Inside the Vancouver Arcade with the World’s Last 8mm Peepshow
Why Movieland Arcade is still open in 2016 remains a great mystery of our time.
I'm standing on a tiny loading bay with four competitive Street Fighter players as they pass around a joint in the the chill December air. The door is kept just slightly ajar so as to keep the smoke from wafting inside. Genesis, who had been showing me the ropes for the past few hours, articulates his love for Street Fighter the way an art history major might about a Monet painting. I try to keep up but my knowledge of the franchise is limited, and I'm amazed at how much thought he's put into the game's artistic merits. The joint is killed, the roach is tossed, and we head inside toward the blinking lights and endless 8-bit sounds. We walk past a broken game machine in need of repair, past the sketchy bathroom, and past a dozen 8mm peepshow projection booths, the last of their kind in the world. This hodgepodge of vintage entertainment is what makes up Vancouver's nearly forgotten Movieland Arcade.
Someone told me about Movieland when I first moved to Vancouver, about its legendary seedy bathroom and old school porn movies. But when I found out the porn played on actual 8mm projectors, the cinephile in me was desperate to check it out. Seeing 8mm film, pornographic or not, is a rare experience in the "Netflix and chill" era, and the opportunity to hear that whir of celluloid passing through a projector at 24 frames a second for 25 cents a pop was not one I could pass up. I took a trip to Movieland, dug into its history, and interviewed some regulars to find out how the business is still kicking and how it became the last place in the world to project 8mm peepshows.
If you walk down Granville Street on an average Saturday night and you'll find hipsters smoking outside a Japandroids show, homeless sleeping in doorways, and students lining up at Caprice Nightclub. It's an eclectic mix that continues to change in order to appeal to the shifting demographics of the area. Right in the middle of the Granville strip lies the Movieland Arcade, in the same place it's stood for nearly five decades.
The arcade and its retro aesthetic fit perfectly on Granville back in the mid twentieth century. It was the heart of the city with an impressive display of neon lights, movie theatres, restaurants, and other arcades. According to most sources Movieland opened a few doors down from the Vogue Theatre in 1972, but photos from the Vancouver archives date Movieland as far back as 1968. The signage outside has since been updated, and while the "peepshow" is left out of the listed activities, the name of the arcade itself is an indication of what lies inside.
Porn and gaming stereotypically go hand in hand in the age of online gaming, but the two forms of entertainment have a long intertwining history. It's a narrative that stretches back to the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of peepshow machines that played moving pictures like What the Butler Saw. These risqué machines were often displayed in carnival gaming sections and penny arcades.
As time went on, the machines got more complex and the content more erotic. "This was a huge cultural phenomenon back in the 60s, especially in New York," porn archeologist, Dimitrios Otis told VICE. "A couple entrepreneurs put these in bookstores, and they were modified eventually and put into a booth, and that's when it exploded and became a huge thing." When asked why this aspect helped peepshows take off, Otis says, "The removal from reality was increased, the fantasy was magnified. Plus you could also jerk off now."
"I'm sure it's the last 8mm peepshow in the world. The other ones like this all changed to video long ago," says Otis, who wrote about Movieland's peepshows over a decade ago for the Vancouver Courier.
He explains that the owner "has to pay a licence for each one of the these machines, because each one is technically a licensed movie theatre. He can't be making much money at a quarter per view. So why even have them?" There are indeed licences displayed on each machine from the Vancouver government, all of which expired in 2008. "It's all rather complicated and outdated and if it breaks, someone has to fix it, so there's got to be maintenance going on."
Looking at the bulky metal boxes, or booths, there's no way to know what film you're selecting other than a vague descriptions like "1 Guy, 2 Girls" written in sharpie on a metal plaque. The reels are in various states of disrepair, some fading to red from age and some missing frames, and while not sexually arousing there's a sense of intrigue to their mechanical nature or "an Alice in Wonderland fantasy" feeling, as Otis describes it.
To view a movie, you have to slide your body sideways into a tight standing space, slide your quarter in the slot, and crane your neck to peek through a five-inch-wide viewing slot. The film runs for sixty seconds before you have to cough up another quarter to continue where the reel left off. This process is known as looping, and it used to encourage viewers to spend money until the film was done. Most people don't watch more than sixty seconds anymore.
Zachary Kerr Holden, filmmaker and competitive Street Fighter player, tells VICE, "You don't know which part of the sexual experience you'll get. It could be super chill, like two people hanging out, or it could be straight raw dog fucking." He continues, "I really love seeing what they do to new viewers, because everyone is amazed and with what they are experiencing as a very intimate thing, in a very cramped space."
