FIRST PUBLISHED IN NEWYORKER.COM, APRIL 24, 2012
Two weeks ago, the planet’s most unlikely film star turned from a Ugandan warlord to a nine-year-old kid who runs a homemade cardboard arcade out of his dad’s used-auto-parts store, Smart Parts, in East Los Angeles. Invisible children to a child’s imagination: the world could smile again. “Caine’s Arcade,” an eleven-minute film about Caine Monroy and his first customer, a struggling filmmaker named Nirvan Mullick, quickly acquired all the metrics of a viral sensation: millions of YouTube views, a top trending topic on Twitter worldwide, the Reddit front page, a call from Letterman’s people. The adulations flooded Mullick’s inbox, including one from the hacker collective Anonymous: “I commend you for your great work. You should be proud,” the e-mail read.
“It felt as though I had been knighted by the Internet,” Mullick told me. (When he tried to reply to Anonymous, the message bounced back with a scrambled auto-response.) Next, people began posting videos of themselves crying while watching the film. A seventeen-year veteran of “The Simpsons,” one among legions of recent pilgrims to Caine’s Arcade, broke down weeping at the sight of the real thing. He told Mullick that the moment recalled for him the scene in “Ratatouille” when the cynical food critic eats a bowl of soup, evoking visceral memories of his own mother’s cooking. “That’s what happened to me when Caine crawled into the box for the first time to push tickets out of a hole,” said Mullick. “It brought me back to when I was a kid, and reminded me of why I used to make things, why I wanted to make films, for the pure joy of creativity.”
When Mullick first posted “Caine’s Arcade” to YouTube, on April 9th, he added a way for people to donate to for Caine’s tuition—“imagine what this kid could build with an engineering degree”—and set a goal of twenty-five thousand dollars. He shared the link with an editor of Boing Boing, and then went to the climbing gym. While there, his phone began pinging with e-mail alerts—donations were already streaming in. Two dollars. Five dollars. Thirty dollars. Three hundred dollars. By the time Mullick went to sleep that first night, the film had raised six thousand dollars for Caine’s scholarship fund; when he woke up, it had reached sixteen thousand, and, later that day, surpassed a hundred and twenty thousand dollars. (Invitations to a summer program at M.I.T. and an offer from U.C.L.A. to customize an academic track for Caine would come later.)
And this is just how the grownups reacted. The film sparked an unexpected wave of young D.I.Y. activity around the world. Kids posted videos and photos of their own cardboard creations—pinball machines, bubble-gum machines, a photocopier inside of which a small person sits and draws whatever is laid on top of it. Teachers started showing the video in school. It’s not a stretch to say that “Caine’s Arcade” makes a convincing case for “connected learning,” a model that embraces social media as a way for kids to link up with peers and mentors—a kind of crowdsourced education. Riding the viral wave, Mullick has also launched Caine’s Arcade Foundation, with seed money from the Goldhirsh Foundation and a mission to “find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in kids.” Naturally, there’s a TV series in the works, which will document young kids who make things, and match them with storytellers and entrepreneurs. “Caine’s Arcade” was released online, so it’s not eligible for an Academy Award. Even so, Hollywood studios have started circling for the film rights. A major studio has proposed that Mullick, whose longest film has a running time of eleven minutes, make a hundred-million-dollar, live-action feature based on the story of three characters in the film who were destined to meet.
That story unfolds like so: Caine, a shy boy with an active imagination who loves to make things. His father, George Monroy, owns an auto-parts business that has struggled in the Internet economy. (Caine’s parents are separated but live together; his mother doesn’t speak English.) And Mullick, who had been around Los Angeles for twelve years, making conceptual projects like the The 1 Second Film and flirting with the idea of doing more commercial work. Turning thirty-seven, Mullick was forced to consider how long he could keep driving a crappy car, live without health insurance, and chase an elusive dream of artistic prosperity. He had ventured into East L.A. that September afternoon because he needed spare parts to sell his ’96 Toyota Corolla. After passing all the stores that had men aggressively waving flags out front to attract business, Mullick settled on a quiet store that had a cute-looking swing hanging off a tree on the sidewalk.
Last weekend, the three stars of “Caine’s Arcade” visited the San Francisco Bay Area for their first road show of sorts, since the film hit the Web. The Exploratorium, an interactive science museum, sent a seventy-foot semitrailer to Smart Parts to retrieve Caine’s cardboard arcade for a one-day exhibition, called “Open MAKE: Trash.” The night before the event, after closing time, Caine set up the arcade with the help of volunteers, and ran around the place as though he was the museum’s V.I.P., which he was. “This is the coolest museum I have ever seen!” he noted from the back of a cart in which he was chauffeured.
That morning, the group had stopped in for an interview with Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate. The director Richard Linklater was there to promote his new film “Bernie,” and told Caine that he was a big fan of the arcade. The nine-year-old shrugged. (Word that another unknown, Oprah, had posted about the arcade on her Facebook page had prompted a similar reaction from the boy, although Justin Timberlake’s tweeting that Caine was his “new favorite entrepreneur” generated more of a response—at least Caine had heard of the guy.) Linklater was bumped to a later slot, and America’s most famous arcade proprietor was squeezed in, awkwardly, after a segment about April 20th as “weed day.” “Not ideal,” Mullick remarked.
Hundreds were queued at the Exploratorium for the exhibition—whether for the arcade or its maker was not clear. Three girls were gushing about Caine to a KCBS radio reporter. “We saw his video in school, and we thought he was the most adorable little kid in the world, so we decided to come here to see him,” one said. Another added, “Caine is like Justin Bieber,” but was corrected by the third: “He’s cooler than Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber doesn’t have a cardboard arcade.”
As a philosophy student at New College, Mullick had been intrigued by the notion of the “perfect moment,” which Sartre explores in his novel “Nausea.” What are perfect moments? Do they exist? Can you create them? “I distinctly remember putting the book down and thinking about ‘perfect moments’ and how I’d lose myself when I do a drawing, and all track of time.” Mullick said the other day. “What if you could look into a stranger and know what it was that they wanted more than anything else in the world, and figure out a way to choreograph, and make that perfect moment happen for them in their life,” he continued. “When I ran into Caine, I knew how to create a perfect moment for this boy. I knew what he wanted more than anything: customers.” Sitting at breakfast on their final day in San Francisco, Caine had found a perfect moment of his own devising. Reaching for a sugar shaker, he filled a metal spoon resting on the table with granules. “Imagination sugar!” he beamed. The arcade-maker bowed his head over the spoon and licked it clean.