Feel Part of the Crowd Again With These Perfect Cinematic Small Gatherings

From classic Irish pubs to the Chicago comedy club where Jamie Foxx got his start, you’ll feel like you’re doing anything but social-distancing while watching these four documentaries

If a genie popped out of your hand sanitizer bottle and offered a few hours of pre-pandemic normalcy, with the caveat you have to choose a single social activity, what would it be? 

Would you convene a poker game, pop molly at a basement EDM rave, gather around a wooden table for a long, multiple-course, wine-infused meal, find an orgy, catch Shakespeare in the Park or go to a house of worship… only to realize a backyard barbecue would be way more gratifying and beg that genie for one more wish? 

For me, it would be hoops. I’ve been playing in two weekly New York City games for the better part of two decades, and it’s the one thing I cannot replicate in any way, shape or form during quarantine. (Hell, I can’t even play socially-distanced H-O-R-S-E.) I badly miss the guys I play with on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. I’ve known them for years, even though with some of them, I don’t know where they live, what they do for a living, or for a few, their last names. That’s just the beauty of pickup ball. 

Sigh. 

I guess it’s back to wadded up paper and the trash can again. 

But while tight-knit social gatherings have become the Holy Grail of the coronavirus — I mean, even the Last Supper couldn’t happen today — there are any number of under-the-radar documentaries to remind us of the good times of the olden days (i.e., February) and the even better times to come, like fingers crossed, next February. 

Here are four of my favorites… 

At the Drive-In 

A few weeks ago, a quirky bit of Americana business came out that a lone drive-in movie theater in Ocala Florida, propelled two indie movies, Resistance and Swallow, to box-office glory with a whopping $2,490 apiece. There are around 300 drive-ins throughout the U.S., well down from the 4,000-plus in the 1950s heyday, but nonetheless, in the days of six-feet-apart amusement, the venerable viewing experience is having a moment. Last week, for example, 25 were open for business, up five from the week before. 

Today, the Mahoning Drive-In Theater, the subject of the 2017 documentary At the Drive-In, is silent, but it was just deemed an essential business by the Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s new guidelines. “It feels good to be essential, we want to be there on a simple pure level of giving people a bit of an escape,” said Virgil Cardamone, one of three Mahoning co-owners. “On a business level, we’ve been blessed to build a film mecca where people are able to socialize, be their true selves and let the freak flags fly. We’re hoping the Mahoning can be a beacon for people to regain confidence in their community.”

Two words, then: Road trip! 

Because the one thing that shines through in director Alexander Monelli’s film is that this 71-year-old warhorse is movie nerd nirvana. Three years earlier, Temple film student Matt McClanahan was driving on the back Carbon County roads when he spotted the marquee of what he figured was an abandoned drive-in. Nope, it’s just scruffy. On the lot that day was co-owner and long-running projectionist Jeff Mattox, who was at a major crossroads with his beloved business. First-run films were increasingly being released digitally and a proper upgrade would run 100 grand, money he simply didn’t have. McClanahan, though, brought in Cardamone, and the three of them (and an army of volunteers) turned a debt-ridden dinosaur into a popping, profitable enterprise, basically doubling revenue every year and welcoming more than 500 cars a show. 

“The documentary continues to resonate because it shows the love and passion it’s going to take for the country to recover from this devastating blow,” says Cardamone. “Thankfully, we’ve been prepping for the pandemic for years. In June, we’re showing the four Mad Max movies, and it’ll be wild, with fans showing up in masks and fitting right into this post-apocalyptic world we’ve got going on.” 

In its subtle way, At the Drive-In is really a story of problem-solving on a human level — a Boomer and a bunch of millennials joining forces to tell our tech overlords to cram it in the name of making a tiny sliver of the world a better, more fun-filled place. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

The Irish Pub

It’s been a long time since I visited Ireland, but I still daydream of a warm Dingle single malt and Celtic music on a cold February night at McGann’s Pub in Doolin, the perfect kind of homey snug drinkery. To know the Emerald Isle is to know its pubs, which have nothing in common with the typical American Sully O’Stagger’s replica abominations. First and foremost, they’re a place for conversation, sprightly gossip and plenty of laughs, the enjoyable stew known as craic

Alex Fegan of Dublin’s Atom Films left no stool upturned visiting various watering holes across the country, many still featuring quaint grocery stores and one run by the village undertaker. The only requirement for The Irish Pub was that the establishment had been run by a single family for at least three generations. Prior to COVID, the film was a delightfully laid-back portrait of a hallowed tradition. Viewed today, with Ireland shutting down the tavern trade on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day (possibly until 2021), the comfort amongst barkeeps and their customers is tantamount to torture. 

“With the exception of a few pubs in Temple Bar, Dublin, which no sane Irish person would ever go into, tourists and locals tend to blend seamlessly and enjoy conversation,” says Fegan, whose centenarian-centric Older Than Ireland is also on Amazon Prime. “If you go to Dick Mack’s or Curran’s in Dingle, any of the Victorian pubs in Dublin or the tourist haunts in Galway or Cork, you’ll find great banter where people of different nationality, age, race or creed find common ground over a pint. It’s what makes the Irish pub kind of unique.” 

Ireland hasn’t had the apocalyptic pub closure rate of London (which predates coronavirus), but they are dwindling. Since 2005, more than 1,500 classic pubs have been shuttered due in part to educated children not wanting to run the family business and less drinking overall. The government protects — and restricts alterations to — pubs that have been around for 100 years or more, but it still hurts knowing these Celtic treasures sit empty. The WhatsApp craic just ain’t the same. 

