Saturday, March 5, 2022

Doc Watch: Class Action Park (2020)

Watched:  03/01/2022
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Director:  Seth Porges

In the way of so many documentaries, this one was about 85% of the way there, but I couldn't go with them the last stretch of the film when they try to "make sense of it all".  Class Action Park (2020) is a feature-length doc about the notorious amusement park, Action Park, formerly located outside of New York City that has, since the early 00's, spawned legends of how out of control the place was, and, in fact, dangerous.  Open through the 1980's, the park was one of hundreds, if not thousands, dotting America.

The first half of the film is hysterical as you take a look at the rides and hear tales of how the place was owned and operated by a former penny-stocks Wall Street tycoon banned from the market by the SEC (I think).  He took his Randian concept of personal risk and responsibility as a businessman, applied that to amusement park attendance, and built a two-sided theme park - one side water-based rides like slides and wavepools, and the other being go-karts.  For anyone growing up in the 1980's, you'll see a lot of things you also took part in.  Bumper boats, go-karts, water slides.  But our go-karts at Malibu Grand Prix had speed governors.  Theirs did not.

Part of me winced at the knee-slapping hilarity of the first part of the doc.  My friend's mom broke her back on a slide here in Texas when a teen-aged lifeguard failed to pay attention and sent another person down the slide after her, who rammed into her back (she's ambulatory, but it took years of rehab and whatnot).  Also, I'm well aware of the poor kid who got decapitated on a water slide in Kansas City (owned and operated by the same folks who ran the park where my friend's mom was injured).   

But I also grew up going to water parks, go-kart tracks and amusement parks.  Some had zero risk (Six Flags, etc...) and were perfectly safe thrill rides and others were a lot more sketchy.  I also tubed in the San Marcos river with all manner of creatures and pointy rocks.  Risking life and limb was part of a good afternoon in the 1980's.  Some of what's shown is completely insane, some of it is pitched as such and I'm just like "nah, we had that".

What you don't get in Texas are the fights that apparently broke out.  I'm sure it happened, but I can't recall any.

Stylistically, I adored how they used what looked like a crayon drawing of the amusement park to keep you oriented and explain rides, etc...  and the truth was often more bizarre than whatever you would imagine.  I can't get my head around the tanks.  

Still, it's a weird tonal shift from "ha ha ha... that ride looks stupid dangerous" to finding out in the second half, "well, you're right.  It was wildly dangerous and people literally died, but mostly folks were routinely injured."  And some of that is hilarious (I lol'd at the story about the spray they put on people).  I mean, I really enjoyed seeing how crazy the rides were, but you also know that theme parks are usually very careful because they have a vested interest in not injuring anyone.  That is until you get someone with a Trumpian take on how they should do things and would rather spend a dollar figuring out how not to be held responsible than $1.25 doing the right thing.

Where the film lost me was in how "this could have only happened in New York" and the basic consideration of how the danger of Action Park is why Gen X parents are wise to never let their children out of their sight.  It's a weirdly pin-point view of the country that doesn't really work - we had absentee parents everywhere in the 1980s.  We had water parks run by teens across the street from my neighborhood.*  But kids also were *expected* to get injuries during this era. 

We had our risks in the 1980's and 1990's, and some of those we shouldn't have taken - that's part of growing up.  My brain melts now when I hear my colleagues telling me their kids don't want to drive.  Of course, I didn't have access to limitless porn when I was in high school, so I can't relate to a lot of their world. 

The movie also flirts with both praising and letting the owner of Action Park off the hook as a renegade, suggesting maybe he was secretly good and generous, and that he was maybe secretly smart to stick it to the man with his park what maimed and killed people.  

But, no.  That's bullshit.  There's a reason amusement parks are generally illusionary in their dangers.  No one should pay $15 and then die because no one put up a guard rail.  No wave pool should claim the lives of the people there for a day in the sun.  This is all obvious stuff, and because the internet didn't exist, and the press was complicit, the owner was, at best, homicidally negligent.  It's kind of hard to think regulation is a bad thing when there's a bodycount to your funzone.

The interviews are with folks who worked there who, as is always exploited by people with an angle, exploited young labor and counted on the fact they didn't know how things should work.  They know NOW how crazy all of this was, and all kinda laugh.  I'm not sure I agree with the "but we don't laugh about it in therapy" bit by comedian Chris Gethard.  

Anyway, it's worth watching some time if you remember the 1980's-1990's and bad ideas.  And, an accidental excellent argument for strong regulatory bodies.  

*true story, KOHSers, I never went to Splashtown even once.  Because I hated the sun in high school.

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