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Question: Here we are, the intellectual elite, an assembled throng of lawyers, pundits, and leaders — arguably the highest concentration of brainpower known to mankind. We’re in Washington, D.C. — arguably the hub of freedom with all the personal convenience and choices it bestows. Each summer we cower in our offices, cars, and homes in this wretched swamp we call our home — arguably the most horrid weather in the civilized world. So why would we even think of going to an outdoor movie? Two generations ago, this wasn’t an issue — we were more accepting of nature’s trials and flocked to drive-in theaters. From their origins in 1933 through their peak in the late ’50s, drive-ins were prime summertime attractions, fueled by Americans’ love of cars (especially convertibles), but ultimately doomed by soaring suburban land values, the economies of multiplex operation, and enhanced home entertainment options. Virginia reportedly once had more than 140 drive-ins and Maryland more than 40, but you won’t find a single survivor within Washington’s orbit. The Baysox are launching a new series of shows at their Bowie stadium on nights without home games, but to relive the true nostalgia you’ll have to trek 10 miles beyond Baltimore to the massive and lovingly restored Bengies in Chase, Md. (See “The Ultimate Drive-In Experience,” July 13, 1998, Page 70.) For much of the last century, indoor theaters introduced and showcased a succession of novel technologies that we envied and frequented until they finally made their way into our homes. The wonders of motion, sound, color, stereo, and wide screens all enthralled us in the dark allure of the local cinema long before they could be enjoyed as part of our households. Yet the movies brought one innovation that was far more important than all the others put together — they were air-conditioned! Many a D.C. summer blockbuster owed far more to audiences craving the respite of “refrigerated air” than stirring plots, legendary stars, exotic scenery, rousing theme songs, or anything else Hollywood put on the screen. Yet, having conquered the oppressive demons of the withering heat and stifling humidity of a Washington summer, year after year we venture out into the climatic armpit to schvitz and feed the local insects, and all for a movie. Aside from sheer masochism, why do we do this? One thing’s for sure — we do, and in increasing droves! Despite the general trend toward personal comfort and self-directed entertainment, the popularity and variety of outside film festivals keeps expanding. Perhaps the most bizarre series is in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, shown on the marble wall of a mausoleum. The most intriguing local option might be Baltimore’s “Little Italy Film Festival” — to quote last year’s Washington Post listing, it was (and hopefully still is) “projected from 93-year-old John Penna’s third-story bedroom window” at Stiles and High streets each Friday evening. Here in the District, of course, things are more dignified. The classiest of all summer movie fests has to be our own Monday night “Screen on the Green.” The peerless setting reverberates with symbolism of our governance, culture, and ideals — formerly at the foot of the Washington Monument, it has now settled into the center of the Mall between Fourth and Seventh streets, N.W., nestled between the Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art and facing a backdrop of the soft glow of the Capitol dome. The ambience is as inviting and elegant as can be for such affairs — a carpet of thick grass surrounded by quaint streetlights dimmed for a first-rate, old-fashioned scene. Given the location and our post-9/11 times, an added surprise has been minimal (or at least thoroughly inconspicuous) security. (Speaking of which, while the final chapters may yet be written on winning the war against terrorism, it’s sadly apparent to anyone who’s tried recently to stroll near the White House or any of our national monuments who’s already lost.) Last summer on the Mall, the technical quality was top-notch, with a rock-steady image from crisp new prints (and real reel changeovers!). The sound traveled for blocks with a fascinating and distinctive echo as it careened off the surrounding buildings, although toward the outer reaches the apparent size of the picture grew tiny. Yet, the crowd, spread on blankets with plenty of room for latecomers or early departures, was the true highlight of the show — thousands of mostly 20-somethings locate each other with cell phones, but once twilight dims and the movie starts after a vintage cartoon, their attention is utterly rapt — and this was for fare like Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Liz Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives. Wail all you want about the sad lapse in arts education and lack of appreciation for culture nowadays, but these kids — and a lot of them — are definitely alright! If the Mall attracts young professionals, the burbs gather the family crowd. For years, the National Institutes of Health showed 10 days of movies in late August on its beautiful Bethesda campus, but after 9/11 the prospect of actual people roving around there compelled a shift in venue to a fine natural amphitheater at the Strathmore Arts Center, on Rockville Pike in north Bethesda. In contrast to the “Screen on the Green,” everything at the NIH series is aimed at kids and their doting parents. Last year’s movies on the Mall were an eclectic but mostly sophisticated mix of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and “2001,” while the NIH opted for “The Sound of Music,” “Lord of the Rings,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” “Willy Wonka,” “Spiderman,” “Titanic,” and “Harry Potter II,” plus, in its only nod to the classics, “Vertigo.” Apart from a lone Park Service kiosk, food at the Mall was a bring-your-own affair, while NIH had a broad array of cuisine from area eateries, including seafood, tacos, chili, pizza, and ice cream (plus the usual popcorn and soda), all benefiting the NIH Children’s Charities. After brief kudos to the sponsors, the Mall got down to business, but each NIH flick was preceded by an hour-long concert boasting the diversity of a roots band, salsa, Afro-Cuban rhythm, bluegrass, Cuban, and Native American music, and then loads of promos for local community activities. And while the Mall audience was fully absorbed in the movie with concert-hall decorum, the Bethesda crowd’s nonstop chatter often overwhelmed the soundtrack. So what’s the point of all this? Why do we subject ourselves to the burden of travel, our routines to disruption, our poor bodies to the unbearable climate? We go to concerts, theater, sports, and other mass diversions for a good reason — the live experience is unique and irreplaceable, vastly superior to the mere traces made available through the electronic versions of such events. But why outdoor films? It can’t be the free admission — affluent Washingtonians rarely hesitate to pay a modest price for convenience and comfort. Certainly not the movies themselves — the selections are all readily available on cable, tape, and disc to enjoy at our convenience and in the ease of our living rooms. And surely not the technology — even at its best, the quality is primitive compared with the sound and picture we’re accustomed to in indoor theaters and even at home. Perhaps the answer lies in a slim but welcome reminder of the continued vitality of the social adhesive that shaped our society from the outset. That powerful bond seems especially telling as we accelerate down the seemingly irreversible path of our information-rich age that enables each of us to pursue in depth the most narrow of pursuits. As we race toward a time when we each nestle into our private realm to select and dote on the precise entertainment we prefer, and as these burgeoning possibilities threaten to splinter the social order, it’s assuring to know that something cohesive and basic to our society still remains. It may seem increasingly elusive to define and often hard to pinpoint, but you can find it each summer as Washington crowds gather to see an outdoor movie. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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