Last Summer at Coney Island: An Interview with J.L. Aronson

J.L. Aronson’s new film, Last Summer At Coney Island, documents the recent turmoil and transformation along the historic boardwalk.  Worn down over time, Coney Island isn’t how most people might imagine it– its past splendor hidden behind broken signs and cheap plastic prizes– but rebuilding isn’t as easy as you would assume.  City officials, real estate developers, old time amusement employees and residents clash over the direction of the proposed plans.  Aronson’s film delves into the question of whether it’s possible to recapture the lost glories of a national icon, or better to raise a brand new kind of spectacle.

J.L. Aronson films the closing of Astroland at Coney Island.

After your other films, one about artist Daniel Smith and his band Danielson, and another featuring a Brooklyn pigeon keeper, how did you stumble onto Coney Island as a subject matter?

Well, it was just the other day that I realized my first professional gig as a video producer was in Coney Island when I was 26. I had just completed my first feature length film (a music doc) and a friend was starting this music festival in Coney called “Siren” featuring bands like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Guided By Voices. They wanted someone to shoot it and edit a piece they could use to sell people on the festival for the next year. The gig went to me and through making connections out there, I then got hired to do a TV commercial for Astroland Amusement Park, the biggest and oldest park in Coney Island, and the focus of my new film. When Astroland was sold in late 2006, along with many other key properties in the amusement area, I knew it was a story. I was really just attracted to documenting a time and place as it was about to change. And because I had connections to the park and could get introductions to other key people out there, I figured there’d be few better people to tell this story than me. I quickly realized that this was a sort of sequel to my previous film, Up on the Roof, which looks at the transformation of a very different Brooklyn neighborhood as seen from the perspective of old timers who raise pigeons on their rooftops. Perhaps it’s 2/3 of a New York trilogy.

As a person of faith, I am disheartened by the chasm I see between the rich and poor in our culture.  If you believe the commercials, “happiness” costs a pretty penny and leaves most of us still wanting more.  One of the ideas about Coney Island that strikes me from the start of your film is this concept of the “people’s playground.”  What does that mean exactly?

Well, Coney Island, as a destination, started out as a getaway spot for the wealthy in the 2nd half of the 19th century. But, with the new subway lines, it quickly developed into this unparalelled spectacle that was affordable and open to everyone. For many decades it continued that tradition of having something for everyone, but really pandering to the masses. Popular culture was pioneered in Coney Island. After World War II, three main components brought major changes to Coney Island: air conditioning, affordable automobiles and the Verranzano Bridge. After that, more New Yorkers had options of where to go for their relaxation. The least affluent still headed to Coney, but with a decreased audience and quite a bit of neglect on the City’s part, things kind of collapsed. Since the sixties, it’s lumbered on but with fewer and fewer attractions.

One of the things that I think about when watching a film like yours is that it is so difficult to balance between educating and entertaining. Viewers oscillate between wanting to escape into their media and actually seeking out films that challenge them. In your film, there is a lot of information viewers need to absorb in order to follow the developments, but at the same time, you’ve got to keep us engaged. How did you tackle this problem? What do you think works in general?

This seems to be a huge challenge to any documentary that isn’t about a competition. It’s an endless effort of trial and failure but there are a few techniques that seem to work. First, you can’t have just one person explain some complicated backstory. It’s got to come from multiple voices. Three or four should do, back and forth, almost like they’re having a conversation, though sometimes they’ll be contradicting each other and that’s okay so long as it doesn’t get too confusing for the audience. Add music and stir. If all else fails, try animation. And honestly, you can only whop people with thickets of facts in digestible spoonfuls. So those parts of the film need to be separated by lighter scenes. I can only imagine how hard it must be when you’re making a film like The Corporation or Why We Fight.

Finally, on a more personal note, your life is about to take a very different turn from the boardwalk and editing room. You’ll be focusing on your Buddhist practice almost exclusively for the next year. How did you know it was time for such an intense sabbatical? How do you expect it will influence your creative endeavors in the future?

I’ve felt ready for a ‘sabbatical’ for several years now, it’s just that my projects have overlapped and I always think at the inception of a new project that it’ll be easy and less time consuming [than it actually becomes]. When I started this one, however, I promised myself that it would be the last one, so I could take a break. And the need for that just became more and more apparent. Not because things became super-stressful or anything, just because I felt increasingly like this was something I really wanted to do. If you live in New York and work as a freelancer while putting all your spare time and money into your own projects, you’re not left with much time for whatever transformation you might feel drawn to. I’m very fortunate that I have the freedom to alter course, or press pause, that’s for sure. But I really can’t say what the result will be. I’d like to pick up a still camera again and maybe do some writing. But I feel pretty open to where it might lead. I’m not thinking at all about future films right now. I guess you could say being a documentarian has trained me in the avoidance of expectations.

The Curator is an assemblage of original and found essays, poetry, reviews, quotations, image galleries, video, and other media in a continuing commitment to wrestle with all that is in culture, and to look toward all that ought to be in hope.