• Ruthie Hauge/Sun-Times Media

It’s been a few summers since I’ve attended an outdoor film screening. Though I appreciate in theory the city’s Movies in the Parks program, I don’t especially enjoy patronizing it. I find it difficult to concentrate sufficiently on a movie when it has to contend with street traffic and chatty spectators who seem to regard the event as a sort-of novel picnic. I don’t begrudge those spectators. What could be more conducive to pleasant conversation than a long, relaxing sit on the grass in warm weather? Besides, seven decades of television have conditioned us to accept the interplay of sounds and moving images as mere multidimensional wallpaper, the backdrop for group activity rather than its focal point. Writing on the related phenomenon of ubiquitous background music in public spaces in his expanded edition of Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan (2003), the great critic Robin Wood opined:

We are no longer permitted to eat or converse with our friends without a [musical] background. Most backgrounds I have learned to ignore . . . I am far more angered by the use (in the more “up-scale” restaurants) of classical music. If I want to listen to (say) the Mozart clarinet quintet, I want to be allowed to listen, at the proper volume, from beginning to end, not fragmented, reduced to semi-audibility, while I am trying to engage in discussion with a friend. To treat the quintet (or, I would have thought, any piece of music of any merit) in this way shows a total lack of respect for its composer.

I don’t mean to imply that one can’t respect a film when watching it an outdoor public space—I just want to note the challenge of doing so. I’ve attended some outdoor screenings—those sponsored by Black Cinema House and by Comfort Station in Logan Square—where the programmers succeeded in fostering a respectful attitude towards the movie being shown. And then there are movies (generally comedies and concert documentaries) that almost benefit from a picnic-like atmosphere, the convivial vibe encouraging viewers to laugh or applaud as a group.

The first time I watched William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1968) was in such a setting. Several years ago one of my best friends organized a semilegal screening series in the backyard of the house where he was living at the time. The film was not yet officially available on DVD, and so he projected it from a less-than-stellar bootleg, which the audience—who’d paid nothing to attend and in any case had been made amenable by the plenitude of cheap beer—didn’t seem to mind watching. In this context Klein’s biting satire of American militarism didn’t feel so bracing. The viewers (myself included) fixated on the inspired production design and the smart-stupid jokes, like the title character’s anthem, “F! R! Double E-D! D-O-M spells FREEDOM!” That my friend had programmed the film as the first half of a double feature with Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop was crucial in setting the tone. We were prepared from the get-go to have a good, cynical laugh, and Mr. Freedom rewarded our expectations many times over. Made giddy by the humor, we were more receptive to the film’s cynicism—if not grateful for its bald-faced outrage. I think it spoke to our anger over the Bush administration’s occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, which were still recent developments then.

Where most outdoor screenings devolve into picnics, this one began more or less as a party and evolved into a serious happening. A few years later Jonathan Rosenbaum would introduce a 35-millimeter screening of Mr. Freedom, in an extraordinary coincidence, on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I’m grateful to have attended that screening (Rosenbaum’s analysis of the film was characteristically enlightening), though I have much fonder memories of the earlier one.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.