By day, Kim “Cannon Arm” is a Danish chemist specialising in the analysis of aviation oil, an Iron Maiden fan, a father of four and a grandfather of one.
By night, he’s a semi-permanent feature of Copenhagen’s Bip Bip Bar, an old-school 1980s-style arcade where Kim’s mullet feels bang up-to-date. Blessed with remarkable focus and hand-eye coordination, Cannon Arm, with a little help from his gamer chums, has a dream to become the first person in the world to play an arcade machine from the early 1980s for 100 consecutive hours. His previous best is 49 hours of play from one coin.
His latest record attempt (there have been three previous tries) is the focus of Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest, a new feel-good documentary and the award-winning debut feature from National Film School of Denmark graduate Mads Hedegaard.
I walked in the door and it was like stepping into another world with all the colours and music and games. The whole atmosphere was amazing
“When I was at film school, there was a technician working there who I became friends with,” explains Hedegaard. “And he, it turned out that he was the co-owner of the Bip Bip Bar. So he invited me down to the arcade to just hang out and have a few beers. And I walked in the door and it was like stepping into another world with all the colours and music and games. The whole atmosphere was amazing.
“I was immediately dreaming about doing a film that could give the audience the kind of experience I had the first time I walked in the door. And then my friend introduced me to Kim and told me about Kim’s dream of playing for 100 hours. And I thought, Oh my God, that’s insane. But it occurred to me that maybe that’s a film here. The arcade was so cinematic, and then there’s this very simple story of a guy having a goal.
“I talked to Kim about it. And he was very open in his way. And I started to bring my camera. Sometimes I will just hang out and talk to the guys and drink some beers. And other times, I would press record.”
The result is the most important documentary about gaming since 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Hedegaard's unbridled celebration of nerdom introduces – albeit in the margins – such noted figures as Walter Day, the transcendental meditation practitioner who became the first bona fide games journalist; Billy Mitchell, the glamorous and controversial gamer considered to be the greatest to emerge from the classic arcade era; and Yoshiki Okamoto, the designer behind Street Fighter II and Resident Evil.
'That game was totally new to me... I'm thinking that the reason as to why it's not as big as Pac Man or Donkey Kong is because it's so damn hard to play'
Before he shot to global fame with those games, Okamoto produced an obscure but much-admired arcade game named Gyruss, a more sophisticated post-Space Invaders tube-shooter and Cannon Arm’s cabinet of choice.
‘A certain mindset’
“That game was totally new to me,” says Hedegaard. “And I guess it’s just my opinion, but I’m thinking that the reason as to why it’s not as big as Pac Man or Donkey Kong is because it’s so damn hard to play. You really need to have a certain mindset to be able to play it. I played it quite a few times while doing the film, and it’s so difficult. My personal best is three or four minutes or something. So it is extremely hard, which just makes it even more incredible what Kim sets out to do in the film.”
“On average,” as the director notes in the course of Cannon Arm, “a person utters 16,000 words in a day; Kim “Cannon Arm” probably makes it to 255 on a wild day.”
Hedegaard was fortunate, therefore, that Cannon Arm is surrounded by a fascinating group of friends. His pal Carsten strives to reach the fabled "Kill Screen" of Donkey Kong while studying mathematical patterns in Bach; Dyst is a published poet with a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and several world records in Puzzle Bobble 1 and 2 and Svavar, a data analyst and world record holder in Tetris. A larger group of Cannon Arm's accomplices, including Emil and Morten, solder and rewire ancient game cabinets, chat about quantum physics and analyse patterns.
“Kim was the first one I met and got to know, and then he introduced me to the other guys and they each had that specific extra passion or interest,” says the director, who, over the course of his charming debut feature, is visibly absorbed into the friend group. “And funnily enough, those interests were my interests as well, even if I don’t know nearly as much as they do about those things.
“I’ve always been very much into music and, and found it very, very interesting not just to listen to it, but also just to dive down and see what’s going on below the surface. And quantum physics is one of the most interesting things in the world, even though I do not understand nearly enough about it.”
The group dynamics are touchingly underpinned by both genius and ASD. Tellingly, the crew idolise Alan Turing, the mathematician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, theoretical biologist, and father of modern computing who, many contemporary psychologists believe, was on the autistic spectrum. The final section of the film features a remarkable piece of slam poetry performed by Dyst on the theme of his own diagnosis.
'I didn't want this to be a film about autism. But it is one of the reasons as to why they're so good at these games, and why they enjoy them so much'
“A couple of them have a diagnosis and a few of them haven’t got an official diagnosis, but I’m sure if they were to see a doctor they would get one,” says Hedegaard. “It is a thing and they’re very open about it. They’re not trying to hide it, and not trying to talk a lot about it either. It’s just a very normal thing in their lives for that group of friends. I didn’t want this to be a film about autism. But it is one of the reasons as to why they’re so good at these games, and why they enjoy them so much, and why they found each other.”
In addition to learning about pattern recognition and quantum physics, the filmmaker had to school himself in the entire 1980s aesthetic and beyond.
‘Rocky blew me away’
“Before I started making this movie, I was a lot more snobbish than I am now,” says Hedegaard. “But then I met these guys and I really liked them and their world. I felt like I had to do quite a bit of research just to be able to just understand their references. I saw Rocky for the first time. And it blew me away. I’ve been watching a lot of Eighties movies and superhero movies, which I didn’t do at all before. I’ve been listening to a lot of Eighties music. And I’ve come to really appreciate it as a decade that stands out. I understand the fascination now.”
The record attempt of Kim “Cannon Arm” builds toward an astonishing twist which we won’t spoil. It did, however, make for an alarming development for Hedegaard and the others.
“It was quite a shock,” says the filmmaker. “But in the actual moment, and even the next couple of hours after that happened, we were just filming and we had to keep going and just not think about it. And then once the dust had settled, so to speak, I started thinking those kinds of kinds of thoughts. Like: Oh, my fucking god, what? But very quickly, actually, I realised this might be the best thing to happen to the film.
“It turned out to be a better film with what happened, I think. But obviously, I didn’t know that immediately. I was busy thinking, what am I going to do now? And I knew I had a film that had a lot of colours had a lot of great music had a lot of warmth and a lot of great characters.”
Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest will premiere as part of the Dublin International Film Festival on March 1st.