The number of documentaries about 80s gaming nostalgia is too damn high! After The King of Kong started it all in 2007, and last year’s wicked Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Story of Nibbler, coming to the UK this year in a limited cinema release after a 2011 crowdfunding campaign, the precious financial support of IGN Entertainment and almost five years in the making, The Lost Arcade adds itself to what is becoming an established thematic tradition.
The first documentary of director Kurt Vincent and producer Irene Chin, The Lost Arcade revolves around the Chinatown Fair, a legendary arcade located in New York’s grim 1980s Chinatown, its rise and fall, and recent “rebirth” as a more family-oriented venue. Talking to former employees and owners, Vincent guides us through a quick history of the arcade phenomenon with a dispassionate voice-over, in what feels like a heavily scripted documentary. After an attempt at a poetic start, the only moments that seem to raise above the humdrum are the bits about the dancing chicken (we do wonder what happened to it, or what it made it dance) former owner Sam Palmer’s vision dreams and the new owner’s goals of transforming the arcade in a more familiar (and gamblier) place.
Alas, you can easily tell this is a first attempt of a documentary. Despite the years in the making (or maybe because of exactly that) the filmmakers don’t seem to invest in the observational aspect (most footage feels more like b-roll to the interviews and voice-over than actual narrative) or dare to provoke any reflection. Despite the talk from former employees Henry and Akuma about the reinvention of arcades in the modern age (it’s all about community) no one seems to connect the dots that, from the moment a console connects to the internet, you can get your community online from the comfort of your living room. Other points, a great reference for the New York LGBT community, for example, aren’t even touched upon. Of course, it is impossible to put everything in a documentary, but as it stands, The Lost Arcade doesn’t have much meat, and even less juice.
Great documentaries transcend their themes; The Lost Arcade doesn’t do justice to its own, and even if we believe it may be a good film for people of the actual community, or people from New York that want to reflect on how much the city changed since the 80s, for the general audience (and probably for the gaming audience we suspect) there seems to be something missing. The director doesn’t show any connection to its theme – the supreme documentary sin – and we are only given a shop window view of a place that feels full of stories we will never be privy to. The soundtrack by Gil Talmi, though, is full of inventiveness, using sounds from an actual Commodore 64 – if only the film it scores had the same degree of creativity, or at least the same passion for its subject.
The Lost Arcade screens at the Open City Documentary Festival on 25th June 2016. For more information please check http://opencitylondon.com/films/lost-arcade