A strong subject, the birth and stratospheric rise of the video gaming industry, and fascinating, quirky characters - in this case the young male gamers who became video arcade superstars - are the rock solid foundation for director Lincoln Ruchti's likable documentary "Chasing Ghosts." The fact that "Chasing Ghost's" beeps, buzzes and computer graphics have homespun origins adds to the film's appeal. Granted, Ruchti and his crew, cinematographer Lisa Wiegand and editor Eddie Brega (Ruchti also assisted in editing) tell their gaming tale in surprisingly straightforward fashion. One expects this sort of documentary to be a little more eye-popping, something edgier than the series of familiar face-the-camera interviews that comprise "Chasing Ghosts." After all, we're dealing with a colorful subculture that thrived on its electronic imagery. But "Chasing Ghosts" remains fun and fascinating from start to finish. Ruchti has entertaining material and he runs with it.
Walter Day, the owner of a video game in the small town of Ottumwa, Iowa, transforms himself into a video game kingpin and his small business into Pac-Man ground zero by overseeing the high scores of players around the world, especially the most egotistic of gamers, the mullet-haired Billy Mitchell. The film's best scene revolves around a Life Magazine photo shoot of the gamers gathered on Ottumwa's Main Street, posing with their arcade machines, a group of local cheerleaders framing the shot. In homage to the Jazz documentary "A Great Day in Harlem," about a famous photo of Jazz musicians, Ruchti recreates the photo. It's a sweet touch.
Of all the guys in the film, it's Day, a gangly man who looks desperate for a date, who stands out from the pack of gamers (Of course, he's an accomplished gamer himself) Ruchti takes full advantage of Day's enthusiasm for video gaming. He understands audiences love shaggy dog types and Day is a lovable shaggy dog. Mostly, "Chasing Ghosts" is affectionate nostalgia and much of its storytelling is good-natured. Yet, there are numerous scenes, especially when Ruchti catches up with the now-grown gamers, that the film emphasizes the men's nerdy qualities. The scene of a grown man who shows off his vibrating Lazy-Boy chair is funny, but after awhile it makes him seem pathetic.
If anything, Ruchti's dance between celebration and slight ridicule is confusing. Early on in "Chasing Ghosts," Ruchti convinces us that these young gamers truly were '80s pop culture icons and should not be forgotten. One embraces these boys, mullet hairdos and all. Understandably, a filmmaker can't look away from bad decisions his subjects make as adults and the poor conditions of their lives. But the fun of "Chasing Ghosts" is its advocacy for nerd heroes. There's no reason to finish the film by knocking its subjects down to the level of plain nerds.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.
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