Tuesday, March 21, 2023


 by JB

Q: What do these very different films have in common?

A: Carbon Arcs*

Yes, though one is a contemporary documentary and the other is a fictional period piece; though one was shot digitally on the fly and other was lensed by DP legend Roger Deakins; though one features real theater owners and employees and the other stars award-winners Olivia Coleman, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth... these two films are quite amazing in their Lincoln/Kennedy-like similarities! Both films prominently feature old-timey projectors that get their light from a carbon arc.

Back to the Drive-In is the latest film from documentarian April Wright. You may have seen her previous films Stuntwoman: The Untold Hollywood Story, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, and Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie. The movie palace documentary plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies; all three are terrific.
Wright’s previous drive-in documentary gave us the history, but her newest film shows us the contemporary reality of owning a drive-in theater. During the COVID pandemic, American drive-ins experienced a rebirth as they were the only theaters that could reopen safely. Wright’s film focuses on eleven drive-ins just as the pandemic ends; it’s an inspiring but often sad story. Two of the drive-ins featured in the film, the Field of Dreams and The Quasar, are virtual pop-ups, built by drive-in enthusiasts, one in his own backyard. Two of the drive-ins are old and famous; the owners of the Bengies Drive-In and Mission Tiki Drive-In have seen fortune and misfortune and brace for whatever will come next. The poor owner of the Wellfleet Drive-In in Cape Cod must contend with seasonal fog that sometimes shrouds his screen with a visually impenetrable blanket. Wright utilizes some title cards and other tricks of the trade to differentiate the eleven drive-ins, but it’s a sign of her filming and editing skills that by the time we are a third of the way in, we know each drive-in theater by sight. Bar area set up to sell White Russians for a screening of The Big Lebowski? Why, that’s the Greenville Drive-In! Retro atomic design and décor? That’s the Quasar! A thicket of fog filmed from a drone above the screen? Why, that’s the sad, unfortunate Wellfleet... again.
I loved this documentary for its delightful specificity. Wright allows the theater owners to tell their own stories and not one of them disappoints. The owner of the Bengies Drive-In is a “Type A” individual, proud of the rules that his theater enforces and tireless in his nightly supervision ritual. By my count, on an average night, he circles the drive-in eight or nine times. The co-owner of The Quasar is an architect, and she delights in describing all the research and history she brought to bear when designing her drive-in for maximum retro impact and efficiency. The manager of the Coyote Drive-In shares tales from the time of COVID, including a patron so incensed at being required to wear a mask indoors that she dropped her pants and urinated in front of the entire outdoor queue at the concession stand. All the owners note a recent downturn in civility among customers. Many of the owners wish the customers knew how their cars worked. One drive-in theater owner suggests that every new car should come with an information packet labelled “At the Drive-In,” which would explain how to extinguish both the dome light and all outside lights... as well as explaining the “accessory” setting.
ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Adam and Rob’s Reserved Seating last week featured talk of the drive-in with friends of the site Margo Donahue and Sonia Mansfield. It was a delightful show, as usual, and it sent me hurtling down the nostalgia rabbit hole, thinking about the drive-in movie theaters of my youth. It was sobering to think that I might be the sole member of the F This Movie Crew old enough to have actually gone to the late, great 53, Sky-Hi, and Twin Drive-Ins that Adam and Rob referenced on the show. The 53 Drive-In holds a particularly warm place in my heart, and it was the drive-in I attended the most. (I first saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the 53.) Located at the corner of old Route 53 and Rand Road in unincorporated Palatine, the 53 Drive-In Theater boasted three big screens that each hosted a TRIPLE feature every weekend. There was a rumor, which I have never been able to prove or disprove, that after the third movie, enterprising theater employees would go from car to car on Saturday night, collecting an additional two dollars per car. If enough insomniacs ponied up, they would throw on a bonus fourth film... at two o’clock in the morning.

Whoever was in charge of marketing Empire of Light last year really botched the job. Though I saw the theatrical trailer no less than five times, I had no idea what the movie was about, aside from its interracial romance. Though I am a big fan of writer/director Sam Mendes and lead actress Olivia Coleman, I decided to give this one a pass, until last week when I caught up with it courtesy of the HBO Max machine.
Why didn’t the film’s original marketing play up the fact that it’s a period piece about a British movie palace; it’s a love letter to both '80s cinema and the then-rapidly vanishing “big movie house?” Am I the only film nerd around here who needed that extra push over the cliff to compel me to see Empire of Light in a proper theater, where it clearly belongs? As my wife and I enjoyed this wonderful film, I kept wondering out-loud if perhaps this Fox Searchlight production was somehow orphaned when the Disney Machine ate up 20th Century Fox Studios.

