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A local filmmaker chases the religious fervor of geekdom

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Infinite lives: Rob McCallum and his trusty puggle, George.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore
Jason Scavone

The difference between dedication and obsession is a question of the frivolity (and sometimes legality) of one’s object of desire.

Conor McGregor, the Irish UFC whirlwind, claims he’s at the top of the fight game because he’s obsessed, not talented. He’s wrong. McGregor has a natural abundance of fast-twitch muscle fiber and a psychotic disregard for being punched in the face. He married that talent to diligent practice and assiduous focus to hone his skills until he stormed the mixed martial arts mountain. He’s dedicated.

In Nintendo Quest, the feature documentary by local filmmaker Rob McCallum, the star and subject Jay Bartlett is obsessed. He might have had to make serious personal sacrifices, just like McGregor. He may have even undergone a personal transformation at the end of his journey, just like McGregor. But instead of pushing his body and soul to the limits of endurance in order to conquer an entire sport, Bartlett turned to collecting all 678 officially licensed Nintendo Entertainment System games.

Anyone can be dedicated if they have a reasonable work ethic and specific goals. It takes a special kind of head-wiring to be obsessed.

*****

McCallum is playing Spock’s 3D chess while y’all are playing space checkers. He’s carving out a niche for himself by channeling his obsessions into an auteur’s dedication, making documentaries about obsessive people zealously committing to their obsessions. Which raises the obvious question: Where does Animotion fit in all this? (Nowhere, actually. But try to pretend like that song isn’t stuck in your head right now.)

Nintendo Quest follows Bartlett on a series of road trips from his London, Ontario, home as he tries to collect all of the old carts, from your garden-variety Duck Hunt to the ultra-rare Stadium Events, copies of which have been known to snag a, frankly, ridiculous $77,000 on eBay. No video game should ever outkick a used Maserati, up to and including the actual carts featured on The Wizard.

Presiding over the whole affair is McCallum, part affable ’90s MTV VJ, part geek Virgil through this tour of a home console’s afterlife. He came to the city as a volunteer for CineVegas. He met his wife working for the festival, emigrated from Ontario to Houston after they were married, then relocated here four years ago.

That’s when he began to renew his focus on documentaries. Nintendo Quest started as a challenge to his childhood pal. Could Bartlett cash in on his professed lifelong desire and collect all those games in a 30-day time frame without using the Internet?

“[Bartlett] said, ‘You can’t follow me around going into stores, because [those videos] are all over YouTube. Pick-up videos, they call them,’” McCallum says. “What would be the ultimate pick-up video that would have stakes? Because a lot of documentaries don’t have stakes. I just dared him. I said, ‘You’ve always wanted to complete an NES collection. As your friend of more than 30 years I’m sick of hearing about how you don’t have one yet.’”

And so, like a Zelda T-shirt-wearing Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, McCallum and Bartlett hit the road. Days were spent raiding second-hand stores, flea markets and private collections. Nights were spent holed up in hotels with beer and Super Mario Bros. 3.

Bartlett remembered how, as kids, the two of them would put all their action figures in a pile. Together, they’d build an elaborate overarching narrative for all of them. (Well, maybe not the GoBots. No one was happy with the GoBots.) But given the recent Paramount-Hasbro deal to create a shared cinematic universe between G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K., Micronauts, Visionaries and ROM Spaceknight, it seems now less like childhood whimsy than future-studio-exec proving grounds. “He always loved to tell stories,” Bartlett says. When he came face to face with the sausage-making of McCallum’s storytelling, Bartlett was initially gun-shy. Then he remembered just who his friend is. “He started asking me questions about my family stuff, and I said, ‘Why are we talking about that? What does that have to do with Nintendo games?’ Of course now I see it’s really a story about me and my journey.”

McCallum entered the film in a few festivals and caught the interest of distributors. It spawned a 12-city tour of the doc, which was filmed as the Nintendo Quest Power Tour, and sold to a New Zealand TV station. It’s available now on Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes and Vimeo. There’s a Nintendo Quest NES game in the works. Bartlett says some fans came up to him on the tour shaking.

That’s quality obsession right there, to get so amped up about a guy who’s on film collecting the thing you like. The near-religious fervor that geek culture inspires makes it an easy fit as a muse.

“Fandom is something I love, and it’s something you can easily see and understand the passion for,” McCallum says. “[A 2017] project will take a look at the world of fandom and go to the next level with it. Why do people like it so much? Is that what allows it to exist? Is it a symbiosis between the creators and the fans?”

In the more immediate future, McCallum is working on Box Art, exploring the art and artists of video games from the earliest Activision classics up through today’s big-ticket games. He’s also doing Power of Grayskull, about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, his own personal obsession. Plus there’s one about the all-girl nu-metal act Kittie, but the next project that drops from McCallum’s Pyre Productions is certainly his most personal.

McCallum’s mother, Terri Lee Parker, went missing on October 27, 1990. No one, not McCallum, nor anyone in his family, had heard from her in the 25 years since. So he and his Mountie brother Chris went looking in Missing Mom, debuting May 7—just before Mother’s Day.

McCallum admits right off the rip that there’s a very good chance they were chasing a trail that would lead them to find their mother had died. He had to do it anyway.

“It was like white-water rafting,” he says. “You’re on this journey and you can’t slow down. You don’t know if the rocks are going to push you one way or the other. I’m very lucky to have what I think is an awesome life, but I don’t prescribe my love for making docs being connected to my missing mom, or the other way around, in which I need to showcase my worth, to prove that she made a mistake abandoning me. I love telling stories that are grounded in real-life events that seem impossible on the outset.”

Real-life events, like that time Dolph Lundgren beat up Frank Langella. McCallum won’t confirm if he has Lundgren lined up for Power of Grayskull, which is too bad, because it could have cleared up our own lifelong obsession: figuring out how the Russian boxer who killed Apollo Creed ever wound up on Eternia.

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