THE LOST ARCADE – The Last of the Old-Time Arcades
THE LOST ARCADE contemplatively looks at the passing of Chinatown Fair, an outpost for old-school video gaming which opened on Mott Street all the way back in 1944. Over the decades, the dimly lit, grubby, fire-engine red video-game dungeon, known for competitive gaming and its tic-tac-toe playing chicken (Al Pacino had a scene with it in DEVIL’S ADVOCATE), survived, even after Xbox and PlayStation home gaming systems ran off all other competitors. The film is jivey fun with a hint of remorse, as it details one more New York locale with character disappearing from the map. The Chinatown Fair was a place where the young, social misfits, and, frankly, the poor and working class would congregate. A congenial if ratty place where you could spend a few quarters and then spend your night talking, laughing and watching others spend theirs, under the vigilant eye of its agreeable immigrant owner, Sam.
Old-School versus Family Fun
After documenting its closing, the film situates Henry Cen, a manager at the Fair who opens up NextLevel, a gamer-centric outpost in Brooklyn, as the hero, and Lonnie Sobel, who reopens the Chinatown Fair as a family-fun-fair Dave and Busters knock-off, as a sign of New York-gone-wrong, but allows Sobel enough of a backstory so that it’s hard to gainsay his efforts to keep the business going his way; sure enough, several regulars who weren’t hardcore tournament gamers seem happy enough that the original location is alive. At some level, the arcade situation encapsulates current New York – Brooklyn has the rakish, coarse-grained edge in NextLevel, while Manhattan’s Chinatown Fair is increasingly family and tourist-friendly (the fire-engine red paint has moved over to NextLevel, while Chinatown Fair is now all rainbows).
The first documentary of director Kurt Vincent and producer Irene Chin, THE LOST ARCADE feels a bit makeshift and undramatic at moments, but that’s part of its appeal as its tone fits the arcade itself, whose history is actually rather makeshift and undramatic (for several decades Sam ran Chinatown Fair without much incident). After the preliminary climax (the closing night of Chinatown Fair), the film becomes a bit dispersed, mirroring the cast of eccentrics set adrift by its closing, and never quite recaptures the film’s early narrative drive as it recaps the events of the last few years.
Death and Resurrection
THE LOST ARCADE doesn’t go for trumped-up pathos, exactly, but a former employee’s visit to the reopened Chinatown Fair, where he stands speechless, shaking his head disconsolately, seems a bit stagy — whether the filmmakers just recorded his own self-conscious response to the cleaned-up locale, or encouraged it, it’s not one of the film’s strongest bits. THE LOST ARCADE is on firmer footing documenting the camaraderie and lights and sounds of the Chinatown Fair, while capturing some keenly observed moments (Sam’s son seems quite hostile to the relationships Sam developed managing the Fair). It is genuine in its love for the greasy inexpensive camaraderie represented at the Fair that is increasingly inaccessible in Manhattan.
The film doesn’t look down on its offbeat cast of characters, a plus, and the lively video-game score by Gil Talmi keeps things perky. The bleating sounds and clashing lights of the games don’t particularly appeal to me beyond bringing me back to my Space Invaders infested youth, but they matter to filmmaker Vincent, and that’s enough, as the film takes the fairly ordinary closings and reopenings of a small business and convincingly posits them as “death and resurrection” to good dramatic effect. In its own minor way the tension is sustained and ultimately THE LOST ARCADE is a praiseworthy addition to the cinema of New York, the filmmakers having real rapport with their subject. I can safely recommend it to more than gamers, and watching it unspool I did feel regret for a city that feels largely yanked away from the majority of its population, who can’t afford much of what passes for fun here these days. How could New York have become so clean? Where is the cheery degradation when we need it, now more than ever?
THE LOST ARCADE will have its exclusive NYC theatrical run at the Metrograph in Chinatown August 12-18th. It will also be playing in other cities and on-demand.