Empire Drive-In: Queens, NY

Empire Drive-In provides an in-depth and appropriately inappropriate look at suburban alienation.

I don’t know if I can write as poignantly as this guy about what transpired three Saturdays ago, October 12th, but I have a lot of feelings about it. The Empire Drive-in as detailed on their official website is a large-scale temporary installation built from junk cars and other salvaged materials that was started by two New York artists, Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark. The empire was first commissioned in 2010 in San Jose, California. It was also brought to Manchester, UK at some point.

Empire Drive-In October 4-20, 2013 | 7pm-11pm New York Hall of Science 47-01 111th St | Corona, NY 11368 [map]

Empire Drive-In
October 4-20, 2013 | 7pm-11pm
New York Hall of Science
47-01 111th St | Corona, NY 11368 [map]

The Queens, NY outdoor “movie theater” was set at the New York Hall of Science and ran October 4-20 of this year with event tickets being sold at $10 for NYSCI members and $15 for non-members like me. I happened to catch two of these very well-curated events but I mostly want to talk about the first one I’ve witnessed: the Teenage Wasteland double feature.

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Going in I really was more excited about catching RVIVR for the second time than seeing the movies that they were going to play. Despite my love for classic films and longtime devotion to punk music, Over The Edge (1979) and Suburbia (1983) have both managed to escape my notice before that night. We showed up a few minutes before the operators in a van started playing hilarious old commercials from the emphatic anti-cable announcement to the laughable ominous-sounding warning against public displays of affection and the more than slightly disturbing anthropomorphic hotdogs.

Empire Drive-in Junk Car

I’m no car expert but I’ve read that these abandoned cars were manufactured in the past 15 years.

Since we couldn’t find any seats inside or atop one of the cars in the lot, we ended up parking our butts on the ground. Even though I wasn’t looking forward to getting butt and leg cramps, a quick glance at the audience and their laughter over the ridiculous commercials left the promise of a warm and cozy evening. Keep in mind that this happened on an autumn night where you’re never quite sure whether you need a light sweater or a thicker coat. It did eventually prove to be too cold for us to stay for Suburbia. But allow me to give a further recap on that incredible night full of human warmth and community.

By the time Over The Edge started playing and a young Matt Dillon came on screen clad in a midriff-baring shirt and acting like a snarky punk, I was already convinced there was no way I could have topped that Saturday night. The featured music, just like in all other movies and TV shows I’ve seen, was way louder than the spoken parts, but who really gives a damn when it’s Cheap Trick’s Surrender being blasted as the soundtrack to teenage angst? The loudness perfectly complemented the first whiff of punk energy which I got that evening.

Despite the fact that it was a rather uncomfortable seating position, I couldn’t help but break into a constant smile every time I would hear jeers from the audience directed at the right (wrong) people. I was grateful to be in the midst of eternally curious and youthful adults — the ones who miraculously manage not to be overpowered and fully tamed by the overwhelmingly obedient and law-abiding masses who surround them in their daily lives. So when the kids on the screen finally got their revenge and executed the perfect act of rebellion, I was one of the many who were clapping and cheering. It was also great comedic timing that a cop car drove by with its sirens on right at the time they were burning shit down in protest.

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I should point out that I saw a septuagenarian couple in a junk car but did not notice any kids in attendance. Most city-organized movies in the park that I’ve seen in San Diego attracted toddlers and young kids with their parents in large numbers. Overly serious and holier-than-thou human beings will certainly not approve of the film content but if you’re the type to keep an open mind, then I can’t recommend Over The Edge enough.

Before the oft-suppressed spirit of rebellion could get sucked away by the increasing coldness of the temperature, someone introduced RVIVR as “a band with a good idea of what punk sounds like in 2013.” The four-piece punk band went up on stage to do a sound check and tune their guitars, most of us left our “seats” to stand closer to them. Of course what should greet me but Mattie Canino — a polarizing figure in the punk community largely due to his outspoken support of the “queers” and freaks in general (he’s my hero!) — wearing a tight black dress and greeting the crowd with “Seriously, fuck the police, right?” And yet on cue for the second time, a cop car drove by. This was the part where I let out an internal shriek of excitement.

While RVIVR’s presence was mostly due to a promoter oversight (they were supposed to play a show in Brooklyn but ended up being double-booked), I can assure you that Mattie did not regret spending his birthday with us. In a perfect conglomeration of rebellion and weirdness in general, we expressed our gratitude by dancing and moving our heads to the band’s ferocious and infectious brand of pop-punk.

I’m not sure I can fully articulate the myriad of sensations and warm feelings that my first Empire Drive-In experience triggered in me, yet I would like to highlight and thank the organizers for these aspects to the event: 1) Individuals huddled together and bonding over their discontent which in essence formed a temporary community, 2) the issues of suburban angst and isolation brought on by the American car culture being acknowledged and discussed, 3) and a great punk band playing in a security-free zone.

Having spent the first twenty-four years of my life with public transportation being readily available, I could understand the refreshing allure of the private car which I quite enjoyed riding in my first few months in California. The only other mode of transportation you get there is the bus and those have limited routes and took all day to get anywhere. Like most people who were in attendance that night, I don’t believe that human beings should spend their lifetimes in cars as most Americans do. Sooner or later, your choice of vehicle gets absurdly bigger, you start blowing your horn incessantly in frustration, and you stop seeing those around you as human beings, only car models.

Not one of us holds the key to weeding out feelings of alienation, but I still hold out hope for a workable future that will mostly help the forgotten and the ordinary. I cannot overstate the impact of NYC’s counterculture and nerd scene and how it continues to pick me up and dust off the cobwebs of ennui which covered me in my worst days in San Diego. As eloquently stated by the organizers, Empire Drive-in came about not out of nostalgia, or in some attempt to relive their childhoods. They built it as a monument to a failed system, to unchecked consumerism, to the death of the car. It is very much the collective experience and the critical nostalgia that they have hoped for — a coming together of people who are mature enough to acknowledge the pitfalls and the failings of the American society.

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Since I couldn’t get enough of that experience, I made sure to go back the Saturday (their final one) after that first event I attended. This time the title was Silents and Noise: Handmade Films with Live Scores. To Many Men Strange Fates Are Given by Brent Green and The Rink  starring Charlie Chaplin were particular standouts for me.

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I can’t give enough thanks to the main organizers, the New York Hall of Science, and all the artists involved in this wonderful project. Lastly, this review snippet on their website perfectly encapsulates my Empire Drive-In experience: “It’s magically subversive; a dream made real.”

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