Monday, March 25, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: ZIPPER: CONEY ISLAND'S LAST WILD RIDE

Coney Island.  What do those words say to you? Does it matter where you are reading this from?  Istanbul? San Antonio? Sydney? Los Angeles? No, probably not...

The mere mention of Coney Island transmits a like mindview to all of the world's people--one very much unlike any other theme park or neighborhood. The distinct image of Coney Island is a hand-painted one, particularly musty and authentic, and obviously mom-and-pop-run. It is a singular place--a place of nutty beauty. It's a masterful confluence of sand, surf, boardwalk, cotton candy, the Wonder Wheel, goofy games, teeming crowds, and chaos--and all easily experienced at an affordable price.  

But, for decades now, the Coney Island legacy--which reaches all the way back to 1829--has been threatened by greedy developers and NYC politicians with dollar signs in their eyes. Amy Nicholson's fabulous new documentary, Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride, does a superb job of reducing this complex zoning issue/political football into understandable bite-sizes, while movingly portraying the tale of one single representative feature at the park: the crazy tumbler of a ride known as the Zipper.

In production for six years (and shot largely on Super 16 mm film), Zipper deftly juggles the issues.  It pays attention to the colorful characters (led by owner Eddie Miranda) who operate the Zipper five months out of the year, and who still made enough money to feed their families during the off months (thus disputing the claims of politicians who say that Coney Island's rides and businesses cannot financially sustain their owners). Meanwhile, it also profiles the nominal (and, I suppose, well-meaning, at least in his own mind) villain of the piece. This is Joe Sitt and he's the head of Thor Equities, the money-awash firm that's been buying up Coney Island properties for a long time now, with the intent of ultimately sending the mom-and-pop stores packing in favor of a shiny new Coney Island that replaces those treasured businesses with seaside condos, Friday's, Applebee's, Taco Bell's, Bubba Gump's, and Gap outlets (like we need more of those).

Zipper has its story further complicated by Coney Island's local commissioners, who first seem as if they are on the side of those who want to keep Coney Island "karny kool," but who eventually show their true colors in supporting Joe Sitt's (and Mayor Bloomberg's) selling of Coney Island down the river. This aspect of the film is infuriating, especially since Nicholson's cameras handily captures the zeal with which Coney Island, in all of its gorgeous, hand-crafted glory, is attended by millions of people each year (and the numbers don't lie: all of this development is having an negative effect on the park's attendance). It's basically a place that is not broken, but is being fixed anyway. 

Ultimately, Zipper is most memorable, though, for its examination of this one, single ride--one that is loved immensely by all who are violated by it (a highlight of the film is a compilations of videos shot by riders who have their camera going while their ride cage is rocking in the air; this segment is a veritable symphony of screams). By the time the film's heartbreaking climax comes, you might be shedding a tear for all those things in Coney Island, and even in your own city, that are historically rich, but which are being washed away in the tide of supposed progress. In that and in many other ways, Amy Nicholson's lively documentary Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride is historically and culturally invaluable in and of itself. 

Below is my interview with Zipper's producer/director Amy Nicholson, shot by Rich Gedney and conducted at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival:

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