Documentary Round-Up – September 2020

Class Action Park (2020)
Directed by Seth Porges & Chris Charles Scott III

In 1978, businessman Eugene Mulvihill opened Action Park in Vernon Township, New Jersey. The park became famous throughout the 1980s and 90s for having some of the most dangerous and ill-conceived rides in the country. For example, there was a waterslide with a vertical 360-degree loop that resulted in people getting stuck or breaking bones. There was the Alpine Slide, a downhill sled ride without rails on a smooth concrete trench that caused numerous injuries and a couple of deaths. The documentary uses tons of file footage of the park, from marketing materials to guests’ personal home movies.

The tone of the documentary is darkly humorous. The film deals with a theme park that is funny from an outside perspective but definitely tragic if you experienced the results yourself. There are interviews with many New Jersey and New York residents who fondly remember the park from when they were kids, including comedian Chris Gethard. However, the filmmakers spend time in the third act interviewing a family who lost their son on the Alpine Slide. The tone shifts, and we get a much darker, craven image of Eugene Mulvihill than where the film starts. The park shut down in 1998 when it was purchased by a larger corporation and has reopened as a more traditional and toned down Mountain Creek Waterpark. 

Action Park definitely had its influence on the minds of now-adult visitors who remark with both awe and horror at taking on some of the more notorious rides. The documentary is also an interesting study on a type of experience that simply doesn’t exist anymore on as wide a scale as it did in those decades, regional theme parks. There are still a few here and there, I can think of Dollywood here in Tennessee, but many of them shut down in the 1990s. I know Nashville’s Opryland just couldn’t keep the doors open and had to close up shop. To have a park as so unhinged and unrestrained as Action Park was a rarity then as well, and this documentary does a pretty decent job making you feel the destructive potential of such a place.

Fantastic Fungi (2019)
Written by Louis Schwartzberg & Mark Monroe
Directed by Louis Schwartzberg

Climate change is an ever-present fear in the back of my mind. That doesn’t mean I walk around living in doom & gloom, but when I come across a news story on the latest wildfire outbreak or land hurricanes in the American MidWest, I have to acknowledge the dangerous path humanity has set itself on. Fantastic Fungi exists as a documentary that wants to educate people on the idea that the solutions to so many of these problems lie beneath us. Additionally, it is a reminder that other life was flourishing before we were here, and likely when we are gone, that life will continue.

Our guide through the amazing world of fungus is mycologist Paul Stamets. Throughout the film, we get the story of his personal connection with mushrooms and understand why he has made it his life’s mission to advocate for this fantastic organism’s regular medicinal use. Through some beautiful computer imagery, we see a model of the vast and intricate network that makes up the mycelium’s real “body,” reminding us that the mushroom is merely the fruit that pokes up to the surface. There are also loads of stunning time-lapse images of mushrooms of all kinds bursting forth from the ground and fungus consuming the forest floor’s detritus.

I walked away from Fantastic Fungi thinking about how broad and stupidly the War on Drugs was dumped on this country. There are interviews with patients who have used mushrooms in a controlled environment to have psychedelic experiences, accompanied by a guide. I like how Stamets addresses the abuse of mushrooms as a “party drug” when it, like so many other drugs, are serious substances that can have significant benefits to people in need when used wisely. The people who use these pills talk afterward about the profound spiritual experience they had by going within and finding relief from anxiety and fears. The mushrooms helped push away those mental obstacles and get them to the inner core of who they were. It’s some pretty powerful stuff and will likely cause you to start rethinking how you view “magic mushrooms.”

Feels Good Man (2020)
Written by Arthur Jones, Giorgio Angelini, & Aaron Wickenden
Directed by Arthur Jones

I can’t say when I first saw Pepe the Frog, probably on Reddit, long after he had debuted and risen in stature as a meme. I can remember seeing him used as a symbol of hate and white supremacy during the Trump election. As someone who thinks they are is savvy about the internet yet definitely of an age that meme culture has passed me by, it was always a bizarre anomaly. This documentary takes us back to Pepe’s origins, a character in a light-hearted comedic indie comic, and traces his path into being placed on the ADL’s hate symbols list.

Pepe was created by Mutt Furie, a comics writer & artist who has been drawing Pepe since he was a little kid. When MySpace rose in popularity, Furie started scanning in comics he made inspired by his childhood hanging out with siblings and cousins titled Boys Club. Pepe was a sort of little brother figure that tagged along with the older boys. One installment found a character stumbling across Pepe peeing in the toilet with pants down around his ankles. When questioned about this seemingly odd practice, Pepe replies, “Feels good, man.”

The documentary is one of the best I have seen in a long time, jumping back and forth between Pepe’s journey online and how he became a cipher for disaffected, insecure internet denizens and Matt just puttering along sort of amused at his creation’s new life. This is accompanied by some great animated sequences that have the Boys Club characters reacting in their world to the developments in ours. It is impossible not to become frustrated alongside Matt when he sees everything spiraling out of control. Based on the early memes’ popularity, Matt develops a Pepe clothing line only to see the frog become wholly associated with Trump and his brand of hate. This is the ultimate nightmare scenario for any creative type who wants their work to reach the broadest possible audience, but most also contend with the idea that your art can be taken from you.

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