“Coney Island is in ruins. I know it is all my fault.”
This was one of the stranger quotations from South Side Projections’ screening of the so-called “lost movies” from the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Film Society. The screening, held at Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere, featured 10 short films recently compiled by artist Zoe Beloff that were allegedly made by Coney Island residents between 1926 and 1972. The premise of the film society was simple: Coney Island residents who were interested in psychoanalysis but lacked the funds for professional sessions recreated their dreams on film and analyzed them using Freudian principles.
The Society, purportedly founded by Coney Island amusement park designer Albert Grass in 1926, was as mysterious as it was strange. Its aim was to free the people of Coney Island from the repressive cultural and sexual norms of the ’20s through psychoanalysis. In addition to his work in film, Grass apparently had designs to create his own Freudian theme park inspired by Coney Island, but failed to raise the startup money. Despite allegedly creating several films per year, most of the group’s work has been lost, and now only the 10 screened by South Side Projections remain. Many believe that the Society never existed at all and that it was merely an urban myth created and perpetuated by Beloff and the Coney Island Museum.
Whether these films are the work of amateur psychoanalysts or old film strips that Beloff spliced together herself, they are certainly worth watching. They are strange, to say the least: footage of flash dancers and vintage amusement park rides is juxtaposed with insects, graveyards, levitating stuffed animals and other surreal images. The plots, for their part, do not disappoint. “The Midget Crane,” one of the first films shown, tells the story of a man’s coworkers who are miraculously turned into dwarves. He then drops each one out to sea with an enormous crane. Another, “The Bear Dream,” depicts a man suddenly transformed into a bear.
The psychoanalysis that accompanies the dreams is, at times, similarly goofy. The director of “The Bear Dream” ultimately concludes that the dream signifies his fear of ‘baring’ himself to a woman, while a middle-aged woman sees her dream of chicken as a sign that she is no longer a ‘spring chicken’ herself. This analysis may have held water in 1926, but the audience of 2017 is harder to impress—most of the crowd responded with good-natured laughter.
However, these interpretations are earnest, and the films are better for them. Beneath the absurdity, the psychoanalysis reveals a very honest effort by filmmakers to understand their lives and world. This is at times quite moving; one film describes a man coping with his taboo romance with another man, a second reveals the guilt the director feels over his parents’ divorce. These moments of pathos are executed with a light touch, and it can be easy to miss them among the fantastical imagery and vexing title cards. Yet the depth of these moments is as valuable as any of the surrounding material.
These films now occupy a strange space in the cultural landscape. The doubts surrounding the Society’s existence are too strong for the films to be used as historical artifacts, and the films themselves aren’t famous enough to be screened in major theatres or cultural centers. As a result, they will most likely find a home in niche venues that can risk a night of slim profits on such an esoteric project. This is a shame; the films are unique, and they deserve to be seen. Those lucky enough to hear about them—or better yet, see them projected on 16mm film—will spend a bizarre but pleasurable hour viewing a bygone era of Coney Island through a strange, psychoanalytic window.