13 September 2007

THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

A documentary about video game players doesn't have the right to be any good, but that doesn't stop The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Taking a story that sounds like a bad human interest piece, it turns into an operatic tragicomedy of rivalry, jealousy, failure, and success, a tale of all-too-human men defined by their petty insecurities and their illusory victories.

It is the story of Billy Mitchell, internationally recognised as one of the greatest, if not the greatest video game player of all time, holder of a 24-year-old record score in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong; and it is the story of Steve Wiebe, a laid-off husband and father, a man of uncertain emotional stability who assigns himself to the task of breaking Mitchell's record, so that for one time in his life he will have won at something.

It is not altogether truthful; for example, Midwesterner in NYC published an interview (spoilers abound) with Mitchell that tends to put much of the film's content in doubt. On balance, while I think that it is good to acknowledge the film's limitations as journalism, there's no harm done to The King of Kong by these revelations: the story remains compelling, and frankly so what if it was partially fabricated or at least massaged by the filmmakers. Frankly, all that really means is that it is no longer mere Documentary but transcends to Art, by the strict definition of art as "that which is constructed." It is perhaps a documentary like those of Werner Herzog, which is to say the strict representation of fact is not nearly so important to the final project as the emotional depths that the film reaches in its editorialising.

The heart of the film is the simple man Wiebe, a man who has never felt success in anything, as his constantly-suffering wife Nicole observes, fighting against the cronyism and political machinations of The Establishment, here embodied by Twin Galaxies, the world's premier video-game record-keeper, its curator Walter Day, and Mitchell, the favorite son who is praised in cultishly uncritical terms for his every action. Both in the film and in the world, Twin Galaxies, with its self-proclaimed mantel of infallibility and authority, and its effortless banishment of wrongthink, comes across as a monolithically Stalinist organisation bent towards preserving the Party line - that Billy Mitchell is all - at any cost.

The pudgy Wiebe, in his nondescript chain store clothes with his tidy garage and his gormless suburban life is a striking contrast to Mitchell, thin and businesslike with a magnificently terrible mullet. For all that the film can be accused of tweaking reality in the editing room, the one thing that director Seth Gordon surely could not control was his stars' appearance, and the genial middle-class softness that Wiebe carries is as certain a descriptor of his essential decency as Mitchell's appearance, from the first frame, marks him as a shifty, loathsomely reptilian salesman, whose product is himself and his legacy.

Mitchell has a wife, he has a mother, and he has children, and I'm sure he loves them all as much as they love him, but in the world of this movie, he is a transcendent villain, as easy and fun to hate as Darth Vader or the Wicked Witch of the West or any Disney stepmother. He is the one with the power, he is the one with the extremely vicious plot to destroy Wiebe in his moment of triumph, he is the one who stands behind his records and his fame like an unassailable wall, he is the one with the apocalyptic mullet.

Honestly, it's easy to guess that this isn't the most scrupulous work of reportage; Mitchell is too perfect in his villainy to be an actual human being. But it is not therefore untruthful: the film is about Steve Wiebe's quest, and insofar as it is an accurate documentary, it is about the feelings that we as people have when we know that we are losing something rightfully ours. I cannot say that Wiebe looked at Mitchell and thought of him as Darth Vader. But I know that it is all too human that in times of disappointment we are likely to lash out and view the minor stumbling blocks in our paths as great adversaries. As much as The King of Kong is about a loser trying to make good - and that is what it's about, not the mere fact of a video game record - it makes sense that his altogether human antagonist would come across as a cardboard monster.

With all that being said, there's another layer to the film, constantly humming along and only occasionally calling attention to itself. Any story that tells great universal truths, as this one does, is almost certainly about something very specific and un-universal. In this case, professional video gaming. While it tends to be lost a little bit as the film progresses and becomes more and more nerve-wracking and emotionally draining, professional video gaming is essentially a totally meritless pursuit. And the film knows this, given how much of the first twenty minutes or so make cheap jokes at the expense of gaming culture.

I am a gamer; let that be clear. I stood in line to pre-order a Wii and I picked it up at midnight; in college I once spent five consecutive days not eating so as to spend as much time as possible playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I don't pretend that is time well spent. It is surely not, as Mitchell proudly argues, an endeavor akin to being a great athlete: the good old "trains hand-eye-mind coordination" gambit that we all used when we were 9 years old is absolute bullshit, but nearly every person in the film trots that out as proof that only the greatest exemplars of mankind can win at arcade games. We are told, frequently, that the guy with the highest score gets the hottest chicks.

I adore video games, but I do not pretend that they are not masturbation. Fun, yes; shameful, not at all; but not something that marks you as a particularly great human. This is the quiet joke underpinning The King of Kong: Wiebe and Mitchell fight their titanic duel within a subculture that neither earns nor deserves any respect. The prize is the accolade of the saddest cabal of white guys you have ever seen on film. That makes the desperation involved all the more poignant: when you no longer can make your name doing great works, when you have been reduced to trying to justify your humanity in the world of video games, that is when you are a tragic figure par excellence. Because ultimately, we're all the same: every one of us likes to pretend that our tiny life means something important. Usually, that's not the case. Only a tiny fraction of humanity gets to change the world, and rest of us, we are all just professional gamers.

10/10

3 comments:

Cameron said...

i wouldn't exactly call it a "mullet," per se, but what it actually is alludes me.

iamagod said...

I'm so glad you recommend this movie. I couldn't wait to see it the minute I saw the preview and I look forward the hating Mitchell and his hair all that much more now!

Will said...

It is an interesting way of justifying the truth of the movie... concluding that the film tells the story as it was perceived by Wiebe. I like that reading quite a bit.