Geek Doc Triple Feature: The Rock-afire Explosion (2008), Special When Lit (200X) & Chasing Ghosts (2007)

I don’t remember how, when or why, but The Rock-afire Explosion–an animatronic animal band from a southern chain of kids restaurants in the 80s with a strong fan following online–came to my attention within the last year or two. I can’t tell you how I heard of them because I have no idea. It could have been a link to one of the videos that are all over YouTube of privately owned versions of the machines programmed to pop music or a friend sending the link to the trailer around, I’m not sure. Anyway, when I did find out about it, I fell down the YouTube Rock-afire Explosion rabbit hole for a few hours and came out smiling and bleary eyed as I’m sure you will if you do the same.

So, I knew about the whole thing when I saw a few weeks ago that the documentary about the band and its fandom was now in Netflix Instant! I was excited and had a bit of a lighter workload yesterday and decided to dive in. It was fascinating, a really deep look at some people who never let go of their dreams in various ways and how that has changed them throughout their lives. The film’s two main focuses are the guy who created the band, Aaron Fechter, and their number one fan Chris Thrash. Chris very honestly explains at one point that the reason he stayed a fan and continues to watch his own private Rock-afire band is that it allows him to slip back to a time when he had no worries and could forget the world. It’s sad in a way, but also good that he knows the reasoning behind what some might consider a bit of a madness.

On the other hand you have Fechter who had a huge amount of success creating these machines and opening hundreds of restaurants and then dealing with the failure of all that. He had a couple hundred employees at one point and had to let them all go. He still owns the building and basically left it the way it was when everyone left, so it’s kind of a crumbling monument to days gone by as well as a fandom that still exists. The theme of the day for these documentaries was a mix of “never growing up” and “dealing with failure after success.”So, yes, at times it’s sad, but there’s also something nice about having something from childhood that you can still take such joy in, it just shouldn’t be your entire life.

From musical machine animals I dove into the world of pinball machines with Special When Lit: A Pinball Documentary. I joked on Twitter a few minutes into the movie that it might as well be called “Back In MY Day,” because it started with a lot of older people talking about how great pinball was and how it failed. But, it’s actually a lot more upbeat and positive than that. Plus, I discovered that there’s a heavy metal/pinball bar in a town that’s pretty near my house.

Anyway, Special When Lit does have some of that “we were the biggest thing around until the crash” stuff as the documentarians talk to a few people who were both makers of pinball machines and guys who ran some of the bigger arcades. Like anything, the game held on to fans, some of whom become obsessive in their love of it and others who just like to play. It reminded me of how much fun I used to have hanging out at the Red Baron arcade in the Franklin Park Mall in Toledo or heading out with my dad to any given arcade to pump quarters into a pinball machine. Sure, I liked the larger arcade video games like Ninja Turtles and X-Men better, but pinball was always something I’d go back to and play.

If you’re a fan of pinball, 80s culture or any rise-and-fall-of-a-particular-group-or-thing story, then you really can’t go wrong with Special When Lit. I was also surprised to find out that pinball was wildly popular in other countries (not for any particular reason, I just never really thought about it) and that some of the guys who still play in tournaments do all kinds of wild movements with their bodies to help their game. It really is fascinating to watch. I’m always down for a glimpse into a subsect of geekery that I either didn’t know existed or hadn’t thought much about.

The last movie I came across in my exploration of different geek subcultures through the lens of documentary was Chasing Ghosts: An Arcade Adventure. I didn’t read much about it, just saw the cover and decided it fit in with my other viewing. As it turns out, the film follows many of the same people that were in the amazing King Of Kong, itself a movie that got me interested in documentaries of this ilk a few years ago. Both movies came out the same year, but I would be interested to find out which was being filmed when. Anyway, if you’ve seen KoK or are a fan of video game history, you’ll remember that Life magazine did a big photo shoot with some of the best video gamers in the country in Iowa with the dude who runs around with a referee jersey on in both films, Walter Day. While it doesn’t state it right out, this film follows not only the history of video games, but the history of those young men who are now grown up and had to deal with the very real fact that the thing that made them so popular and even famous has not only moved on or passed them by, but morphed into something almost entirely different than what it was in their day.

Like with the other two movies, the film focuses on people who were swept up in something that no longer rules their lives and shows how some of them have dealt with it. It also chronicles the adventures of some people who continue to enjoy such things now and strive to keep them alive in a world that does not care nearly as much.

Aside from general interest in other groups and seeing how liking something can so easily turn to obsession, I have a more personal stake in movies like these. I achieved one of my life goals pretty young, I got a job in the comic book industry. I wasn’t writing comics, but I did write about them and later toys. This was a huge deal for a kid who grew up on both. But, then it stopped for a while and has shifted around to mean different things for me in different years. That idea of getting what you want when you’re so young and then dealing with the fallout of not having it anymore is something that I think about. I’m still in the game and actually enjoy what I do now more than I have in a long time, but I have a paranoid streak that keeps me wary. If it all falls apart, how will I react? Will I build a shrine to the good old days? Will I leave it all behind and start something else? Will I raise spiders? Well, definitely not that last one, but it’s interesting to put yourself in that position and ask yourself how you’d turn out and what you’d do. Really what I’m saying is that I want to make a documentary about some of the places I’ve worked over the years. Anyone interested?

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