New York may not be as ancient as Rome or Athens, or as historically imperial as London or Paris, but it’s unmatched at transforming recent events into legend, discarded culture into old-school canon, and shitty contemporary storefronts into temples of the eternal. While the Colosseum or Champs-Élysées can still be visited, their majesty ever apparent, New Yorkers industriously rebuild Mars Bar and Mondo Kim’s as defiant, “sucks you missed it” mythology. With The Lost Arcade, filmmakers Kurt Vincent and Irene Chin don’t analyze this phenomenon so much as embody it, granting feature-length, epoch-defining gravitas to a scene few New Yorkers even know to pine after.
Chinatown Fair first opened in the early 1940s as a cheeky novelty museum replete with carnival-style attractions — such as the location’s most celebrated denizen, the dancing, tic-tac-toe-playing chicken — before turning to video arcade games in the 1970s. After a Space Invaders–fueled heyday, the single-story Mott Street enclave struggled to compete with Times Square’s bustling surfeit of arcades, and also gained a reputation for playing inadvertent host to teen gang turf wars. Taken over by Sam Palmer, a small-businessman from Pakistan, the ragged, jury-rigged dive improbably endured for three additional decades, outlasting all of its midtown competition and withstanding the advent of Nintendo, PS3, et al., before finally shuttering in 2011. Vincent and Chin are there to record the closure, and again to chronicle a reopening under new family-friendly management in 2012.
The fate of Chinatown Fair makes for a reasonably compelling, if familiar, story — the scrappy business that fends off every threat save for rising New York rents.
Yet for all of the location’s CBGB-style allure, with its narrow passageway, triage-inclined maintenance, and fire-engine-red walls, it’s when the film wanders offsite that its true subject emerges. For it’s the young people who showed up to play and be together that created New York’s arcade culture — a culture that continues to migrate from storefront to home console, street hang to couch crash.
The film meets the open door, come-as-you-are community on its own level, freely following both new and recurring faces over its diffuse 79 minutes and avoiding the forced, interwoven three-character structure that far too many works of American nonfiction seem obliged to employ. There are requisite on-camera interviews with the brusque but lovable Palmer and his misfit associates (as well as an unfortunate, though blessedly sporadic, voiceover narration), but the camera also does a fair amount of simply hanging around, peeking over the shoulders of players and picking up the stray taunt and hosanna.
Even so, the warm and thoughtful Akuma Hokura can’t help but edge toward center stage. A runaway who slept on errant cots in arcades after-hours in the Eighties before becoming an employee and surrogate son to Palmer (who apparently fired and rehired him dozens of times over the years), Hokura is a survivor, sage, and cultural conscience all bundled into one. He’s shown walking around Times Square in futile search of former haunts, and he refuses to sign Chinatown Fair’s security gate — which, in classic downtown style, others have turned into a makeshift graffiti memorial. “That would be me saying I’m done, and I’m not going to do that,” Hokura declares. Seemingly arm-twisted by the filmmakers into checking out the freshly reopened Fair, with its pastel-colored walls and boardwalk-style prize games, he skulks around as if he were touring the ruins of a bombed-out city.
“It’s gone,” he whispers. Then, sidelong to the camera: “Are we done?” From the look on his face, he’s already far away, on the subway back to Brooklyn and
Next Level, the club-style gaming room opened by former Fair manager Henry Cen. It’s another place that few know about, but that nevertheless means everything to certain people. New York is filthy with loss and nostalgia, with fossils of things loved intensely yet discarded unceremoniously. It’s also utterly dependent on Hokura finding another godforsaken place to play fighter games with his friends, on the next legend rooting and sprouting faster than it can be cut down.
The Lost Arcade
Directed by Kurt Vincent
Opens August 12, Metrograph