The Amusement Park Is a Whirling Ride Through Social Anxiety

- The Amusement Park - Photo Credit: Shudder

The Amusement Park ends the way it begins, and this could be said twice over: once in terms of the framing of the film—Lincoln Maazel strolling through the park “out of character” intoning against the abuse of our elders and urging us to take action against it—and once within the film itself, which is bookended by Maazel as the main character in white (whom I will refer to as simply Lincoln since he is not otherwise named) talking to himself in a sterile white room.

Lincoln stands in dapper white looking at a downtrodden Lincoln who sits with a bandaged head, holding a cane

Of course, I don’t mean that he is talking to himself in the sense that I might talk to myself. There are two versions of Lincoln in that white room at the beginning and the end of The Amusement Park: one who has yet to go outside and another who has returned, bloody and bandaged, who insists he won’t like it out there.

In some ways, I think The Amusement Park would be more interesting taken without the didactic framing of its opening and closing scenes. It would then present us with a loop, as we follow the Lincoln who is full of hope about what lays behind the door to the world and then circle back to the white room downtrodden and bloody after experiencing the travails of the park. Even as it stands the film encourages us to take the perspective of Lincoln in this way—the first time as the man full of hope and the second as the man who’s had it beaten out of him—as it repeats the scene. In the opening, we share in the optimism of what awaits behind the door, but in the closing, we despair with the bandaged man hunched over in a chair.

Of course, there are small differences and words missing the second time that serve to reinforce this effect. This is a lost film of George Romero, after all, and I find that no more evident than in these small touches. And so we also know that the framing device of Maazel speaking to us, telling us how to read the film, are remnants of its production as a (scrapped) educational video commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society. But now The Amusement Park has been divorced from that intended purpose. So let’s put that to the side.

Lincoln Maazel in a trenchcoat with hands in his pockets, walking through the amusement park

If we take the film along with its framing as a film unto its own, pulling the opening and closing scenes of Maazel talking to us into the work to be interpreted, there is a further doubling effect. It’s not for nothing that this is the same man who is the main character of the film, and though for the bulk of The Amusement Park he seems bewildered by the events that unfold, it is entirely possible to conceive of this calm Maazel as the same person.

The Amusement Park is full of anxiety. The use of a volunteer/amateur cast surely fed into this, along with the camera work and score, but there is further the pure bustle of activity and the bits of nonsense dispersed within. At least I think they are bits of nonsense. At least I do not comprehend or approach with befuddlement the scene of the police officer and insurance man arriving in relation to a crash between bumper cars. And it is confusing to see people selling various items for money at the same table Lincoln goes to for tickets. They don’t actually seem to be bartering their items for tickets, even.

Two older people stand beside a young woman wearing a bikini (seen from behind)

When Lincoln is hurt after being attacked by a motorcycle gang for no reason, the nurse insists that his bandage must help him more than he claims and that he needs to fill out forms he does not have in order to get further medical attention.

You can read all of this as an allegory for the difficulties the elderly face if you like—and certainly, The Amusement Park encourages this reading—but I hardly needed Maazel to tell me to relate to Lincoln’s experience throughout the film. Nor do I see it as something only to be encountered if I reach a certain age. But then I’ve never liked crowds, or cops, or paperwork…or systems of monetary exchange.

And during the Freak Show, is the audience hollering out of happy enjoyment, or anger, or something else? Hell is other people, indeed.

A cop writes a ticket as Lincoln looks on in the background, befuddled

It is interesting that The Amusement Park has been released to a wide audience through Shudder in June of 2021. Here we are after the strange year that was 2020, where we experienced lockdowns and quarantines, have been conditioned towards a certain fear (however rational) of our fellows, and have been encouraged to practice social distancing. And now, at least in the US, it feels that everything is opening up and that there is a kind of expectation, at least in some quarters, of excitement at the prospect.

It’s an amusement park out there, but it’s also noisy and potentially dangerous. The anxiety provoked by Romero’s film stems primarily from the way in which Lincoln’s autonomy is undermined throughout. But this does not occur so much through intentionally malicious forces—though such are present in The Amusement Park—as it does through the utterly banal actions of others going about their lives.

An older couple and a younger man stand near bumper cars

The most devastating moment for Lincoln, after all, is when his reading of The Three Little Pigs is disrupted by the young girl’s mother packing up their things to go, which culminates in her snatching the book from his hands. There is no malice here, but she ignores Lincoln entirely. She doesn’t even say a word to him, and it is easy enough to draw a parallel to the way in which the elderly are often treated as though they do not exist, or like their desires don’t matter.

The fact is, though, that other people undermine our capacity for self-determination all of the time, no matter our age. All it takes is for their desires to come into conflict with our own, or for the expectations of social living to nebulously refuse to accommodate our wants and needs.

Young girls sit on a picnic blanket, as Lincoln approaches from behind

The other day, a man I met for the first time reached out his hand to shake mine. I briefly wondered if I could decline. Should I feel comfortable with this practice again now? Do I really have a choice? Is it even really OK in the eyes of the world at large that I want one?

It is a very small thing after all, but the world presents all sorts of minor impositions, and everywhere others can seem lacking in compassion and understanding. Everywhere people behave in strange and unpredictable ways and pass judgment. Sometimes a motorcycle gang might appear out of nowhere, approach through cut frames of film, and beat you bloody for no reason.

Am I the only one who has come out of 2020 feeling more like the downtrodden Lincoln than the optimistic one who wants to see what’s outside?

Lincoln looks downward, bloody and bandaged

Maazel’s summation at the end of the film rings true: it’s an amusement park out there, and whether you end up beaten down in the allegorical white sterile room depends on many factors beyond your control—other people, systems and social pressures, socioeconomic conditions, and so on.

Entering the summer of 2021, the anxiety of The Amusement Park frankly hits a little too close to home, and I find myself viewing that clean, quiet space of solitude as far more welcoming than desolate.

You won’t like it outside. There’s nothing out there.

Or perhaps there is the joy of reading to a wide-eyed and kind little girl, and you’ll actually get to finish the story next time.

The Amusement Park, George Romero’s legendary ‘lost’ film, premieres on Shudder on June 8th.

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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is happily not married and has no children. He enjoys staring into the abyss (particularly when it stares back). He also has a cat.

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