What better way to document the effects of change than setting a documentary in New York? In a city so filled to brim with people of all walks of life, it is no wonder that people will try so hard to hold to something meaningful in their lives, even when the inevitable outcome is doom, people will clench tightly to it and memorialize it to a grander status. As the The Lost Arcade showcases, no matter how tightly you clench on, it can still slip away and all you can have left is memories. What you make of those memories is up to you.
Arcade games have made a comeback with the snazzy addition of being part of a bar. In Los Angeles, we have the Eighty Two or the Blipsy Bar. Arcade games have always had a roller coaster of being a trend but it is always steeped as a vintage delight. So when a documentary like The Lost Arcade focuses on one arcade, it is taking a plunge into history. Deep in the Chinatown area of New York is a little arcade named Chinatown Fair. This arcade has had a long, rich, and bizarre history. Not only was every inch of its space was devoted to arcade games, there was also a dancing chicken who could play tic tac toe.
The Lost Arcade documentary begins with Chinatown Fair months before it’s closing, when rumors abounded. The place is crowded with regulars bonding loudly over games. As we hear from them, the owners, and the staff, Chinatown Fair was beyond beloved. It was cherished and worshiped for the memories. Once it closed down, there was a lost demographic eager for a new place. The documentary is not all doom and gloom. Arising from the ashes of Chinatown Fair comes Next Level, an arcade devoted to the competitors of the console gaming world. Although a lot of the regulars from Chinatown Fair floated on through, arcade games were no longer the main attraction, they were the side enjoyments. Next Level represented the new (and current) chapter in gaming, one ruled by consoles and streaming sites.
The history and significance of Chinatown Fair and it’s gamer crowd was not lost on me but it did not generate much in terms of sympathy. Especially when the regulars of the film represented what has been utterly frustrating for a lot of female gamers. Not once in the movie is there a prominent female voice. The only women are relegated to the background cheering or making out with someone. I did not see any woman prominently gaming. From the glimpse of repertoire between the Chinatown Fair regulars, it seemed to a strong club vibe. If you were not there, you wouldn’t get it. If you were there and you played badly, you weren’t a part of them. That kind of exclusive behavior seemed to have rolled over to Next Level as we see the same interactions and encouragements among the men.
Even the men admitted that Chinatown Fair was a grungy and grimy place to be. So that makes little wonder that women would shy away. It was only when the Chinatown Fair was resurrected with a new owner and family-friendly games did I see more women featured predominantly. The disdain and bitterness that the old Chinatown Fair crowd had was completely unfounded. I see nothing wrong with a safe space for a generation of gamers who were intimated or scared to be at an arcade. Speaking from personal experience, there is a similar kind of arcade here in Los Angeles called Family Arcade (on Vermont). When I was growing up, this was not a family friendly arcade at all.No kid in their right mind would go there alone. Hopefully it’s different now.
The Lost Arcade only focuses on the ever changing effects of one arcade store and one particular group of gamers. It doesn’t paint a whole picture of the demographic, just the ones that were there for the fall and rise of arcade games. So in reality, Next Level and the crowd may be completely super friendly to female gamers. Judging from the documentary alone, it just seems like tight knit boys only gamers crowd.
Despite this frustration, I still recommend the documentary. The slow and intimate style of the filming beautifully showcases the personality of not just the people but the locations themselves. For one who has never been to New York, there was no difficulty in being fully immersed in that landscape. Balancing between equal parts history and sociology, the documentary is more than just focus on arcades. It is also a focus on how change affects people. Many of those Chinatown Fair regulars seem to be lost and yearning for what happened before. Chinatown Fair represented a golden age of development for them. It wasn’t hard to see why, the owner was absolutely charismatic and benevolent.
Even though those regulars probably still feel the bitter pangs of memories, what they have continued to do and create with Next Level is fantastic. They took what Chinatown Fair did for them and raised it. Next Level is a prime example of listening to a demographic and gave them what they wanted. A way to connect, a place to connect, and always ready to game.
The Lost Arcade will be opening at the Metrograph in New York on August 12 . The video on demand launch will occur on September 2016.