This October Kerr Holden premiered his short documentary about the Movieland Arcade, aptly titled "The MovieLand Movie", at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. The film is an audio visual ode to the 16-bit, technicolor, button mashing fun of yore, and a love letter to Vancouver's Street Fighter scene, which he's been a part of for the past six years.
It doesn't appear that many people show up for the peepshows, or are even aware of their existence. It's mostly tourists, hipsters, and drunks walking in off the street for a quick round of Addams Family pinball or Daytona USA racing. Kerr Holden, who made the film over a three year period, assures me "Movieland is safe, though it may not seem that way when you first go in with the smell of piss and strange men yelling, but it's a really beautiful, welcoming place." He continues, "One of the important aspects of the community at Movieland is the fact that 90 percent of the games cost a quarter. You get a lot of interaction between people from the Downtown Eastside, different classes, you know, because everyone can afford it."
With the games being so cheap and the place being largely uninhabited the biggest mystery is how does Movieland run? Kerr Holden says, "You might see, at the most, 20 people in there on a busy night. And it's on the busiest strip of Vancouver! I always thought there was something shifty going on."
Otis has a similar feeling, saying he's had thoughts that "the owner is probably laundering money, or writing off the costs." Being on the strip of Granville, the property itself is likely worth millions in Vancouver's current market. Otis continues, "But I always wanted to know why it was still there, and I would romanticize and think it was the owner's secret thing and he just liked to do it."
Movieland owner and founder Jack Jung is a bit of an enigma. Otis was unable to get an interview when he wrote about Movieland in 2005, and Jung's never given one based on my research. Kerr Holden, who's there on a regular basis with the Street Fighter crowd shines some light on Jung. "Jack comes in somewhat regularly with his son Leslie, they close it up at night. Leslie comes in around 11 to do maintenance and clean up the games. I've met them a few times, but they're pretty elusive."
I went to Movieland a number of times to experience the community, to watch the peepshows, and to have my ass handed to me at Street Fighter. The last time I was there was a Saturday night and after the Street Fighter crew's smoke break, a downtrodden-looking man stumbles in, and shoots up in one of the peepshow booths. He passes out on the floor between the rows of personal porn theatres, which none of us notice at first because nobody has been to the peepshow machines for over half an hour. I'm assured this kind of thing only happens every so often.
Jack and Leslie are there that night. Genesis points them out to me between tiger uppercuts without looking away from the game or missing a hit on his opponent. They stand calmly side by side, gazing at the homeless man passed out on the peepshow floor. I can't see him, but it smells like he's pissed himself. They call the cops and wait for them to escort him out onto the cold, rainy Granville strip, where he doesn't make it far, lying down beneath Movieland's awning on a small patch of dry pavement.
After the cops leave, Jack steps into the back office, which I am unable to access. Leslie comes out to work on one of the broken game machines. Les, as he introduces himself, tells me he's the manager of Movieland, and has been acting as such since the early 90s. He's the one who maintains all the games, and the peepshow machines, though he offers little information about how it's done or why they've been kept for so long despite pressing him for an answer. From his calm demeanour, it just seems to be the way it is at Movieland.
I imagine anyone who manages an arcade to be a big gamer, but Les says, "No. When I started working the owner told me not to play the games, because if I was playing, I wouldn't be doing my job." When I ask about the owner, Les tells me he's not around much, and that he hardly sees him. I ask if Jack's his father, as the arcade regulars had suggested, and he tells me, "No. people just think we are because people think all Asians look alike. But we're not related."
Speaking to Kerr Holden about Movieland's legacy, he prefaces his next statement by making clear it's a rumour, but as he's heard it, "The plan is that once Jack passes away, he's going to sell the place so that his son and family have a good chunk of money to live on. Jack was a very prosperous business dealer, and sold all his other ventures, and now he loses money at Movieland, but he's okay with it. He has a real affection for video games and just wants to supply the space as long as he can."
It seems Les, whether or not he's Jack's son, is simply trying to keep me from speaking to a man who obviously appreciates privacy.
Jung and Leslie have dedicated themselves to Movieland for nearly 50 years, and after spending time there with the people who frequent it, it's abundantly clear that there's nothing shifty going on other than the odd stray junkie. Kerr Holden explains, "We all have that cynicism when something feels too good to be true. But the truth is Jack's just a man who had a lot of successful businesses before, and he just keeps this one so people can keep having good times. It's such a sweet, loving gesture."
So many articles have been written about special businesses that are barely holding on due to their obsolete services and manner of operation, and it begs the question, what's the point? Otis offers an answer. "You can just go in, and it's a living museum of that era with authentic peepshows and arcade games. Everyone should go in with some quarters and just experience it. It's absolutely unique to Vancouver."
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