The Way of the Puck Review

If you grew up in America between 1970 and probably the turn of the century, chances are you've played air hockey at least once. A staple at arcades around the country, air hockey was also once a very popular addition for any family basement or entertainment room. That familiarity is the basis for The Way of the Puck a documentary by director Eric D. Anderson that chronicles the growth, decline and near decimation of the sport, and the story behind those that play it competitively. Yes, there is competitive air hockey.

Watching the film certainly evokes memories of The King of Kong, another documentary that focused on the zeal and passion of a group of competitors devoted to another so-called fringe hobby, video games. While there are some similarities, The Way of the Puck seems far more tragic. For the players in The King of Kong video games are merely part of who they are. They have families, jobs and are relatively successful outside of the arcade. Additionally, the video game industry is booming, even if arcades themselves are dying out; so the pursuit of gaming records doesn't seem as fleeting.

In contrast, for the players in The Way of the Puck this is their life. Air hockey and the pursuit of trying to take it mainstream and keep it alive has defined all of their lives, some of them for 30 years. Even in the moments when we hear from their families or see their vocations outside of the sport for many of them it seems like its not enough. While tragic, it makes the story all the more compelling. Moreover, throughout the entire film we see that air hockey is always teetering on the edge of oblivion.

This doomsday-like atmosphere sets the stage for an incredible story, that follows the best of the best in the world of competitive air hockey. Some are old champions who are trying to reclaim former glory, others are air hockey lifers looking for reasons to keep going. Even a few newcomers who believe that they have what it takes to finally push air hockey into the mainstream exposure and success that has always eluded it.

Through these differing character profiles, we follow the journey of Mark Robbins one of the pioneers of the sport back in the 1970s who sees his days in air hockey quickly waning. Robbins is on a mission to make sure that he leaves the sport better than when he found it. The central figure of the movie Mark could be considered the lead of the ensemble and his insights into air hockey’s culture are insightful if at times a little quixotic. Still it's impossible to take your eye off the screen when Mark is dispensing knowledge, or explaining how he equates women to air hockey tables.

The documentary has a few shortcomings. Most notably that a few of the characters whom we are given ancillary introductions to are never given further background. This is disappointing because these seem like they could be some of the more interesting characters in the world of air hockey. Included among them is a male stripper who carries around a photo of himself as proof of his vocation. Obviously with any production, there are limits and things must be cut, but the fact that he wasn't included for at least one interview piece will leave you a bit disappointed.

The other thing that breaks up the documentary and actually removes us from the experience are the cuts to Lou Marinoff a philosopher who throughout the movie, waxes poetic about air hockey and it's relation to basic concepts of society and sport. To call him a "strange bird" would be an understatement, and while some of his comments are good for a laugh his appearance in the film is a bit of a head scratcher.

Strange philosopher aside, The Way of the Puck is an offbeat documentary that pulls back the veil on a hobby that most people probably never give any thought beyond the memories of trips to the arcade or those days spent in the basements of a good friends home waiting for the Internet to be invented. A love letter to a disappearing hobby, it is absolutely one of those films that embodies the old critique “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry”. Either way, you won’t soon forget the time spent with these puckheads.

DVD Bonus Features

There are a pretty decent set of special features associated with the movie. Director Eric Anderson and Mark Robbins provide a full audio commentary which further enhances the vignettes and words of wisdom particularly during Robbins portion of the film. There is an extensive set of deleted scenes, all of them pretty short or elongated versions of scenes that were truncated for the final cut. Nothing that totally stands out to me as needing to be included, but still any extra time we get to spend with these characters is a joy. Additionally there are the standard audio setup choices and an original trailer for the film.

"The Way of the Puck" is on sale October 19, 2010 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Eric D Anderson. Starring Mark Robbins.

Nov
09
2010
Tom Hoeler
My major goals in life include proving to people that liking a movie and thinking is good are not the same, that watching black & white films will not reave your soul, and to one day organize my DVD collection (I have a strong desire against giving up my DVDs or their cases) autobiographically, High Fidelity, style.

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