Monday, December 31, 2007


Games people play

By Edward Copeland
There have been great documentaries this year covering such important topics as the Iraq fiasco (No End in Sight) and health care in America (Sicko), but no documentary I've seen entertained me more than one about middle-age men obsessed with high scores on classic arcade video games from the 1980s.

If you don't already know, the documentary I'm talking about is Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and what a joy it is to watch as various people scheme and play to break or keep various records for top scores ever set on the arcade version of Donkey Kong.

The titleholder for the game since the early 1980s is one Billy Mitchell who finds his title in jeopardy when a 35-year-old Seattle school teacher named Steve Wiebe appears to have topped his score.

As the story unfolds, Wiebe at first appears to be the manipulator, having submitted his score on a videotape of him playing his own machine in his garage. When Twin Galaxies reps come to investigate, they spot a connection to an unsavory instigator, so they invalidate his score.

Mitchell, whose look appears to indicate that he still lives in the 1980s, thinks his score will stand, but when Wiebe agrees to travel across the country to play the game live, Mitchell chokes. He refuses to come play live, though gets updates by phones through his minions, and then secretly submits a videotape of him supposedly breaking the all-time record.

The tape obviously looks edited, but Walter Day, the head of Twin Galaxies, is inclined to give Mitchell the benefit of the doubt, even though he himself has questions.

The documentary is just so damn entertaining as you watch these grown men, both married with kids, obsessing over such a trivial thing. At one point, Mitchell even compares the "controversy" over whose score is best to people taking sides on the issue of abortion.

When the Guinness Book of World Records enters the picture, sanctioning Twin Galaxies to provide the high score records for them, it gets even sillier. Wiebe's young daughter at one point asks him what the point of the Guinness Book really is and asks if people lose a lot just to set a record.

Her dad doesn't really have an answer for that, but Gordon's film sure spins gold out of such silly material.

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This will probably be on my ten best list for 2007. I saw it at the IFC Center in NYC when it played there, and just fell in love with it. This was after they showed the first 30 minutes of Helvetica, another documentary, by accident. (I should mention I enjoyed Helvetica when I finally got to see all of it.)

This movie says more about the male psyche, and our sometimes stupid desire to win, than much more heralded garbage like There Will Be Blood. Gordon crafts a compelling, suspenseful documentary out of a trivial contest, complete with hissable villains and a hero you want to slap and hug in equal measure. There were times when I wanted to choke these people, and not just Mitchell and his minions. But that lost boy part of me, the one who played Donkey Kong for hours both in the arcade and at home, identified with Scott Wiebe and wanted to see him win.

The King of Kong highlights how dopey male competition can be, but that doesn't stop it from being as damn entertaining as you say. After all, we've had years of women's pictures pointing out how petty and trivial female competition can be ("she has on my dress!" Catfight ensues...). It's about time the guys got in on the action.

As an aside, when I went on our company "team building" trip to Santa Clara earlier this year, I stumbled upon an arcade that seemed preserved from the early 80's. They had a Donkey Kong machine there, and I pumped about $10 worth of tokens into it. Suddenly I was 11 again, yelling at the game and scaring the shit out of the curious 12-year old XBOX 360 junkies who came to gawk at what passed for entertainment in the days of my prepubescence. "Aw man, I GOT JERKED!" I yelled at the machine. Thankfully, my outburst was overshadowed by a guy my age kicking the Kung Fu Master machine. "That's messed up!" he said to me, his voice cracking like Peter (or was it Bobby?) Brady. He looked ready to cry.

Men, we never grow up.
Billy Mitchell is the ideal video game villain, nappy facial hair and everything
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