Some readers might know Chinatown Fair as New York City’s greatest video arcade, home to a warm and welcoming community of gamers. They might also know that the place recently got closed down, a severe blow to New York culture and a telling example of the death of the American arcade.
Kurt P. Vincent and Irene K. Chin are putting together a film, called Arcade: The Last Night At Chinatown Fair. They filmed during the last few days of Chinatown Fair’s operation, hoping to capture the spirit of the now-displaced community. I’d never been to the arcade myself, but as a supporter of gaming culture as well as a firsthand witness of the gradual tourist-ification of my city, the film comes as a refreshing glimpse of sincerity and humanity, two things that both the gaming world and New York could stand to regain.
That’s why it was super cool for Kurt to take the time away from the film and its fund-raising campaign to answer some questions for Top Tier Tactics!
T3: Tell us about yourself. What’s your background like in film and gaming?
Kurt: I grew up in Ohio and moved to NYC to make films. I edited and produced a documentary right before I moved to NYC (Out Of Place, about the underground surfing community in Cleveland, Ohio) and that experience convinced me that I wanted to make movies. My history with games has always been a casual one. I love games, and will become infatuated with certain ones, but never take it to a serious level. I am move of a movie nerd, which has worked out well, because living in NYC has enabled me to really explore cinema. This city is truly a city that loves movies. Oh, and just last year I had the honor of interning with one of my favorite filmmakers, Albert Maysles, in the city.
T3: What attracted you to Chinatown Fair initially? Got some touching/funny anecdotes?
Kurt: When I moved to New York I was hoping to find an old school arcade that was just the way they used to be. Not some sort of lame family fun center that made their money from loaded selling potato skins and mozzarella sticks. I knew NYC had to have a real arcade. When I heard about CF I had to check it out and what I found was so inspiring it drove me to pick up my camera and see what happened. I had no idea what would happen, but the result has been life changing. Beyond the movie, I have made new friends from the arcade that I look forward to hanging out with for years to come.
T3: Why do you think this particular arcade was so popular?
Kurt: Because it was liberating to hang out there. The first time I walked in there I felt comfortable. I can’t say that about a lot of places. You could just tell that as long as you didn’t mess around you belonged there. It was also so popular because there were no other places to play these games, especially against other top players. Plus, there were incredible dumpling shops all around the arcade.
T3: What’s your opinion on Chinatown Fair’s future in Brooklyn?
Kurt: Well, Chinatown Fair is closed. The new arcade is Next Level, and it is by no means the new Chinatown Fair. Henry Cen, who is opening the arcade has a very clear goal with it, which is to foster the fighting came community. He wants to produce fighting champions. I think the future for Next Level is very positive. It is going to become the most important place on the East Coast for fighting gamers. I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that.
T3: How about the future of arcade gaming in Manhattan, and the future of the community of Chinatown Fair?
Kurt: The CF community has gone off in separate directions. I was sad to hear from one of the music gamers that he had not seen some of his CF friends since it closed. When it was open they would be seeing each other at least a few times a week. The fighting gamers are eagerly awaiting the opening of Next Level, which is being renovated. When the arcade opened on the weekends it has been packed. I’m very happy to see the community thriving there. But a lot of the community has gone wherever they can to play their games and hang out.
The future of arcade gaming in Manhattan is dark. Rent is too high. Though there is some serious gaming going on at 8 Bit and Up, in the East Village, which is a video game store. They are keeping it alive in Manhattan right now. You walk in there any time and there will be a few guys playing Xbox and eating McDonald’s sitting on the floor. It reminds of the old baseball card shop I used to ride my bike to.
You also have the NYU Game Center in Manhattan, which is going to start producing the future’s brightest video game developers. At least that’s what I predict.
T3: What do you hope to capture with the film? What inspired you to make it in the first place?
Kurt: I hope to capture passion and bring the feeling of being at the arcade to the movie. The initial inspiration to make the documentary was that I wanted to see a movie about an arcade. Since the movie I wanted to see didn’t exist I decided to make it. I figured if I wanted to see it, then at least a few other people would be interested too. I actually have wanted to make a movie about an arcade for a few years. The thing is I have a lot of ideas, most of them probably aren’t great, and I just file them away. But the arcade idea kept surfacing. It was stuck in my head. And when I found CF I knew I had to film there. A few days after hanging there the first time I met Sam, the owner, and got permission to film.
T3: How far along with the film are you? What can you tell us about the shooting process?
Kurt: We are well on our way, but have much more work ahead of us. We still have a lot of shooting to do and of course editing, scoring the soundtrack, and all the rest of the stuff that goes into it in post-production. The way Irene, my producer, and I are approaching the movie is passive. We set the camera up and just see what happens. Let people be themselves. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough documentaries that all look the same and feel the same. They may be about different subjects, yet they are the same in every other respect. You have these talking heads answering pointed questions that lead the person to a specific end goal. And then in editing the filmmaker takes it even further to make his/her point. That’s not interesting to me. I am much more excited at the prospect of letting things unfold in front of the camera. That way I’m not capturing answers, I am capturing emotion. And I am constantly being surprised!
T3: What would user donations help you achieve?
Kurt: Without user donations there is no movie. The donations are going to help Irene and I create a lasting piece of art that will be shared with thousands of people around the world. The support we have received on Kickstarter has been profoundly inspiring. It is giving us the confidence to go out there and really take the movie to the limit. Any doubts we had about it are now gone. People believe in our vision and that is empowering.
T3: Fluff question. What’s your favorite game?
Kurt: That’s actually a really hard question to answer. I think I have different favorite games depending on the moment in time. Thinking back, the list begins with RBI Baseball for NES, which my cousin Dustin used to bring to Christmas at my grandparents. I never was allowed to have Nintendo when I was young so playing with my cousin was extra special. Then the original Wolfenstein and another shooter, Blake Stone, come to mind. My brother and I played the hell out of those games on our family’s first PC, which came with an Encarta CD- Rom. Then Sim City. Oh, and then it has to be Goldeneye, which my friends and I played a lot of in high school. The next game that I distinctly remember consuming me was the original GTA for PC. That shit was amazing. When I began to travel around the country, mostly by myself, I turned to Ms.Pacman because it seemed to be everywhere I went, hostels to pizza shops. It was a familiar feeling playing Ms.Pacman.
Be sure to check out the trailer for the film and other information on Kurt Vincent and Irene Chin’s web page, and also to donate to the film’s Kickstarter campaign! They’ve already met their minimum goal, but T3 readers are known for their charitable nature, aren’t they?