Doc of the Day: Chasing Ghosts Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Chasing Ghosts

Posted in Days of Docs, Reviews by - August 27, 2012

Recall the days of yore, of video games that came in booths, that you had to leave your house to play.

Dir. Lincoln Ruchti, 2007, 87 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant

See The King of Kong instead.

That’s really all I can say about this movie. King of Kong touches on basically everything that Chasing Ghosts does, but does so in a better way. It’s funnier, sadder, more informative, and more exciting. It’s a brilliant look at the mechanics of a subculture and the nature of competition and obsession. It’s Moby Dick with a joystick. This is… considerably less.

Chasing Ghosts isn’t bad so much as it is thuddingly mediocre, and I’d say that even if it weren’t suffering in comparison to Kong. It’s treading the same material, examining the world of arcade video gaming. While Kong used a specific story as a lens to view the whole subculture, Ghosts takes a general view, summarizing the history of the arcade. While Kong was all about a present conflict, Ghosts follows people looking into the past. It’s a weaksauce History Channel look at the topic.

There’s no reason that it should be this way. Many of the same characters from Kong show up in this film. Walter Day, Billy Mitchell, and the inimitable Roy Schildt, AKA “Mr. Awesome,” were part of the greatest documentary “cast” of the last decade. Here, though, we see only the barest glimpses of their true insanity. The hints that do shine through are delightful (anything involving Mr. Awesome is fried gold), but it’s just not enough.

See, the thing about competitive arcade gaming is that it is absolutely nutso. It consists of grown men (and they are all men) ruthlessly pursuing high scores at Pac-ManCentipede, Defender, and other quarter-eating diversions. Walter Day gained authority by collating these various high scores through his organization, Twin Galaxies, which to this day is recognized as the authority on all things arcade. A businessman by trade, Walter saw this world as an opportunity to claim some form of status for himself.

That seems to be a recurring motivation here, in fact. These guys are good at nothing else, but they’re good at video games, so they’ll fight tooth and nail to keep their high scores. Mr. Awesome, in a distinctly un-awesome moment, admits as much. That flash of vulnerability, as his ridiculous swaggering façade falters for just a moment, is one of the rare bits of greatness in the doc.

But where the film really falls apart is in its tone. One of the really amazing thing about King of Kong is how compassionate it is towards people whom you could easily (and, frankly, justifiably) dismiss as crazies. Ghosts sort of tries for that, except for that, in its attempt to treat the subjects respectfully, it winds up making them look absolutely pathetic. These are, after all, men reminiscing about the “good old days” when they accrued some measure of fame by playing video games. Now they have considerably less to talk about, and the fact that they view such a lackluster past with such rosy eyes is extremely sad. If I though this was what the movie was trying to do, I’d think quite a bit more of it, but it isn’t, so I don’t.

This is such a false nostalgia piece that it hurts. Near the end, the guys lambast the latest arcade games as inferior to the cabinets of their youth, and it’s painfully obvious that their true reason for doing so is “we didn’t grow up with these games, so we aren’t good at them, therefore we fear them.” One man seriously, unironically asks why a kid would want to play a game where a tiger-man can fight a musclebound warrior. Are. You. Kidding. Me. And the movie never calls them on this ludicrousness! That is, in a nutshell, why it fails.

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Dan Schindel loves movies more than you do.

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