Unzipping the Zipper

Amy Nicholson talks about her documentary and the changing face of Coney Island.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Logo for Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride
Logo for Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride Photo: Courtesy Amy Nicholson
Known to the world through the eyes of Woody Allen's characters in Annie Hall or Radio Days, Coney Island has an illustrious history. Amy Nicholson's documentary Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride effectively takes on the challenge of archiving where films like The Little Fugitive, directed by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, and Douglas Sirk's Imitation Of Life left off. New York Post reporter Rich Calder, seen as a commentator in Nicholson's film, calls the Zipper, one of Coney Island's most famous rides, "a casualty of a game of chicken between the city and a developer over the seaside amusement district's future".

I first saw Zipper as a member of the jury at the inaugural First Time Fest, where it won for Outstanding Achievement in Editing (more on the winners here).

In the heat of summer 2013, I went on a stroll along the boardwalk by the imposing Wonder Wheel, down the backstreets of Coney Island's past, present, and future with Amy as my guide, to talk about her film, which begins as the story of a carnival ride and ends up skillfully exposing the back room dealings of re-zoning New York City - politics style.

Anne-Katrin Titze: We are in Coney Island. Where exactly are we sitting here?

Amy Nicholson: 'I love Mr Shrimp' Paul's Daughter on the boardwalk
Amy Nicholson: 'I love Mr Shrimp' Paul's Daughter on the boardwalk Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Amy Nicholson: We are sitting pretty much in the shadow of the Cyclone. Behind you is Paul's Daughter, which is a very famous clam bar on the boardwalk. And there's Paul at the helm, a rare sighting of him.

AKT: You mentioned that his food stand doesn't look as it used to. He changed the look of things?

AN: I think he was asked to change the look of things.

AKT: He kept Mr Shrimp, your favourite [one of his logos].

AN: He kept Mr Shrimp, I love Mr Shrimp.

AKT: When we walked here from the subway, you showed me where the Zipper stood, which is now wasteland. How did you become interested in making a film about a disappearing carnival ride?

AN: Well, the Zipper is a very famous carnival ride. It's known for being a mean ride in the US, which makes you throw up. It spins a lot in three different directions. It was invented in the late Sixties and was very popular in the Seventies. There were over 200 of them made. They were made of steel and they never die. People seek them out, they call them Zipper heads. There weren't very many Zippers that had a permanent home - only two on the East Coast. One is in Ocean City, Maryland, where I grew up, going in the summer, and one was here.

AKT: So it started early. You grew up with a Zipper.

AN: I found out that the Zipper in Coney Island was leaving and I came down to find out why. I thought I'd make that homage to the Zipper. In a world where everyone is in front of a computer, it's a very analogue type of amusement. It harkens back to, I think, a little bit more of a fun time. So I thought, I'll make this homage and we see it leaving and then I started to look into why it was leaving.

Amy Nicholson where Zipper once stood proudly with the defunct Parachute Jump in the background
Amy Nicholson where Zipper once stood proudly with the defunct Parachute Jump in the background Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: Which opened up your film to another, much larger political issue of city planning?

AN: There were multiple reasons why it left. The biggest reason was because Coney Island was re-zoned, which means the city was looking at the land and deciding that it was probably worth a lot more as restaurants and retail than it was as just old carnival rides.

AKT: I first saw your film when I was on the jury at the First Time Fest in March. Zipper was the very first screening of the inaugural edition. Now the film is opening in New York. What was the journey of the film itself?

AN: It had its world premiere in November at DOC NYC. Then it went to a number of other festivals, one of them was the First Time Fest, which was very exciting because we got to show it at the Loews cinema. Great theatre! Somewhere along the way I just got it in my head that it might be a good idea to ask if I could put it in a theatre. I went to the IFC because it had screened there a couple of times and had done really well there and they said yes. I'm shocked. I'm pleasantly surprised because it's very difficult to get an independent film into a theatre. Somehow I snuck it in.

AKT: You start your film with an interesting quote, stating that there's anarchy etched into any great carnival.

AN: It's a famous quote by author Kevin Baker. During the time of my research, he published an article in the Village Voice. It was a clear indictment of the re-zoning. He really captured the sense of loss that was happening with the spirit of Coney Island. The heart of it will always be eclectic and frenetic and crazy and chaotic because that's what it's supposed to be.

AKT: There's a scene in your film which shows a protest at City Hall and a young woman wearing a bikini holding a big stick of purple candy floss has to go through security. Does the cotton candy have to go through the metal detector? You capture some of the absurdity.

