Back to Conference Participants Abstract: Coney Island and the Evolving Film Culture of Greater New York  




The consolidation of Greater New York coincided with the public emergence of the motion picture (first exhibited at Koster and Bialıs music hall, on the present site of Macy's, in 1896). Coney Island soon became an important venue both for exhibiting motion pictures (which appeared there as one among a host of "sideshow" attractions) and for providing location settings for films, such as "Sea Waves at Coney Island" (1897), "Cakewalk on the Beach" (1897) and "Electrocuting an Elephant" (1903). Indeed, only the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island were deemed sufficiently known Brooklyn sites to appear regularly on the screen in this early era. This is the era of what Tom Gunning calls "the cinema of attractions," that is, the "exhibitionist cinema that "celebrated" its "ability to show something," rather that the narrative-based cinema that succeeded it (starting about 1906). Often what it showed to patrons at Coney Island was Coney itself, just as, in the larger scheme of things, often what it showed New Yorkers was New York itself.
Using clips from the above-mentioned and other early films, this paper will argue three interrelated points:
That to the considerable extent that film presentation grew out of a heterogeneous mixture of entertainment attractions (e.g., in the beginning, several short films might be combined to create one "act" on a variegated vaudeville bill), and to the likewise considerable extent that Coney Island represented the epitome of such a mixed entertainment venue, Coney can be considered the spiritual godfather of early motion picture exhibition in the United States.
That just as turn-of-the-century Coney Island, in toto, presented an alternative reality for the urban masses (when nearly 50% of the cityıs population still lived in Manhattan), so film presented, closer to hand, a very similar kind of alternative reality for this same population.
That these alternative realities, in Coney's cultural heyday and during filmıs first flourishing, were very close to, yet different from, the everyday reality of most of those in the audience. For instance, many of Coneyıs rides parodied, through exaggeration, the discomforts of daily urban living, with all its jostling, busy, crowded and disorienting ways. (In 1900, the Lower East Side was the single most densely populated area on the face of the earth.) Similarly, films exaggerated daily life, both by magnifying its locales, operations and archetypal personages on the big screen and by putting an attention-directive frame around its selected representations.
The early film viewers at Coney Island enacted a paradigmatic role which film viewers have assumed, with increasing complexity, ever since. When these viewers entered a darkened space, only to see flickering images of both their daily world and the alternative world (i.e., Coney) from which they had just stepped , they were experiencing that inter-penetration of reality and representation that is one of the hallmarks of modernity. By 1920, American film had so mastered that inter-penetration that Coney Island, for all its increased popularity, was no longer the cultural index it was two decades before.
To conclude my talk and to provide a cultural contrast with film at turn-of the-century Coney, I would focus briefly, with clips, on two later films made at Coney Island. Harold Lloyd's Speedy (1928), for all its virtuosity, treats Coney as merely another setting for potential, if comically circumscribed, prosperity and romance. The Ruth Orkin-Morris Engel The Little Fugitive (1953) portrays Coney as safe, it somewhat seedy, haven for a runaway seven-year-old boy. That the central character in the later film is obsessed with the idea of being a "cowboy" perhaps bespeaks the influence of nearly sixty years of American film, a span in which the population of Greater New York doubled and in which weekly visits to the local movie house replaced several yearly visits to Coney Island as the prime means of encountering those powerfully reorienting representations of reality that have been a hallmark of popular culture for the last 150 years.