The Plot in Brief: Hilary Small (Olivia Coleman) is the assistant manager of the Empire Theater on the northern coast of Kent, England. She is very good at her job, but she is lonely. She sees a doctor for an unnamed malady and takes Lithium for depression. Young Stephen Murray (Michael Ward) is hired on as a ticket taker and the two begin a sweet, hesitant romance. It’s not long before Stephen discovers Hilary’s sad and troubled backstory.
The film received mixed reviews, which I’m guessing sunk its chances for a longer theatrical run. Matt Zoller Seitz rated the film 2.5 out of 4 stars and wrote, “[it] starts out a bit dim and unfocused and becomes sharper and more illuminating as it unreels.” I’m having a hard time understanding how that is a criticism. Isn’t that the way narratives are supposed to unreel? Do audiences really want everything clear-cut and obvious right from the start? I loved how Empire of Light takes it time and trusts its audience to discover its surprises and themes. I wish more contemporary movies gave their audiences as much credit as Empire assumes of its intended audience.
Toby Jones plays the theater’s projectionist, Norman, and at one point in the film, he delivers a speech about the movies. I assume here that he’s speaking directly for screenwriter Mendes; it’s a wonderful monologue, the film’s highlight, and IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE TRAILER. Here’s a sampling:

That’s the carbons. The spark between the carbons makes the light.
And nothing happens without light. [...] It is amazing. Because it’s just
static frames, with darkness in between. There's a little flaw in our
optic nerves, so if I run the film at 24 frames per second, you don't see the
darkness... viewing static images rapidly in succession creates an illusion
of motion, an illusion of life...

Both films deal with movie-going and movie theaters specifically. Movie theaters are places of magic, areas in our culture specifically zoned as places to dream. In both Back to the Drive-In and Empire of Light, the dream is sometimes a nightmare. One nightmare looks and sounds like the Olivia Coleman character in Empire going off her medication with disastrous results and another nightmare is the looming phantom of theater owners not making their payrolls this week in Back to the Drive-In.
Back to the Drive-In is available as VOD on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.
Empire of Light is now streaming on HBO Max and is available on Blu-ray disc.

*”The Capitol Theater in Rome, NY, like a mere handful of decades-old movie palaces still showing movies, has the capability to show film with carbon-arc projection. This involves a type of illumination that does not involve a lamp or bulb. It is literally an arc of light that bridges two rods made of carbon. Yes, kind of like the image you may have just thought of from old Frankenstein movies [....]

The projectors have two sections: the part where the film is threaded, and the lamp housing. The projectors, along with everything else in the booth, are on regular AC current. The carbon arc lamp runs on DC. As it was explained to me, it has to, as the way the arc is created is by positioning two carbon rods — one positive and one negative — slightly apart from one another, and this requires a DC current. The inside of the lamp housing is about 2 feet long by 1 foot high and has a curved mirror reflector at the back to focus the light.

The two carbons are held in place by what are called jaws, which rotate slowly to maintain the distance between the two rods as they burn down. The carbon rods used in the projectors at the Capitol last for three 2000’ reels of film. A full 2000’ reel of 35mm film is 22 minutes long. At the back of the lamp housing is a device that uses water to cool the jaws which, as you can imagine, get quite hot. When the carbon arc is switched on, it’s of course too bright to look at, but it does need to be monitored. There is a piece of glass like you’d have on a welding helmet on the side of the housing that you can look through.

This whole process is safe, regulated, insulated, etc., and was used in movie theater projection for decades. The color temperature, if you’re aware of it at all, is slightly different from the Xenon projector bulbs you’re used to seeing in film projection. It’s just a hair warmer, but there’s something else about the look of the films I saw onscreen at the Capitol during Capitol Fest that I can’t really describe. It has to be seen or really experienced to grasp.”

--"Shedding Some Light on Classic 35mm Film Projection”
By Ben Model


  1. I watched Empire of Light on my phone and I am ambivalent about it. I hate watching any “motion picture” content on that tiny of a screen and rarely do.

    In this case I was not excited to watch another sad-Mendes or crazy-Coleman movie but I was stuck in a roller rink for several hours (unable to skate) and was trying to finish my 2022 Oscar watch. The Toby Jones theater history moments were the best parts of the movie but otherwise I’m not recommending it to anyone.

    That said, I’ve never seen any April Wright movies and now I want to watch them all, so thank you for that sir.

  2. Thanks for this, JB. I was charmed by Empire of Light and must insist that anyone who has the opportunity to watch it does so on a large screen to see the absolutely glorious cinematography by Deakins. The story itself didn't blow my mind but it was quite pleasant.

    I'm curious about the Drive In movie--I hadn't heard of it but now I want to see it!