We’re now one week past Labor Day; and with it, the unofficial end of a very weird (and perhaps not-very-fun) Summer 2020. In fact, emerging from such a season—one marked by ecological disaster, economic uncertainty, a ceaseless pandemic, political unrest and, most egregiously, a subpar baseball season—can leave one longing for the simple days when one’s greatest summertime worry was the absurd likelihood of grievous bodily harm courtesy of Vernon Township, NJ’s most criminally bone-crunching outdoor water park: the infamous Action Park.
The creation of Trumpian Wall Street exile Eugene Mulvihill, the original Action Park improbably operated from 1978 until 1996. Poorly designed, booze-soaked and essentially run by a bunch of 1980s teen-movie misfits, the anarchic water park tallied at least seven confirmed deaths (fatalities ranging from Alpine Slide mishaps to underwater electrocutions) and countless major and minor injuries—thus indelibly searing itself in the memories of an entire generation of young New Jerseyans, who largely recall the park fondly even when acknowledging its faults.
Now, Action Park’s unlikely existence and conflicted legacy are the subject of a new HBO Max original documentary—fittingly titled Class Action Park—from the directing duo of Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott. On September 3, the filmmakers joined guest moderator Alexander Greer for a special Members-only Q&A as part of our ongoing Film Independent Presents programming series. Watch the full panel and read the highlights below:
‘CLASS ACTION PARK’
From myth to movie. A New Jersey native, Porges had grown up going to Action Park in its heyday but nevertheless doubted his own memories of its lawlessness. “I had these memories of crazy looping waterslides and bodies flopping everywhere and violence and blood… There was no way that was real.” Growing obsessed, he began looking into the topic but was frustrated by a lack of information—“a lot of myth, a lot of legend, but very little actual journalism,” he said. But in talking to the park’s upper management, alumni staff and survivors, Porges gradually became the world’s Action Point’s preeminent scholar, writing articles and delivering lectures about the topic before eventually putting together a short film about the subject in 2013—a short which quickly went viral.
The 1980s. Greer said that as a viewer he wasn’t quite sure whether Class Action Park was celebrating or condemning Action Park. “To me, that confusion is exactly the point,” said Porges. He cited one of his film’s interview subjects, comedian Chris Gethard, who sums things up by saying its possible to recall one’s childhood nostalgically while also being angry—as an adult looking back—that that’s how a generation was forced to grow up. Said Scott: “I wanted to present the 1980s as a kind of villain; the [loose] parenting, these latchkey kids.”
Setting the record straight. The filmmakers said that in telling the story of Action Park, it was critical part of their narrative to include the stories of those who lost their lives at the park—specifically focusing on the death of 19-year-old George Larsson, Jr., who in 1980 was fatally thrown from the park’s Alpine Slide. Porges and Scott said that it was important to correct Gene Mulvihill’s blame-shifting misinformation campaign around the fatality and to allow George Jr.’s family to set the record straight. “We’ve been waiting for this call for 40 years,” Scott recalls the victim’s brother saying, upon being contacted by the film.
Action Park by any other name. Porges and Scott said that part of their film’s appeal beyond the Garden State is due to the fact that pretty much anyone who grew up in the 1980s likely has their own version of Action Park they still remember with equal parts affection and horror. For moderator Greer, a SoCal native, that place was Knott’s “Scary” Farm—the annual Halloween rebrand of Orange County’s Knott’s Berry Farm, known for it’s roaming (and largely unsupervised) hoards of teen scare-specialists. For Scott, growing up on the Texas/Louisiana border, it was an abandoned sulfur pit, perfect for jumping off. “You would come out reeking [like sulfur] and it would it in your eyes and your mouth, it was so bitter.”
Whiplash, literal and figurative. Some of the film’s reviews have noted the documentary’s jarring tonal contrasts. But according to Porges, it’s all part of the film’s design, modeled on the experience of being at Action Park itself. At Action Park, he said, “One moment you’re having the best time of your life, and then suddenly you’re having the worst time of your life,” with very little distance in-between. Regarding the film’s comedic first half—and the abrupt shift into its more somber second half—he said: “If you want to give yourself permission to laugh about this, you need to understand what you’re laughing about.”
Filmmaker advice. Porges offered a bit of advice to aspiring documentarians: form partnerships with journalists. “As a journalist who has been studying this topic for a decade, I came with everything, the sources, the archives, all ready to roll.” He observed that most journalists are great storytellers—and that so many of them are unemployed right now. “Find a journalist with an archive ready to go, to flip a switch,” he said. “It’s something I don’t see happening that much [in the documentary community] and I’m shocked.”
Class Action Park is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Film Independent Presents is supported by Lead Sponsor the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Official Partner Vision Media and Promotional Partner KCRW.
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