Film Review: The Lost Arcade

This moody, wistful documentary starts off as another valentine to a bygone New York before morphing into an examination of creating and sustaining communities in a big, lonely city.
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Everything about the videogame palaces in The Lost Arcade makes them look like oases. Shot mostly at night, because that’s when the gamers come out, the arcades blaze into the darkness with their teenage-Vegas cacophony of strobing lights, electronic bleeps, and the hoots and hollers of victors and vanquished. Clearly, these are not just places to drop some quarters and kill a half-hour on the latest Street Fighter; they are clubhouses, homes away from home.

Kurt Vincent’s short anthropological reverie of a film starts out as a dreamy, bittersweet ode to a long-lost New York. After Space Invaders took over pop culture in 1979, the nation was suddenly packed with arcades where kids could spend hours playing games and hanging out with their friends—like rec centers without the threat of physical exercise. New York was no different, with Times Square being packed with massive arcades featuring all the latest games. Chinatown Fair, down on Mott Street, which had been a carny emporium (dancing chicken and all) since the 1940s, was like a remnant of old, weird New York, but with a few arcade games. Once the uptown locations were killed off by the rise of console gaming in the 1990s, Chinatown Fair became the only game in town.

For years, the grubby space with the (possibly ironic?) “No Loitering” sign was jammed with every game from Pac-Man to Dance Dance Revolution, much to the delight of the young guys who packed it until the middle of the night. Vincent captures the atmospheric pulse and thrum of the place when it was in full swing, heavy with companionable competition. But he’s also able to tease out a couple of bright subjects to follow as they explain the appeal of the Chinatown Fair’s intense, ad-hoc, racially mixed subcultures and also the anxieties over its impending demise.

Two of the film’s most high-profile subjects, Henry Cen and Akuma Hokura, expound glowingly about the arcade where they both loitered and ended up working, as a refuge of sorts, with its gentlemanly Pakistani owner Sam Palmer as surrogate father figure. It’s all you can do, with Vincent’s carefully lensed and moodily intimate shots, to not want to jump right into this time capsule and try your hand at one of the Fair’s fighting games, or at least cheer from the gathered crowd.

It’s not uncommon for writers and filmmakers to decry the sweeping away of the city’s grit by the gentrification of recent years. One interviewee, looking at an old photograph of his Lower East Side neighborhood, muses longingly about walking through “this rubble” to get to school, before chiding himself for pining for a past when things were worse. But instead of a generalized nostalgia for the days of peep shows and atmospheric danger and ruin, The Lost Arcade looks in particular at what disappeared when the city began running out of room for its odd little corners for like-minded people to gather and feel less alone.

Many of the film’s subjects are fully engaged in this narrative of the arcade as community, almost to a dead-end fault. In its later, less unfocused stretches, the film’s sociological impulse gives way to a more hidebound kind of defeated reminiscing. But even here, Vincent never abandons the inquisitive sensibility that, along with the atmospheric camerawork and moodily game-inflected synth score, makes The Lost Arcade such a deeply felt and bittersweet experience.

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