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Reviews The 27th Atlantic Film Festival

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade

Lincoln Ruchti

USA, 2007

Credits

Review by Jason Woloski

Posted on 08 November 2007

Source 35mm print

Categories The 27th Atlantic Film Festival

Ever wonder what Napoleon Dynamite would look like at age 40? Chasing Ghosts answers this question and many others, by documenting how life turned out for the greatest gamers from the golden age of arcades. These guys were the Dynamites of 1982 in their mopped hair, hiked up jeans, and retro tees that weren’t retro for the day. Weirdest of all, a lesson of this movie is that if Napoleon Dynamite had only been born twenty years earlier and was a genius at videogames, he might have gotten laid regularly by arcade groupies. Who knew players could be playas?

The film is held together by a photograph taken for a 1982 issue of LIFE Magazine celebrating these teenage superstars at the height of their skills. The photo shoot took place on the main street of Ottumwa, Iowa, the self-proclaimed Video Game Capital of the World. The town’s title is not as random as it seems, as local entrepreneur Walter Day traveled the country recording high scores on machines in over one hundred arcades, before returning to Ottumwa to open Twin Galaxies arcade and begin the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard, the official tracker of video game world records to this day.

Footage of the photo shoot is shown in the film, and it is fascinating seeing Day stand out of sight of the photographer’s lens even as he beams at the accomplishment of bottling a movement that was growing at a lightning pace and yet in retrospect was only at the dawn of a lasting, ever-morphing technological and cultural movement. Ottumwa was cloud covered and cold the day of the shoot, and the finished product can easily be found online: sixteen gamers lean on six different arcade machines, finished off by five cheerleaders stretched across the bottom of the frame. It is a great photo that lived up to the magazine’s name: this was life in America for many teenagers, and just as LIFE has permanently ceased publication, the reality was that every golden age has to come to an end.

By the mid-80s, the arcade boom was waning, as video consoles could be enjoyed at home for one fixed price, rather than for an endless amount of quarters. The gamers captured in LIFE were getting older, but not necessarily growing up, and Chasing Ghosts, like so many great documentaries, is about people who became famous in a specialized field, then disappeared from the spotlight just like anyone else. How did things turn out for the LIFE 16 during these changing times? In many instances, pretty well. Some faded into obscurity and forgot their storied teenage glory days entirely, a few bitterly lost touch with one another, while one or two let fame go to their head. A few others lead quiet, some would say sad existences caught between the glories of arcade game elitism and the reality that the past just ain’t coming back. Walter Day, the Iowa businessman who used the inertia of arcading to build a small empire, currently dreams of becoming a musical star in his late 50s.

Chances are you couldn’t identify most of these guys on the street – then or now – with the exception of Billy Mitchell, who no one forgets. Rocking a jet black mullet-beard combo into his forties, Mitchell prominently features in another great arcade doc of 2007, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Mitchell is an example of an extreme ego-maniac who believes his own hype and then some. However, whereas The King of Kong is a showdown of epic proportions, Chasing Ghosts is about no single gamer, but rather an ensemble of extremely talented gamers who made up a particular movement at a particular time in the history of gaming. If Mitchell and The King of Kong is the extreme extrovert of arcade game documentaries, Chasing Ghosts is the shy introvert that makes you feel nostalgic for a time and a place you may not have been a part of in the first place, but which feels comfortingly familiar even as you see it for the first time.

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