Towards the beginning of Kurt Vincent’s “The Lost Arcade,” the director can be heard describing how his fascination with the Chinatown Fair began in New York City’s Lower East Side, following one of its regulars Anthony Cali Jr. into one of the city’s last arcades standing as it nears its final days. Struck by how the L-shaped arcade looked more the L train at rush hour with gamers packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the small space, Vincent notes “The crowd is mostly teenagers, born outside of the video game boom, so the scene was not about nostalgia.”
Perhaps not for the video games themselves, but as “The Lost Arcade” makes clear, there is a yearning for the sense of community being lost along with the place that brought together people of all stripes to play “Pac-Man” and “Dance Dance Revolution.” At Chinatown Fair, Vincent finds surprisingly fertile territory for such a story, telling how the dream of a Pakistani emigre, Sam Palmer, to find fortune on Mott Street during the late 1970s manifested itself into a home for the homeless, in some cases quite literally. Beyond Palmer, the film draws on the compelling stories of the arcade’s manager Henry Cen, who used to hang out there as a teen when his parents wouldn’t trust him with their house keys, and Akuma Horkura, who went from scrounging quarters from the floors to live off of after leaving his foster home, to working at the Chinatown Fair, with Palmer essentially becoming a surrogate father to him.
There’s no doubt that Vincent romanticizes the place – opening the film poetically, in verse and visuals as stanzas of an elegy accompany the violet light of the NYC skyline at dusk, but it’s crucial that he sees the Chinatown Fair as his subjects do to underline how profound a loss its passing is. Spending just enough time to place Chinatown Fair in the larger context of video game history where the activity transformed from a public sport since most machines were cost-prohibitive to a home consoles becoming so good and inexpensive that few want to leave the house, “The Lost Arcade” speaks to a greater cultural shift towards personal isolation without putting too fine a point on it and the desire by some to rebel against it. Whether intentional or not, Vincent’s own use of striking still images, itself a bit of an anachronism in this day and age, give credence to the enduring strength of the most basic forms of human expression, the kind which were practiced in Palmer’s arcade on a daily basis in a communal environment.
Despite chronicling the end of Palmer’s run of the Chinatown Fair in 2011 — it has since been rechristened as a “Family Fun Center,” which gives the film its third act — “The Lost Arcade” is far from a sad affair. It delights in small details, like the dancing live chicken that once attracted the likes of David Letterman and Robert DeNiro to Chinatown when the area was considered seedy during the 1980s, and warmly celebrates all the people Vincent talks to at the Fair, not as larger than life figures as most filmmakers might be wont to do, but instead all too human in looking for connection in a world where such experiences are becoming increasingly rare. To be brought into a community as intimately as Vincent does in “The Lost Arcade” is equally valuable.