Monday, June 30, 2008

What exactly is a 'Donkey Kong', anyway?

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
3 stars out of 4

Any movie that manages to get Joe "Bean" Esposito's "You're the Best" onto its soundtrack is going to get a positive review from me. But "King of Kong" doesn't need a killer soundtrack to get a good review. It is one of the most compelling films I've seen in a long time, and the most compelling documentary I've seen in a really long time. At least since "Crocodile Man".

It's the kind of movie that makes me resent the term "Reality TV" even more. Because even though everyone knows that Reality TV is just a pretty term for "Game Shows for Attention-Hounds Without Agents", people still try to pass it off as some kind of genuine socio-cultural mirror. And it is. It's a mirror of that segment of our population that actively seeks to debase itself in order to get on TV.

"The King of Kong", on the other hand, is sincere reality. There's nothing staged about it, and the film's subjects don't necessarily want you to see their real selves. The subjects are a pair of Everyday Joe's who have had their lives changed by the seminal 1980's video game "Donkey Kong". They're supposed to be competitors, but their only mortal enemies are themselves.

The first man profiled is a guy named Billy Mitchell. He's very easy to spot, because he's the guy sporting one of the single most amazing haircuts I've ever seen on film. It seriously looks like the wig David Spade wore in "Joe Dirt". (News Flash: Josh actually saw "Joe Dirt".) The hair is as enigmatic as the man; on the one hand, you wonder just how cocky a guy has to be to go out in public with that kind of a 'do. He certainly talks a good game. But on the other hand, it becomes pretty obvious that his hair is merely a mask designed to conceal a dramatic inferiority complex...and his neck, and his shoulders, and his back.

Part of the reason Mitchell has embraced his retro hairdo is because he really hasn't evolved past the mid-1980's. That's when he set the all-time Donkey Kong scoring record. As the film shows, he's been living on that glory ever since, even though in the meantime he's managed to become some kind of hot sauce tycoon. It's as if Uncle Rico got in the high school football game back in '82, threw the touchdown pass, and still wound up living in the van lobbing pigskins at his video camera.

The second man profiled is Steve Wiebe, a science teacher from Seattle. Wiebe is trying to challenge Mitchell for the scoring title, and he's driving his wife and kids crazy trying to do it. But Wiebe is not a "gamer" in any sense of the term. (In some ways, neither is Mitchell; you get the feeling he wouldn't know an X-Box if it hit him upside the head). To Wiebe, Donkey Kong is just a means to an end, and that end is what makes this movie so real. It has nothing to do with video games, and everything to do with personal struggle.

Don't get me wrong; this documentary is a crazy send-up of gamer culture (at least vintage 80's gamer culture). But after doing the requisite round of "aren't these people weird" clips (the best being a profile of "Official Competitive Gaming Referee" Walter Ray, who describes how he used to think beautiful women would be attracted to him because he was really good at "Centipede"--and you get the sense he still believes this), the documentary goes to effective lengths to show you how these two are not very different from you or I.

For Mitchell, you see a conflicted character whose whole life seems to hinge on that scoring title. He's an arrogant jerk, but you still sympathize with him, because you really get the sense that his life will be over if he ever loses his mark. It would be easy to just make jokes about how pathetic it is that some guy is basing his life on a Donkey Kong score, but the video game is merely occupying a role here. He's no different from anyone who has ever clung to a past accomplishment, whether it was a beauty crown, an athletic achievement, or in my case, the 2006 homemade salsa title.

For Wiebe, you see a talented but troubled young father who is trying to find some kind of niche that will bring him the profound success he has always expected out of life. He's an ex-jock, a solid musician, and a hard-working science teacher, but nothing has brought him to the top of the heap in any meaningful sense. Between the two, Wiebe is clearly painted as the hero, and the guy you want to pull for, even though in reality Mitchell is the one who is most at risk. Mitchell's unlikable, but he clearly has much more to lose. Wiebe comes across as a really good guy who, while crushed at the time, will just find something else to do with himself.

The most sympathetic victim in all this is Wiebe's long-suffering wife, who dutifully puts up with her husband's vain pursuits and wears the anguish of the documentary on her face. She offers the lone voice of reason, and has key role in one of the film's most amusing sequences, where several "reputed gamers" show up at the Wiebe home to validate a scoring record Steve recorded in his garage.

As I've looked at other reviews of this film, the complaint that comes up most often is that watching guys playing video games for 90 minutes is boring. But I didn't feel that way at all. There may not be much action coming from Wiebe's wrists as he toggles the joysticks at the "sanctioned" arcade in Florida, but there's plenty of action in the eyes of the veteran gamers who loom over his shoulder and make small talk while they secretly hope he will fail. Because if Wiebe does waltz in and destroy his mark, they have about as much to lose as Mitchell does. The outsider/insider dynamic is one of the most compelling aspects of the film. The fact that the insiders are 1980's video game enthusiasts is one of the funnier aspects of the film. But the most tragic aspect of the film is that in spite of their unquenchable passions, no one outside of that confined circle seems to care. There are no throngs of fans, no jubilant crowd cheering Mitchell or Wiebe. There are about a dozen people in a lonely arcade in Hollywood, Florida.

Some people may dismiss this movie because they dislike gaming, but they're really rejecting it because it shows that whether it's video games, sports box scores, or shoe collections, we all have our obsessions. "The King of Kong" is a perfect mirror for our culture, and in some ways that reflection may be scarier than anything Reality TV has put on the air yet.

"The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" is Rated PG for delusions of grandeur, seriously obscene hair styles, and the moment every viewer will have when it dawns on them that they have something deep and psychological in common with either Mitchell or Wiebe. Or maybe both.