I’m only going from Mexico City to Queretaro, less than two hours’ journey, but because I haven’t traveled by bus in a while it feels like an adventure. The bus I’m in is a lot cleaner and more modern than the ones I used to travel in decades ago, and the free WiFi plus plush seats reflects how much Mexico has changed in that time.
As the driver swings the bus out of the terminal and into city traffic, I watch the city flicker by outside the window. The outskirts of the city, however, lose their appeal when a screen in front of the bus comes to life. The improvised cement structures that line the exit from the city are incapable of competing with the lure of a brightly lit television screen.
Sitting on a reclining seat staring at a screen at the front of the bus feels much like being inside of a multiplex theater (especially since their movie screens have shrunk in size), although it feels even more like sitting inside of a car at a drive-in. For a kid who grew up in Manhattan and didn’t know how to drive a car until late in life, drive-ins were the equivalent of a cinematic road adventure. While visiting my dad in upstate New York, I got to see some classic flicks, like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the first Fast And Furious, both celebrations of American highway culture.
Drive-ins started popping up in vacant lots across the country sometime in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s, at a time when cars and suburbs came to symbolize the American Dream, that they became one of the most popular ways to watch movies. From the 1960s to the 1980s, drive-ins were an important point of sale for low-budget genre films, including adolescent exploitation films that featured sex, drugs, rock’ n roll and, of course, fast cars.
The majority of drive-ins went bust in the last decades of the 20th century, in large part due to the competition from multiplexes in the shiny malls spreading across the country. As a result, the low-budget, alternative films that for generations provided the visual backdrop to adolescent drinking and necking also disappeared, paving the way for the monopolistic production and consumption of corporate cinema in the US.
Although drive-ins never gained much popularity here, Mexico always had its own version of cinemas-on-wheels, what could be called drive-outs. With more screens than all the multiplex cinemas together, and with a captive audience of millions of viewers per month, movies screened on buses were an important point of distribution for low-budget Mexican movies for decades. In the early 90s, on a bus ride from Mexico City to Tlaxcala, I saw the curvaceous Rosa Gloria Chagoyán kick butt in Lola la trailera (Lola the Truck Driver), one of the highest grossing films of the era and classic cine de carretera. On a trip down to Oaxaca, I got to see La India María, Mexico’s indigenous Charlie Chaplin, in Ni de aquí ni de allá (Not From Here, Not From There), the misadventures of a campesina traveling by bus to the US border.
It made perfect sense that Mexican buses, the most popular means of transport in the country, showed working-class, regionally produced movies on-board. Not only did these movies represent the lifestyle of the largest segment of the population, the ones who most traveled by mass transportation, but these movie often had scenes shot in buses or on highways, a perfect way to promote this form of transport to a huge captive audience.
As the bus cruises down the highway, I sit back and make myself comfortable as the movie begins. Today’s feature film, to my surprise, turns out to be Australia (2008), starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. More than just a cheesy blockbuster romance, the film seems to be a tourist advertisement for Australia (not surprisingly, as Baz Luhrmann, the director of this movie, filmed commercials for Australia’s Secretary of Tourism while on location). I can’t really think of any movie that could be further from the experience of riding on a bus in Mexico, and I seriously doubt that many of those who watch the movie in a bus in Mexico will ever go to visit Australia, so why show a 90-minute advertisement of someplace where only airplanes can take you?
Just as in most non-mobile cinemas, few Mexican movies get screened on buses these days, and now US blockbuster films dominate not only the US-style multiplexes in Mexico (the Carson Group owned one of Mexico’s largest cinema chains for years) but also the thousands of screens that are crisscrossing their way around highways in Mexico every day. What was for decades the most popular outlet for local movie production no longer exists, and thus the intimate connection between the Mexican highway and Mexican movies has been lost.
Not only is this a loss for local film culture and business, it is also a loss for a special kind of viewing experience. Although buses use movies mostly just to help kill time between two destinations, they also inadvertently provide a very particular environment in which to watch them. Traveling in a bus on a highway at 90 kilometers per hour, with the constant vibration from the road mixed with the noise of grinding gears, and with a back and forth motion when braking or accelerating and a side-to-side motion when swerving around curves, creates the equivalent of Sensurround.
Sensurround is a technology that utilizes silent, low frequencies that aren’t actually heard but are instead perceived as intense vibrations. After a few movies incorporated this technology (Earthquake, 1974, was the first), this special effects system was abandoned, mostly because the vibrations dislodged plaster from the movie theater roofs and walls. After Sensurround, 4D technology was developed that could physically synchronize the movement in eight directions of movie theaters seat to the action, but soon the novelty was lost and most cinemas once again returned to conventional audio and stasis.
Watching a movie in Sensurround or with 4D effects produces motion and vibrations add extra tension and enhanced special effects to the cinematic experience. Buses do the same, although inadvertently and not necessarily in a synchronized way. The contrast between the action on the screen and the rumblings from down below and the disjunction between the movements in the movie and the motion on the bus creates instead a more anarchic experience, one that foregrounds the power of special effects.
The magic of cinema, if such a thing exists, is its ability to transport the viewer to distant, fantastic worlds, to create intense perceptual and emotional experiences and wild, unexpected adventures, and then bring the viewer safely back to their daily life. Riding a bus in Mexico used to offer a wide variety of such experiences: chickens flying overhead, the bathroom overflowing, buses that broke down on the highway late at night, policemen boarding the bus in search of drug traffickers or illegal immigrants. Real life entered into the world of transportation as much as it entered into the world of cinema back then, creating unsuspected adventures even within predestined routes or screening times. Cinemas and public transportation were also once cultural spaces that reflected local and national character. Today movies are globalized formulas and are as predictable as a reliable bus schedule.
Yet, even in modern Mexico, nothing ever turns out exactly planned. My bus pulls into the Queretaro bus terminal and the driver kills the engine right before the movie’s romantic climax. No one, including myself, however, seems at all upset. The apathy viewing today’s blockbusters is equal to that of modern travel in which, encapsulated within a comfortable moving vehicle equipped with a movie screen and access to the latest box-office blockbusters, no one even bothers to look out the window at the world around them.