May 20, 2012

Convenient Truths -- Rock-Afire Explosion

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2009's The Rock-afire Explosion by Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason
Elkin: Before there was Chuck-E-Cheese there was Showbiz Pizza, which basically functioned under the same business model: Provide mediocre pizza, many flashing lights, an arcade and beer for the adults. Then unabashedly overcharge for all of it. The difference between Chuck-E-Cheese and Showbiz Pizza, though, and the subject of this documentary, was the animatronic house band, The Rock-afire Explosion.
The Rock-afire Explosion is really three documentaries in one. At its center is the story of Chris Thrash, a small town Alabama part time roller-rink DJ trying desperately to hold on to a “simpler time when life was not so complicated,” whose obsession with the Rock-afire Explosion led him to purchase his own “show” from the company that originally manufactured them for Showbiz Pizza, which he subsequently set up in his own house.
The second idea explored in this documentary is the fan culture that surrounds the Rock-afire Explosion and the lengths they have gone through to form a community.
The third part of this film focuses on Aaron Fechter, whose Creative Engineering, Inc was entirely responsible for the creation, manufacturing, programing and licensing of the Rock-afire Explosion. At its peak, Creative Engineering was purported to be making around $20 million in profits and had a full-time staff of over three hundred employees. Then, in the early 90's, Showbiz Pizza merged with Chuck-E-Cheese in a bid to cut overhead costs and save the company. With visions of future licensing deals and the strong desire to keep control of his intellectual property, Fechter refused to give up his copyright on the characters he created for the Rock-afire Explosion. There was a subsequent “concept unification” as Showbiz Pizza merged into Chuck-E-Cheese, and the Rock-afire Explosion was removed from all the restaurants. The Rock-afire Explosion finds Fechter wandering the halls of his eerily abandoned factory, Creative Engineering's now sole employee.
The film's press release claims that the documentary is an “eccentric portrait of childhood memories, broken dreams, and the resilience of the human spirit … a look at the importance of nostalgia, ever-changing media culture, and the eternal quest to stay young.” While these are all certainly aspects of the film, this is not really what I saw the movie being about.
For me, The Rock-afire Explosion is a documentary celebrating both fan culture and creator rights.
Sacks: Who knew that there was a fandom for something as odd and obscure as animatronic creatures that were shown at pizza play lands? I'd never given much thought to the people who created those annoying singing creatures at my local Chuck E. Cheese before I watched this documentary; now, well, at least I have given them more thought.

