Monday, June 17, 2013

The Other Burns' Coney Island

Not many people know that Ken Burns has a brother, Ric Burns, who made some very good documentaries for the PBS series The American Experience.  I'm watching a long series at the moment, something that's taking me more than a week to watch, so I'm just going to insert this little one-hour doc on Coney Island.

This documentary is probably the saddest I could recommend.  There's something especially heartless in the eventual decay of anything that once brought a great deal of joy to so many people ... and the documentary does make me wonder what it would have been like, exactly, to walk along those boardwalks, visit the parks and see the spectacles described.  Images like this below suggest there's a wonder there that has been utterly lost.

But, too, there is a cynical part of me, born and living in modern times, and I wonder if it really was that sensational.  To the ordinary person at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, perhaps; how many fewer wonders had they to mesmerize them, to lift them from that much less media-driven culture, where ramshackle cars and bi-planes were the wonder of the age.  Could it not be, if the gentle reader and I found ourselves transported back through time, to pay our fee and enter Luna Park, that we would only find it a most disturbing plaster dump, something ugly and trite, to find ourselves after to be glad that is it all burned down and gone.

How, truly, would we see it?  Like the crowds above, or like persons enlightened, who are beyond the callous pleasure seeking of that time.  For you will take note, as you watch the documentary, of all the moments where the disinterest bestowed by the owners upon the customers, or upon the park animals, reach heights of bafflement and rife absurdity.  An elephant is electrocuted; rides where no doubt people were regularly injured, or perhaps killed, are demonstrated and little is said but the occasional throwaway line.

There's something odd about this documentary, in that although it was produced in 1991, it seems to dismiss entirely any social change that would make the parks themselves intolerable to many of us.  The real education here is not the elaborate nature of 'fun,' but the willingness of a culture long ago to risk things our present neurotic culture could not tolerate at all.  Almost none of the rides depicted could exist today, even if we had the money.  None would pass a licensing inspector's eye.

All things change.  There are three fires described in the documentary - and that in itself gives a clue as to what dangers the parks represented. Take note of how easily and quickly Dreamland, one of the parks, vanishes.

This is Luna Park burning, in 1944; we had no aerial shots
we could take of Dreamland burning in 1911.

Have we really lost what we think we've lost?  Or has the world properly moved on?

You can see the documentary here.  I heartily recommend it.

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