Amy Nicholson and Anne-Katrin Titze on the boardwalk at Coney Island Beach with some little fugitives
Amy Nicholson and Anne-Katrin Titze on the boardwalk at Coney Island Beach with some little fugitives Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AN: It was one of the first things I filmed. The reaction on the policeman's face was the best, watching this girl come through in this little tiny bikini and I think she was wearing a motorcycle helmet. This group was protesting that they were proposing condominiums. Joe Sitt had bought the bulldozed property. [Amy had filmed the area around the Zipper being bulldozed earlier].

AKT: Can you sum up who Joe Sitt is?

AN: He is a developer. He is central to the story. He got involved because he was friends with a local councilman. The film shows clearly how the politics and the developer overlap. They're all in bed together.

AKT: You illustrate this with your choice of music - the Blue Danube waltz has them all dancing together.

AN: The editor came up with this. Most of the rough cutting was Jonah Moran. He won the editing award at the First Time Fest along with John Young, who did the finish of the film. They were actually a wicked combination, the two of them. Jonah is amazing at finding these little things, putting great music and cutting a scene together, and John went back and inserted a couple of things like the carnies' reaction to things the city officials were saying. Jonah cut the scene with the Blue Danube, the scene where the city and the developer are at a standoff. They both were trying to convince me in their interviews that only they could be the one to [rebuild Coney Island's glory]. We realised that both plans were kind of terrible. They look like they're dancing on opposite sides but in the end they're dancing together. It was really brilliant. I give Jonah all the credit for that.

Coney Island's Wonder Wheel
Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: Talk a bit about the history of Coney Island and where you see it now in 2013.

AN: I think this is a very big turning point. Coney Island has always been amusement. In the 1940s, the beach was packed, you know the famous Weegee photos. Millions of people, climbing over each other.

AKT: There's a scene at the beginning of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) with Lana Turner. She loses her daughter in the crowds at the beach.

AN: The Little Fugitive (1953) is always the one people reference. That was back when you could go under the boardwalk. Through the Fifties and Sixties the area suffered from urban renewal and never recovered. All these housing projects were put up here, which had an influence. And air travel had a lot to do with it. People who could get on a plane and fly to a famous beach resort did. Coney Island is not the Caribbean. It is not the Hamptons. The area that was zoned for amusement was protected for 50 years. Somebody put that protective zoning in place that kept people from building other things here. Sometime around the early 2000s people started to realise how charming it was and how authentic and people started to come back out here.

AKT: You show the statistics in the film.

AN: 2006 was one of the best years Eddie [Miranda, the owner] had with the Zipper. The actual re-zoning process, that all started in the summer of 07. The news was predicting the death of Coney Island.

AKT: You have television clips with journalists Gersh Kuntzman and Rich Calder fervently discussing the changes.

AN: Yes. I think people were confused about what's happening. A lot of people were coming to Coney Island in 2007 to see if it was still here. Historically, it's a big turning point to take away this protective zoning. The city was arguing that it was old and prohibited the area from growing. I disagree, I think there are other ways. We'll never know, because it got pushed through. Like all of the big re-zonings in New York get pushed through because there's too much money involved.

AKT: When did Coney Island lose its protective zoning?

AN: In the summer of 2009 the re-zoning passed the city council.

AKT: What do you see happening next here?

Zipper Trailer from Amy Nicholson on Vimeo.

AN: What has to happen in the next 10 or 15 years is that the infrastructure of Coney Island has to be addressed, you know, the sewage system. It's in a flood zone as we found out the hard way from [Superstorm] Sandy. Whoever the next administration is - we are coming up on elections very quickly in less than 45 days - they are going to have to figure out how to upgrade the area before anything new can be built.

AKT: Did you expect when you started your film on a ride of your childhood that you would get so involved into New York politics, including climate change?

AN: No, I think at the core of the issue is land use and zoning and no one in their right mind would ever make a film about that issue. It's too boring. But I'm really glad I did and chose Coney Island because it spoke to me. It is a place that has a really prominent authenticity, a very big heart, a huge soul. I kind of happen to agree with Eddie, who says at the end of the film "no matter what you put there, it will never be the same."

Nicholson's film features fast-paced editing that captures, in a balanced way, a story about humanity in an age of greed. The editing works like the Zipper itself, connecting the ride with the story of Coney Island.

Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride opens in New York on August 9 at the IFC Center.

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