The fan culture around this pseudo-band is the most interesting aspect of this movie to me. We're used to comics fans who love to cosplay and treat their favorite creators like rock stars, and to science fiction fans who filk and write their own stories and generally celebrate the work that they love so much. But the people who love the Rock-afire Explosion take that devotion to a whole different level.
I'm fascinated by the people who recreate the animatronic band in their own house and by the obvious joy that they feel in having all of this stuff sitting in their own house. The devotion is different from someone being excited to have a favorite comic book in their house or a first edition of The Martian Chronicles autographed by Ray Bradbury. These fans seem to be filled with a deep and abiding pleasure for having the Rock-afire creatures in their house; a feeling of almost contentment that they can keep an important aspect of their childhood alive forever and in a way that allows them to share the joy with others.
As one of the people profiled in this documentary states, the real joy of having the Rock-afire creatures in his house is that they represent an escape to simpler and more content times, times without worries and that feel very free somehow. While we all feel that way about some aspects of our fandom, it's seldom stated as overtly as it is here.
Elkin: Wait a minute here, Sacks. Are you implying that fandom is really about escapism? That fans are individuals that have, in varying degrees, a vague sense of malaise as to how their lives have developed who then imbue objects from their past with the mojo of their happier times? That the objects of their fandom are nothing more than springs of eternal happiness from which they slake their thirsts for their lost innocence?
Or am I going to far with this? Am I trying to force an issue here? And am I being especially sensitive to this because those fucking animatronic Rock-afire Explosion creatures creeped me the fuck out, and the thought of anyone, ANYONE, using these things as a means to escape their present ennui creeps me out even more?
Sacks: Well, listen, Elkin, I have those sorts of nostalgic and warm feelings towards the comic Omega the Unknown, which was about lost childhoods, robotic parents and a strangely dislocated young boy. I'm crazy about that series even though it really is creepy as fuck.
That's the thing about nostalgia: it's so individual to the specific person. These people love those creepy old animatronic creatures, I love a comic about a hero who gets killed in his final issue, you love … well, I dunno, old records by the Damned or something?
Because there's not really any objective reason to love these crazy creatures from the Rock-afire Explosion, really. The back-story of how they were created is kind of cool, but really there's no reason for these creatures to live on in the fans' minds – except that they do.
Fandom doesn't have to be about escapism, or about slackening their thirsts for lost innocence. But it is that for some people, and if it provides you some happiness while you deal with a sick parent or shitty job or nasty divorce or just the wish to completely relax after work or on a weekend, then, who am I to begrudge anyone that sort of happiness?
Elkin: As always, you are right, Sacks. I let my emotions get the better of me. And I hate to be such a judgmental guy. Everyone should feel free to let their freak flag fly. Everyone should be able to embrace whatever it is that they geek on. I mean, I've got the entire sevenbook collection of the Hearings before the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the United States Senate 93rdCongress First Session: Phase I: Watergate Investigation – and you will only get those from me when you pry them out of my cold, dead fingers.
I would take umbrage with you for your statement that fandom doesn't have to be about escapism, though. I think escapism is an integral part of fandom, that you are not really a fan of anything – be it comic books, music, film, sports, literature, cooking, single malt whiskey, deviant sexuality or creepy as shit animatronic rock bands – without there being some disconnect with it to the rest of your life, an escape from the rest of your normal day to day.
If you only have a casual relationship with the object, then you are not really a fan. If it is your sole focus, then you have spring-boarded from fan to fanatic, and one that may be in need of some pharmacological intervention. So, as a fan, an individual compartmentalizes the object of his or her fandom. It is an aspect of their life. It is an escape from everything else not in that compartment.
Therefore fandom MUST be about escapism.
Sacks: Hmm, are you saying that part of being a fan is having a small distance between the thing you love and the things you do every day? That in order to be a real fan of something it has to allow you to escape from your life? That your fandom has to be compartmentalized?
This feels like you're creating too small a box for fandom. What about the lucky person who gets to live his dream of belonging to a symphony or owning a comic shop or being a professional gigolo? Can't their whole life be full of joy that they get to do what they love most?
But regardless we are getting far afield from the point of this column and the documentary; namely, the escapism from everyday life and the blissful return to one's youth that being a fan of the Rock-afire Explosion represents for a certain set of people. Who am I to begrudge poor Chris Thrash his wish to be happy in his adult life? I actually thought it was wonderful that he was able to find joy in something so odd, unique and a bit trivial. I'll probably never be completely content with my comics collection, but here Chris Thrash was, completely content with his own special animatronic collection, and that just made me happy for him.
That's what it all comes down to for me: fandom implies a chance to be blissfully happy by exploring something that takes you out of your regular life and makes you unambiguously blissful. In these tense times, isn’t bliss something to be embraced?
Elkin: Hmmm ... I think you both disagreed with my earlier point, while at the same time agreeing with it. That's some pretty deft maneuvering, Sacks.
Don't get me wrong, I am all about embracing bliss (although when someone quotes the phrase “Follow your bliss” to me, I just want to punch them in their face – but that reveals more about me than having anything to do with what we are talking about), and the things I geek on certainly give me a sense of momentary happiness. I like happiness. It makes me happy.
In the course of disagreeing while agreeing with me, though, you brought up the idea of someone who gets to live their dream by making a career of their fandom. This brings me back to one of the other focuses of Rock-afire Explosion -- Aaron Fechter, the creative genius behind the Rock-afire Explosion and other animatronic wonders. I was sure our conversation would deal more with his side of the story, than with the fans. Here was a guy who was living the dream, living off of his creativity and surrounding himself with other creative people. In the documentary, the footage of Fechter during his heyday shows how much fun he was having then.
But it all went bust. He took a gamble by holding on to the fruit of his creativity (the licensing rights to the Rock-afire Explosion), and the cards ended up being stacked in favor of the house. I thought the scenes with him would especially resonate with you, Sacks, as a champion of creator rights and creator owned properties. What lessons do you think an audience can derive from Rock-afire Explosion's focus on Fechter?
Sacks: I was really struck by how Fechter didn’t seem beaten down by his lack of long-term success; instead, he seemed pretty happy and almost content that he’d gotten to live his dream and help make people around the world feel very happy through his invention of this clever animatronic process. It’s definitely interesting that so much of Fechter’s work happened before computers became really useful instruments for creating these creatures. The computers that the documentary shows are woefully primitive by today’s standards and almost look like antiques.
The old hardware and software, along with that long and lonely walk through the factory floor, give us the impression of a man whose time has kind of passed him by, of a guy who once was the top dog in his industry, dreaming of much greater success, wealth and fame, and instead found everything kind of crashing down around him.
Fechter is a wistful figure in this movie but I don’t think he’s a tragic figure at all. He’s an inventor, an advocate for following his own way and a man who despite his failures seems to be happy that he was able to do what he could do to improve some peoples’ lives. He’s happily married and doesn’t seem to be poor, so it looks like he was able to save some of the money he made during the good times to subsidize his lean times.
More than that, he’s remembered within the small cult of the Rock-afire Explosion as the innovator, the genius who got everything into motion and was able to bring real happiness to peoples’ lives. He’s a great example of a creator who, by staying true to himself, has his integrity, his happiness and a sense of peace with his life.
Daniel, how did you see Fechter? Did he strike you in a different light than I did?
Elkin: Actually, you eloquently gelled my rather disparate thoughts on Fetcher. I did get the sense that, all in all, regardless of his failures and his seemingly desperate need to appear positive through the film, he is, ultimately, content with the span of his life. You have to admire a guy who put his “everything” into a creative project, no matter what the end result.
In some way, it reminds me of some of the comics I pulled out of the bargain bin for the Cheap Thrills column for Comics Bulletin. I'm specifically talking about the books that were god-awful. I've come to realize, though, that the individuals responsible for their creation put their heart and soul and self into these books and, even though I have said some rather terrible things about the books themselves, I have to admire that sort of dedication and bravery.
I often said in that column, “Just because you CAN create a comic, doesn't always mean you SHOULD.” After watching Rock-afire Explosion, thinking about Fechter, and having this discussion with you, I am thinking about revising that. Maybe I'll change it to something along the lines of “If you want to make a comic, do everything in your power to make it happen” because at least then, you have realized your dream in some manner, and better that then a dream deferred (like a raisin in the sun).
This is why I enjoy watching these documentaries and having these conversations with you, Sacks. In the lead-in to this column each time, it says, “Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human.”
I think Rock-afire Explosion, for all of its weirdness and whatnot, fits this category pretty well.
Trailer for the film:

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