Brooklyn's Beachfront Romance With Cinema Continues at the Coney Island Film Festival
The 19th Annual Coney Island Film Festival (CIFF) wrapped, per ritual, in an epic bumper car bash. Filmmakers, organizers and spectators found themselves colliding into one another at the Eldorado Auto Skooter rink on Surf Avenue. The event was thoroughly in the spirit of the festival, which does not simply take place at the storied amusement destination, but is of it in distinct ways. The cultural geography of the region shapes all aspects of exhibition and programming.
The CIFF runs in September of each year and stands out in a crowded NYC festival scene that includes flagship competitions (Tribeca, New Directors/New Films, New York Film Festival) borough-centric series (Queens World Film Festival, Staten Island International Film Festival), and themed events (Human Rights Watch Film Festival, NewFest, Jewish Film Festival). Founding programmer Rob Leddy launched the festival in 2001, re-animating a long tradition of cinema by the seashore. Since the first flickerings of motion pictures in the late 19th-century, Coney Island has been both a popular site of exhibition and a subject ripe for representation. In 1911, the Moving Picture World called Coney Island “flicker alley” due to its dense array of nickelodeon theaters.1 The “Shoot the Chute” ride, along with much of the noteworthy architecture, surfaced on screen in dazzling films by Edison Studios of Biograph Company. And throughout the past century there have been no shortage of films—whether Hollywood productions or cult classics—that have shined a spotlight on the location, from The Crowd (1928) to The Little Fugitive (1953) to He Got Game (1998).
The festival was also part of a revivalist moment that saw the establishment of a number of new institutions in the area, including the KeySpan (now MCU) Park, the new Coney Island Stillwell Avenue Subway Station, the renovated boardwalk, and the Coney Island History Project.
Coney Island USA, the festival’s major partner, hosted the screenings (most of which were shorts) within the Coney Island Museum and the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Both provided a fitting venue for the films, many of which engaged with the history of American amusement technologies and spaces of entertainment. The feature-length Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace (dir. April Wright) kicked off the weekend festivities. In addition to depicting some of the country’s most resplendent theaters, the documentary did well to contextualize the social experience that these movie houses enabled. Testimonies from preservationists, historians, and ushers also implored viewers to save the remaining palaces from demolition and to imagine new ways that they can serve the communities in which they are situated.
Other films offered tender portraits of performers, collectors, and curators. One focused on Dammit Dan Block, who makes a living as a “human blockhead” (sideshow on the mainstage, dir. Hope Wager), another—on John H. Scully, who turned his model train hobby into an obsession, recreating in miniature the 1957 New Jersey of his youth (Still Plays with Trains, dir. Ross Kauffman, 2018). Yet a third told the story of Pete Napolitano, the loquacious bartender who dishes out prophecies and praise songs in a phraseology all his own at Melody Lanes in Sunset Park (The Magnitudinous Illuminous, dir. Rachel Mills and Maya Tippett, 2018).
Genre cinema and, in particular, horror, occupied pride of place. Too Late (dir. Clayton Dean Smith, 2018) filled the theater with nervous laughter, telling the story of a man who goes to repent at the gravesite of his late love interest, only to find himself on the receiving end of a bizarre twist of post-mortem justice. The brilliantly acted and absolutely terrifying Krampusnacht (dir. Pete Talamo, 2018) left viewers in silence. The contemporary urban spin on a classic Germanic tale moves swiftly from a playful family melodrama about a foul-mouthed boy who disobeys his parents on Christmas eve, to a slasher-style thriller as the boy is eventually kidnapped by a demonic creature. The impressive teenage whodunit thriller Tillie (dir. by Olivia Anton, 2019—at 15 she was the youngest filmmaker at the festival), pays homage to horror classics such as Scream (1996) as a group of friends attempts to identify a rogue killer before it is too late.
