What’s past is prologue is such an overused phrase and an all-too obvious truism. It reminds me of the Mitch Hedberg joke: “My friend showed me a photo and said, ‘Here’s a picture of me when I was younger.’ Every picture is of you when you were younger.”
And yet, can the past also be epilogue?
I ask this silly question because watching the documentary Class Action Park from directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III felt like it put a sad cap on the last five disgusting years of Trump supporters and their ilk. Not that we’re done with them, but they are not unlike the underage and uneducated lunatics who helped run the asylum that was mad mogul Eugene Mulvihill’s late and all-too lamented Action Park.
They all had their fun, regardless of who was hurt.
I never went to the infamous Action Park in New Jersey, but watching Class Action Park for the first twenty minutes made me feel a wave of nostalgia for experiences I never had. The film digs up these kind of emotions throughout, and a good deal of the first half of it feels so whimsical. The animated clips help play down the more gruesome and frightening details of Mulvihill’s infamous park rides. Details like lost teeth and designers with little to no credible engineering backgrounds.
Between that and the enthusiasm of the former park workers and attendees, my mind could compartmentalize early Esther Larson‘s foreboding words at the beginning of the film: “It was a place where death was tolerated.”
Larson lost her son to Action Park’s Alpine Slide in 1980. Her story is finally told in the last third of the film. As the only interviewee who lost a loved one, one might think her voice would have the final say. Amazingly, it does not.
In the 2013 two-part Action Park documentary written and produced by Porges, The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever, Larson never appears. The short film is more a roundtable between Porges and industry friends reminiscing about the good times. There are even words from Gene Mulvihill’s son, Andrew, which didn’t age well even at the time he said them.
“Someone doesn’t come to me and say ’Oh, y’know, my brother got hurt, you guys are irresponsible.’ They never say that. They say it was the best, most fun place in the world to come to. They have good memories.”
— Andrew Mulvihill, The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever
“I think [Gene Mulvihill] was a piece of shit.”
— Esther Larson, Class Action Park
In Class Action Park, they at least interviewed more people (including journalists), though at least two of the interviewed park guests still seem to be industry friends. Chris Gethard, a comic, appears in both films and is the best storyteller throughout. He steals the show from the interviewed park workers, who at least comparatively appear more somber if only for their various levels of complicity.
There is more attention paid to Eugene Mulvihill’s shady business practices, and Esther Larson gets to tell her side, but the sad facts once again get drowned out by the former park guests and employees, who are giddy to tell their stories of survival.
The title of my review is a little misleading. It is also not. They pass around the story that Trump allegedly was interested in investing in Action Park but decided it was too crazy to get involved. I wonder if Trump looked at it and decided Eugene Mulvihill thought to small. Maybe he said, Sure, lording over a sleepy New Jersey town is great, but what about a whole country?
During every election (last year’s especially), there’s much talk from the left about the youth vote. But the truth is, the Trump base is not exclusively old men and women. The youth can be and are drawn to supporting systems that hurt them. Especially if they’re allured before they even understand what they’re becoming a part of.
The footage of the all-white youth partying after hours was aggravating to look at. It reminded me of Nick Sandmann and his ilk. Both are examples of kids being given a little power and running with it, thinking their herd mentality will make them immune to consequences. But as Trump and the Mulvihills have proven, you need endless money and a cult of personality for even temporary invulnerability.
Those wondering why people would still vote for Trump today should only look to those interviewed and still hold sympathy for the man they called “Uncle Gene,” a man whose approach is best summed up in the film as “something between Ayn Rand and Lord of the Flies.” His strategy was to be big and bold regardless of who got hurt. He leaped through loopholes and took advantage wherever the law was weak. He lied and cheated his way out of legalities and safety concerns. He preached personal responsibility while avoiding it himself. When it came to legal repercussions, anyone he couldn’t buy off he simply strong-armed and outlasted in court because he had more access to money than those seeking justice.
Is it me, or does this sound exactly like the other loud crazy uncle that America just got rid of?
The Defunctland 2017 Action Park documentary seems to catch this Trumpish atmosphere more so, ending with footage of Fox News’ coverage of the 2014 Action Park reopening (with anchorman Greg Kelly acting creepily inappropriate to reporter Ana Gilligan wearing a bathing suit}. This less-than-twenty minute video sums up what Class Action Park takes almost ninety minutes to come to:
“Despite six people losing their lives there, Action Park is not remembered for its death toll. It is remembered for and by the kids that grew up with it and survived it. It is seen as a place where the ‘popular and brave teens’ hung out…the burns, bruises and the fractured tibias were a rite of passage for its former guests.”
Uncle Gene gave young people who had no power and didn’t know better a taste of freedom, and the intoxicating results of that are peppered throughout Class Action Park, with even co-director Porges getting in front of the camera to talk wistfully about his time there. Gene’s crimes are well documented by the end but are then recast through nostalgia goggles as all part of an invented and unnecessary rite of passage for the youth.
Park attendee and actress Allison Becker says about the rides:
“Even though I was scared to do those rides, I fucking did them. There’s also a part of me that’s like ‘If you can’t do them, then fucking get out of Jersey.’”
That is inevitably the film’s final message: We had fun, so fuck you. That’s the way it was. What else could it be as the rock music starts to play while the camera shows Larson visiting her child’s grave. Gethard tries to add some words of how messed up everyone’s childhood was for this to be their fun, but the music revs up as if the film already knows these words will ultimately fall on deaf ears.
It reminds me of Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. Larson falls in the role as cynical Jacques. She and her surviving child are the only ones not joining any Action Park celebration. Because they’re in a damn cemetery, their family member is dead and they saw no justice for it. Regardless, the music plays louder and the camera pans back from them. The next madman’s party will go on, in one form or another, even if they have to dance over the bodies.