June 08, 2008

King of Kong: For a Fistful of Quarters

King of Kong: For a Fistful of Quarters is the kind of film that makes me slightly queasy. It protrays the professional world of Donkey Kong playing, where various people compete to score records in the game. In particular it highlights two men- Billy Mitchell, a sauce manufacturer, and Steve Weibe a failed engineer and later science teacher- and their rivalry over the world record. Billy set it in 1982 and according to the film struggled by fair means, or foul, to make sure that his rival was unable to get a better score and that he would remain the King of Kong. In doing this he was assisted by Walter Day, the Head of the association which keeps the scores and by other friends and acquaintances. This account has been queried by Mitchell but it is the narrative of the film and whether true or not, it provides the architecture around which the film is judged. Not being familiar with Donkey Kong circles, I can't really comment on its truth- though I do think that the film's copious interview footage in particular does not portray those who it vilifies in a good light.

But lets move away from those questions for a moment, because in reality this isn't so much a film about the contest though that provides its dramatic coherence, as a film about obsession. We all have our obsessions in life- some of them like music and art are respectable, some are more geeky. Mastery of Donkey Kong is not normally combined with social adeptness and definitely this film provides you with evidence to go along with that thesis. Nobody in this film finds interraction with other people easy- you get the sense that the crowds of overweight, hairy and pale men don't interract well with the outside world. What you also get is a strong sense that they care too much about what they do- they beleive that for some reason it might just change the world- much like some bloggers do, they think that their every insignificant action matters, when actually its as important as a group of people going to a pub and enjoying a pint.

That's what intrigued me about this film- in reality it provides two explanations for a marginal activity and what's quite interesting is that it provides one positive model of how a minor activity can help someone, and another model of how it can harm someone. Lets take Steve Wiebe for a start. Steve according to the film was made unemployed, has had no real success in life- despite that he seems to have acquired two kids and a wife- but he has no real attainments and no self confidence. Being good at Donkey Kong became for him a way to rebuild his life- to reconstruct his identity and gave him confidence to move in his actual life to becoming a science teacher and therefore to a better respect for himself and for others. I know people who have used blogs in that way- as a ladder out of depression and uncertainty. For Steve Donkey Kong is his ladder.

Turn to Billy Mitchell, or the film's Billy Mitchell, and we find a different creature. Because so many of the gamers, like Billy, use the games to hide from the world and set up their egos against it. Billy is a self important loser in this film- there is no other way to describe him- constantly talking as though Donkey Kong were not irritating blobs moving on a screen but a life and death matter. In truth he has lost touch with reality. And in that sense he is similar to dozens of other guys that we see interviewed throughout the film- they have lost touch with reality. They believe that success in Donkey Kong is worth more than anything else- they construct castles built on the air of illusion and seem inable to see quite how comic and stupid they seem to anyone outside their universe. In a sense the Steve Weibes are the other side of the Billy Mitchells- in that both sets of people are constructing their identity through using the insiginificant game- but though you might think that you would be wrong. To construct something out of insignificance and then to go out into the world and actually do something is very different from retreating into insignificance and spending your life as a champion Donkey Kong player.

King of Kong is an immensely funny film- the joke is in the subtitle- but its a joke with a serious point. Let trivia- whether it be stamp collecting or games- turn from a support into a purpose and you have lost your way in life. If it aids you to construct a real life, so be it- but if it becomes more important than a real life- than real relationships- and starts to make you self important in illusion, then beware- there lies the path to Billy Mitchell and human disaster.

I loved every frame of this film- but as I said felt queasy- the reason is that I fear how far I am myself Billy Mitchell!


Semaj Notlimah said...

Inspiring post about the unique power of sport to enable people to take themselves to the next level and be the best they can be. Billy Mitchell has lived the American Dream.

All that nonsense aside.. I was at school in the '80s with the Space Invaders World Champion (true! he beat snooker player Steve Davis in the Final. I kid you not) and so am in a position to reassure you on the score of your non-BillyMitchellness, Gracchi.

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Donkey Kong? Bit of a loose end, Tiberius? :)

Gracchi said...

So was I James- but this film enlightened me to this crucial piece of knowledge- apparantly it is an eighties computer game!

Clay Tweel said...

Great review. I was a producer and editor on the film and immensely enjoyed the depth and perspective of your writing. It is satisfying for a filmmaker to see the same topics that were raised in the editing room to be brought up independently in public discussion. The dichotomy between Steve and Billy, especially in regards to obsession, where a major point we wanted to drive home. Thanks for the glowing review and for watching.