Building on Coney Island’s long tradition of conjuring up visions of the future, films in the sci-fi category painted a bleak, but thought-provoking picture of what lies ahead. Flavors of dystopia included Into the Dark (dir. Benjamin Berger, 2018) about civilians and soldiers battling it out for resources to survive a deadly contagion; JUNIPER (dir. George Martens, 2018) about a farmer’s unsettling deal with a genetics company to clone his comatose wife; and Regulation (dir. Ryan Patch, 2019) about a social worker’s attempt to “regulate” the happiness of a child through the forced administration of a chemical patch.
What makes the festival truly unique, however, is the opportunity it provides to see the films that deepen and expand our understanding of Coney Island as both an amusement destination and a diverse neighborhood. Some films presented a zany landscape of reality-bending amusement. For example, the animated “city symphony” Brooklyn Breeze (dir. Alex Budovsky, 2018) offered a fast-paced tour of major landmarks in the borough including Coney’s own Cyclone Roller Coaster. Fun! (dir. Dylan Simel, 2018) imagined a hilarious world where the whole consumer economy is run by a mob-like clown consortium, who loan people tickets to feed their amusement addiction. In Miss Coney Island (dir. Scott Korn), a mysterious fortune-telling game grants a woman the wish for the romance she desires; however, it comes at a cost and ultimately condemns her to dance in an amusement stall near the boardwalk. And the steampunk-inspired Baron Saturday of Coney Island (dir. Vagabond Beaumont) followed a man’s search for meaning in his life through encounters with sages and tricksters, meaningful landmarks and dead end alleys.
Other films set in Coney Island provided more personal meditations on the contemporary social landscape of deep Brooklyn. Big Bad Wolves (dir. Rachel James, 2018) followed a group of friends on a hot summer night, who must band together in an act of righteous violence to protect their friend from an assailant. Brighton (dir. Amanda Hanna McLeer, 2019) portrayed the tender, yet strained relationship between a mother and daughter as they lounge about at Brighton Beach, talking about the future. In the evocative and melancholic The Daydream (dir. Liz Ostertag), a young woman goes to Coney Island after receiving a troubling diagnosis from her doctor. As she wanders through the amusement park, her experiences are filtered through the lives of women in her family who have visited the destination before her.
Historical documentaries offered viewers a sense of how Coney Island has changed over the past century. The feature-length Last Stop Coney Island: The Life and Photography of Harold Feinstein (dir. Andy Dunn, 2019) paid homage to a brilliant and underrecognized chronicler of deep Brooklyn. A native son of Coney Island, Feinstein’s images pulsate with a feeling of vitality and contingency. After 60 years as a Mermaid Avenue butcher, Jimmy Prince finally said farewell in Majors, We Don’t Want to Say Goodbye (dir. Lou Dembrow). Prince strove to make his business—Major Meats—a place where residents across race and class lines felt welcome. Drawing on interviews and archival photographs from the Coney Island History Project, How the Trumps Brought Death & Destruction to Coney Island (dir. Allan Piper) examined how landlord and developer Fred Trump discriminated against families of color. He was also directly responsible for the grotesque demolition of Steeplechase Park.
A special evening screening of The Warriors (1979) an alternative kind of social activity. The cult classic traces the fraught journey of a Coney Island gang who have to “bop” their way back to their home turf after they are framed for murder at a big meeting in the Bronx. The screening was an interactive experience with viewers shouting out memorable lines and cheering loudly for their favorite characters. This enthusiastic reception suggested that a curated selection of Coney Island films from throughout the past century would have made for an alluring addition to the programming lineup. It would also help audiences to see contemporary films within a longer tradition.
Given the festival’s intensely local identity, organizers might also consider bringing more community members into the program: for example, a youth showcase of projects made by area teenagers or a workshop that brings a more established artist into dialogue with a new generation of filmmakers. Incorporating more of a cross-section of residents, amusement sector employees, historians, and preservationists into the post-film discussions could help viewers see Coney Island within a broader cultural context. That there is so much to build on speaks to the festival’s ability to articulate a strong and distinct identity. In an age when screen media has definitely shifted toward atomized social environments, the CIFF offers a one-of-a-kind intimate experience with a creatively curated collection of films.
1. “Powers Cameragraph at Coney Island,” Moving Picture World, June 17, 1911, 1368.