“I contacted some of the owners from the film, asking them if they were planning any sneaky lock-ins — sadly, they’re not — but it’s been extremely hard for them,” Fegan tells me. “In general, businesses in Ireland have been supportive of the measures to flatten the curve, and some of the long-standing family pubs that own their own buildings will survive. The question is, will we? As one Wicklow man recently wrote to the Irish Times, ‘For God’s sake, open the pubs before we all become alcoholics.’” (Available on Amazon Prime.)

Phunny Business

There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of being in a small space where a lone stand-up, wielding only a microphone, slays a crowd and has them howling with laughter. It’s even better when each act builds on the last, the room morphing into a having-trouble-breathing feeding frenzy for jokes. For the better part of the 1990s, it was that way at Chicago’s All Jokes Aside every night, the brainchild of former investment banker Raymond Lambert, an éminence grise whose unbelievable roster of talent defines 21st-century comedy. 

Hyperbole? 

Well, the first stand-up to take the original makeshift stage was Jamie Foxx. And the formal venue was home turf for the late great South Side native Bernie Mac

“People tend to see people of color in a monolithic way, but of course, that’s ridiculous. At All Jokes Aside, we had all walks of life coming to see our shows,” says Lambert. “We had doctors, lawyers, blue-collar workers, the occasional gangbanger, even Michael Jordan’s first wife Juanita was a regular. Everyone came together under our roof.” 

Well, not everyone. The story of All Jokes Aside is told in Phunny Business, but what you won’t see much of — outside of one stoner crowd favorite — is white people. It was just three miles from Second City, but in hyper-segregated Chicago, the SNL and Def Comedy Jam breeding grounds existed in entirely different antic orbits. All Jokes Aside was an oasis for Black comedy aficionados all its own, and man, did it look like the audiences had one hell of a time. Lambert ran a first-class joint — people on- and off-stage dressed to the nines, and there was no short-changing of the acts. One comic enthusiastically recalled that All Jokes paid them with checks

“We had a social mission to do right by the performers, employees, and most importantly, the people who spent their hard-earned money at All Jokes Aside to be entertained,” Lambert tells me. 

Unfortunately, the club’s success hastened its demise. South Loop rent and big-box gentrification played a part, but so did the fact that the All Jokes Aside stalwarts moved from Lambert’s 300-seat venue to theaters ten times the size. The original kings (and queens) of the club became the Original Kings (and Queens) of Comedy, and in 1998, after seven years of minting stars, All Jokes Aside closed. 

However, at the end of Phunny Business, Lambert takes a never-say-never approach to resurrecting the one-time comedy epicenter. It’s his story and he’s sticking to it, COVID be damned. “Having All Jokes Aside go down because of coronavirus would have been devastating. I feel for any entrepreneur whose business is in jeopardy,” he says. “We need to protect the mom-and-pops, but I’m actually excited about what shape the city will take, what opportunities there will be if we can figure it out, once there’s a vaccine. Maybe it’ll be an incredible intimate 100-seater. Comics are some of the most resilient people around, and it could be really special.” (Available on YouTube.)

Book Club

In suburban Washington D.C., a group of eight women has been getting together to discuss matters literary and everything else under the sun for 62 years. Book Club (not to be confused with the 2018 horny AARP Oscar-winners on parade movie of the same name) tells the story of their incredible bond to one another. 

It all started back in 1942, when a group of young mothers whose husbands worked long hours in the Capital supporting the war effort decided to “read books to keep up with what’s going on in the world.” It ended up writing the story of their lives. Hope Hartman directs the 2015 film with a lived-in coziness and a minimum of fuss, eschewing title cards and even the ladies’ proper ages (although one woman was a swimming champion in the Senior Olympics 86-and-up division) for bits and pieces of their lives as it would have unfolded over wine, Jell-O salad and conversation on the couch. Their shared decades-long experience was so meaningful, family vacations were planned around their regular gatherings. More than one clubber refers to it as a lifelong “support group,” including a woman who lost a son. 

Beyond longevity, part of what makes their book club special is that it operates differently than the familiar ones. Going back to the days of husbands bringing home $150 a month, they never all bought the same book, instead they found stuff they liked, or didn’t, and passed it along. As such, it’s much more of a reading aloud and sharing books set-up than intellectual one-upswomanship. 

That said, a spirited debate early on about the intellectual superiority of Unitarians led to the banning of religion talk. Sex chat is allowed, but in an elderly person way (when’s the last time you heard the word “intercourse?”). One member is free and open about her post-divorce dalliances; another remembers a 1930s pregnant college prom queen “had the whole state of Oregon aghast.” 

The scope of their lives is incredible. One woman grew up during the Great Depression on the South Dakota prairie before going to work for the FBI (where everyone was “terrified of J. Edgar”), while another had fulfilling family experiences living in India and Turkey as part of the Foreign Service, only to return three weeks before JFK was assassinated. 

Book Club is charming as hell, but the white hair, liver spots, walkers and shaky hands, point to the end we’re all meeting some day. I thought about contacting one of the lifetime members to see if they’re still hashing out tomes like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. (They hated it!) But I Googled two of the women and found that both had died a few years back. For fear of spiraling further, I didn’t check up on the other six; I did, however, check up on my own lifelong friends instead. (Available on Amazon Prime.)