Sunday, June 3, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: The Rock-afire Explosion (2008)

My experience working at Chuck E. Cheese Pizza is fairly well documented, and so I am unsurprised that I might have a pre-disposition for an interest in the backstory and current state of part of the weird world of Pizza Parlors that double as Robot Music Shows.

The 2008 documentary, The Rock-afire Explosion (available on Netflix Streaming) seeks to uncover, really, one man's ongoing love of the robot band that made his childhood magical and the engineer who created the Rock-afire animatronic band and performances that made the Showbiz Pizza chain possible.

Honestly, it's maybe a little messed up.

see the face of your Mayan Apocalypse and behold your DOOM

I cannot begin to guess the original intentions of the filmmakers as they set out to begin interviewing private Rock-afire Explosion band owner Chris Thrash (I imagine they thought just getting Thrash and his band was plenty for a short film), but the final product is a mostly-feature-length, warm-hearted look at a man and his quirky dream.  One assumes that through Thrash the filmmakers got in touch with Aaron Fechter, the creator of the band, and an interesting guy himself.

Flechter seems a bit one part Willy Wonka/ one part Ahab, a guy who struck it big with an idea when he was very young, and who built a company that he very much cared about.  The failure of the overall Showbiz Pizza company and the fate that shook out for the animatronics group he owned is still very clearly present for the man, and there's something a bit tragic about the guy when you see what he's kept from the old days (and it certainly makes you wonder about his business acumen).

Thrash and several others from the online Showbiz Pizza community don't really seem all that different from some of the collectors I've met when it comes to comics or related pop paraphernalia.  Thrash himself seems like such a genuinely decent guy its hard to want to knock holes in the world he's created for himself.  Unfortunately, his dream of owning the band had already become a reality before the documentary was shot and the filmmakers sort of bypass how he obtained the band in a few short minutes.

It seems the filmmakers found Thrash after he'd taught himself to program the animatronics and began making YouTube videos of the band playing various contemporary pop songs.

I'm not one to throw stones at anybody's impractical obsessions, and so I mostly find the dedication to something I recall, but for which I never felt any real affinity mostly fascinating.

For me, the real story was what was going on with Aaron Fechter, who still owns his old haunts and the inventory therein.

To put it bluntly, this documentary wasn't finished.  Its running time of just over an hour raises dozens of questions it never answer, including what the hell Fechter is doing now (he seems to have money coming from somewhere), words from his former employees or anyone who worked at Showbiz in corporate during "the fall", or even just 80's-era Showbiz employees who had to deal with the band, and, most absolutely, the other few Chris Thrashers out there who get referred to, but never get shown.  Yeah, I liked seeing the guy with the Showbiz tats (you have brass ones, sir), but if owning these things is an underground collectors' market...  where's the story?

At the end of the day, its a doc about something that doesn't really matter particularly, so the filmmakers needed to give you the hook, which they do, but so much of what isn't there just makes the film feel a bit undone.  Maybe I felt the filmmakers created the possibility for a discussion of art, technology, commerce and when they intersect with the people associated, and instead they merely stitched together a few interviews of varying consequence.

What the filmmakers do manage to do is demonstrate how the early 1980's profoundly affected both Thrash and Fechter.  Thrash, like so many of the subjects of these sorts of movies, readily talks about how this thing reminds him of a "simpler time" when he was happier, which, was when he was a small child.  For Fechter, its not the reclaiming of the era, it's living in the wreckage of what was, a guy who has mostly moved on in a lot of big ways but who still drags the past around like an anchor.

Also, more explanation is needed regarding Fechter's spouse, which...  there's hope out there for everybody, people.  Maybe that's the lesson of the doc.

The closest comparison I can draw is to something like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which handled seemingly pointless obsession much more eloquently and with a much more fulfilling story arc thanks to better management of the stories they were telling.

As someone with vast collections about which he does not feel particularly keen about discussing, I'm not certain that "it reminds me of childhood" is anything like the response I'd give.  It might be in part, or I'd be willing to discuss the resonance as both a child or adult.  But everyone's got their motivations, and maybe they come out more sharply when someone shoves a camera in your face.  I don't know.


Steven said...

I loved Showbiz back in the day and was quite taken by the idea of this film when I saw the trailer at the Alamo.

There was something sweet, and benevolent about Thrash that somehow resisted, I thought, letting him be set up as a nerd punching bag. The fact that he opened his shed and that he wanted to share the magic of something that was campy, and goofy, and childish with children and friends never stopped seeming sweet and decent. He almost reminded me more of a museum custodian than of an overzealous fan.

The edges of this love, and this love of sharing Showbiz, made him seem a bit extreme at times (Mountain Dew all the time, from Shobiz glasses!?) but given his Roller Skate DJ side job and that he saved up for his Rockafire lair though working two jobs gave me a lot of respect for the guy.

Fechter, wow, that guy could use a documentary of his own: A private factory that one puts into perfect stasis, a soldering gun left where someday someone might walk back again and start rendering Mitzi Mozzerella. A board room, left untouched, it was all so ... urban decay? LIke who knows what else was in there. It had an edge of Wonka to it: the suits shut him down, but yet he clings to the belief that a 20-year-dormant singing ape, mouse, and bear will still remain relevant to the POST-iPod generation, when the heyday of this creation was the pre-walkman era? Hm, seems unlikely -- or have I misjudged childhood?

And yes, Mrs. Fechter's fandom has a fascinating story to it as well. This would be like me marrying Liz Phair. Things like that don't happen, do they? Apparently they do!

The League said...

As impractical as Thrash's show is/ was, I agree. Its a bit of an odd-ball story of a man with a dream, but you can't help but be happy for him, even if you can't quite get it yourself.

I hope somebody DOES pick up a camera and start following around Fechter. The guy left a serious impression on me with all the questions the doc doesn't answer.

Its not too late. Liz Phair is out there, somewhere, I'd assume. You do that, and I'll go see what Siouxsie Sioux is up to.

Paul Toohey said...

Watched this today, totally agree with your statements...

Paul Toohey said...

The guy who made this has a pretty interesting IMDB post this first film. I liked Jasper Mall a lot, and it looks like he's making a doc about Reading Rainbow currently.

AND it looks like someone has done another doc that features Fechter, if you are still interested. I haven't seen it yet, but