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All Eyes on Coney Island

Every year there are rumors that Coney Island as we know it is about to die, and every year the amusement park in Brooklyn gets a reprieve. This time, however, things do look grim: Astroland, which occupies three acres in the heart of Coney Island, closed for good earlier this month. It’s not all Coney Island, but it’s a good chunk of it. As is usually the case with New York, developers are involved and there’s talk of new condos (though in this climate, I’m not holding my breath as to how many people will want to fork out chunks of cash for “luxury” apartments at the far end of Brooklyn).

Coney Island Film Festival flierFor now, Coney’s undomitable spirit lives on at the Coney Island Film Festival. The offerings at the eighth edition center on independent shorts that capture not so much Coney as a physical place (though there’s some of that, too) but as a mental one, from a documentary on carny women to a portrait of performance artist/rocker Kembra Pfahler.

The fest also includes a screening of Walter Hill’s 1979 movie The Warriors, in which the titular Coney gang (“Warriors? You guys are the big dudes, huh?”) spends a harrowing night trying to make it back to its home base after attending a gang meeting in the Bronx. The Warriors are trotted out every time people look for a movie about Coney Island, even though little of the movie actually takes place there. My two favorite films about Coney Island and what it once meant to the people of New York are Paul Fejos’s silent Lonesome (1928) and Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin‘s Little Fugitive (1953).Lonesome tells the story of two working-class people who meet at the amusement park and spend an enchanted day there together. Shot on location, the film contains absolutely amazing scenes of Coney Island at the peak of its popularity, the beach teeming with people, Luna Park (which would burn in 1944) blazing with lights and looking like a magical fairy-tale kingdom. The Hungarian-born Fejos cast an eye on both his characters and their setting that was both anthropological and deeply romantic, a feat that may have to do with him being a Renaissance man. In a 1963 eulogy, he was described as “a good doctor of medicine, an artist of scope in stage and motion picture direction, a startlingly imaginative and productive ethnological explorer, and a foundation leader of unparalleled brilliance.” One can only wish current film directors had such a rich background and such wide interests; few can match the deep humanism evident in Lonesome.

Unfortunately, Lonesome doesn’t seem to be available on DVD but at least you can get the wonderful score that Boston’s Alloy Orchestra wrote for it. If these guys ever play it near you, make plans to attend.

Little Fugitive, on the other hand, is on DVD; it’s a must-see for anybody interested in New York in the 1950s as well as in film history—its aesthetic is unlike anything else in America at the times, closer to Italian neorealism and a clear precursor to the French New Wave (the trailer gives a good idea of the movie’s sensibility). In it, a kid is tricked by his older brother into believing he’s killed one of their friends; panicked, he flees to Coney Island, where he spends a couple of days on his own while his sibling desperately looks for him. Once again, here is a movie made by people looking at their city and its inhabitants with real affection. Engel and Orkin, both photographers, have been described, rightly, as “poets of everyday life” and “poets of the working class.” It’s this combination that’s so lacking in American cinema these days: a sense of poetry but also an affinity for “the little people” who make up life’s fabric. Watching Little Fugitive now, it’s hard not to get misty at the sight of a city in which 12-year-olds play on the streets unattended, but also at the sight of a kind of American cinema that’s as endangered as Coney Island.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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