gas, but they still have an acute awareness of their surroundings, as well as the temporary nighttime community they form with their fellow patrons.
To paraphrase the talking fox in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, chaos reigns in circumstances like these, even more so when the viewers start tucking into whatever they brought in their flasks. (Unlike many of the more family-oriented series, the Open Roof Festival is actually licensed—as well it should be, given its location.) No wonder the outdoor screening is not to all tastes. Then again, I will admit that my personal ideal for moviegoing—i.e., a cluster of dedicated cinephiles cloaked in darkness and united in a reverential silence—is itself an unusual notion in many corners of the globe. Noisy outdoor screenings are the norm in towns throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. While they may seem rambling and unruly to Western viewers, Bollywood’s extravaganzas fit perfectly well with the rowdier nature of moviegoing in India, where screenings tend to be more avidly social sorts of gatherings.
And there’s no reason to believe that al fresco cinema’s particular set of conditions need always get in the way of the thrills, chills, and epiphanies that make a moviegoing experience truly indelible. It’s just that the context works best for a certain kind of film, one with enough bluster to compete with all the other distractions. No wonder programmers for these series tend to stick with golden oldies of a distinctly exuberant nature*. At Yonge-Dundas Square, the coming season favours cult comedies like Harold and Maude and The Big Lebowski while Harbourfront Centre’s Free Flicks program rounds up rousing underdog stories like When We Were Kings, Whale Rider, and, uh, Zoolander. Alas, the more delicate likes of Moonrise Kingdom may require less raucous circumstances, lest it lose out to the lure of passing ice cream trucks or the chance to observe the courtship rituals of strangers illuminated by flickering light.
CORRECTION, JUNE 26, 2012: The original version of this article, as it appears in the June 21, 2012, edition of The Grid, incorrectly stated the Open Roof Festival is held on the roof of the Amsterdam Brewery, when it actually is held in the brewery’s parking lot. The article also included erroneous information about the programming selections for the TIFF in the Park series at David Pecaut Square; the information has been removed.