It's been clear for months that the 43rd Denver Film Festival would be like no edition before it, since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the annual cinematic splurge to transition to a virtual format. But fest director Britta Erickson and her team, in an effort to retain in-person elements, came up with the idea of Red Rocks drive-in presentations for three films, including Nomadland, which opened the event last night, October 22.
The plan was a gamble, to be sure. Drive-ins have traditionally been a summertime activity — an excuse to enjoy a movie with windows rolled down, enveloped by the refreshingly cool night air. But the unseasonably warm weather Denver has enjoyed through much of October was absent Thursday night, replaced by temperatures that started in the low forties and plunged steadily into the twenties over the course of the evening, plus persistent light precipitation that coated vehicles in an opaque layer of ice.
The result was a drive-in experience that separated true film lovers from poseurs, since the former group was willing to risk frostbite.
My wife and I arrived outside Red Rocks' south parking lot at around 6:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before the screening was set to begin — and it became immediately clear we'd made a strategic mistake. Because the lot isn't a natural amphitheater like the venue it serves, cars have to be carefully spaced at odd angles in order to guarantee an unobstructed view of the flick — and by the time we arrived, all the slots close to the screen had long since been taken. We realized right away that we would be at the back of the pack.
Before entering the lot, a DFF crew provided us with swag — a fabric bag that contained two pens and four cans of Red Bull, as well as a pack of Waterloo Sparkling Water, but no gloves or scarves, unfortunately. We were then directed to our designated space in the equivalent of a theater's back row. From where we sat, the screen looked like an eighteen-inch television viewed from the far side of the kitchen.
Lucky thing the audio was good: As directed, we tuned our radio to 97.5 FM and listened to previews and promotions we couldn't always see. For example, the DFF sponsorship clip was peppered with logos of organizations that helped finance and publicize the fest, but we couldn't tell one from the other. They looked like nearly identical blobs to us.
Shortly after 7 p.m., this material was interrupted by the voice of an unidentified staffer who, among other things, told us that if our car was dead after the movie was over, employees would happily jump the battery. She was followed by Denver Film Society president and CEO James Mejía, who welcomed everyone to the festival and joked that nothing could be a more appropriate kick-off for the event than enjoying a great film "in the freezing cold!"
Mejía didn't appear on the screen as he spoke these words. His intro was audio-only, as were the remarks of DFS board co-chair Kevin Teng and entrepreneur Barbara Bridges, co-founder of the Women+Film program, under the auspices of which Nomadland was presented. But we actually got to see a recording of the film's director, Chloé Zhao, who revealed that she'd been to Red Rocks many times during the two years she lived in Denver and said she would love to have attended opening night in order to see her latest offering "under the stars."
If only. The skies overhead were cloudy and close, and the combination of drizzle and mist made the intermittent use of windshield wipers a must. We didn't want to switch them on too often, though, because every time we did, we had to click the ignition switch to a position that automatically illuminated our running lights, thereby causing a potential distraction for everyone around us. The same was true when we deployed the heater, but we simply had to turn it on every so often. Leaving one window gapped to prevent the rest from fogging up caused the temp in the passenger compartment to plummet. We had bundled up — my wife wore one coat as intended and a second one over her legs, with her feet in its arms — but proper attire didn't exactly make our ride feel like a tropical paradise.
As a result, we spent the evening looking through a rain-and-ice-spattered windshield at flicking images that weren't always distinct. What were the on-line graphics that appeared several times during the early moments of the movie? Hell if we know. They were just broken white lines to us.
Given these factors, it's a tribute to Nomadland that we actually enjoyed much of it. The film, about Fern, a woman portrayed by Frances McDormand who finds herself living out of her van and living in an encampment of fellow wanderers following the death of her husband, is hardly a classic drive-in feature: The pace is unhurried, and the gentle, naturalistic plot focuses on character development rather than a surplus of exciting incidents. But McDormand's performance is extremely impressive — she interacts with a mostly amateur supporting cast without succumbing to showbiz stereotypes that often make famous folks' portrayals of ordinary people feel overwhelmingly phony — and the themes of loss and confusion are presented with an unvarnished poignancy that made them linger well beyond a conclusion that opts for intriguing ambiguity rather than corny closure.
As a bonus, we could definitely relate to the challenges faced by Fern when it comes to turning a car into a home. But there was an element of jealousy, too. After all, Nomadland takes place mainly in desert areas, where watching a movie doesn't require an ice scraper.