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Non-Review Review: The King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters

I think part of the reason that The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters works so well is because it takes any number of well-loved and popular story-telling tropes concerning the conflict between a hard-working underdog and an exclusive and elitist authority, and then plays them out against one of the most brilliantly ridiculous backdrops possible. Professor Wallace Sayre, a political scientist at Columbia University once made the observation that “in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that a competition over a videogame world record should capture these ridiculous grand themes with such skill, and a wonderful sense of humour.

Steve's game for a challenge...

Watching The King of Kong, I found that the world of professional arcade gaming was far more developed than I would have thought originally, but I should have expected as much. Seth Gordon’s documentary offers a rather in-depth look at the community, and the individuals that populate it. Peering into the subculture is like looking into another world, like some documentary exploring the facets of a community half-the-world away. The film doesn’t take its subject matter as seriously as some of its interviewees might, but the film does well not reduce the featured players to thinly-veiled and two-dimensional figures of fun.

The film follows Steve Wiebe as he attempts to claim the world high-score record on the arcade classic Donkey Kong. Along the way, he faces the current record-holder, the hot-sauce-selling Billy Mitchell, and the gaming community that Mitchell as built up around him. Despite the wonderfully quirky subject matter, the documentary is essentially the story of a little guy taking on a hostile establishment, as Wiebe is constantly attacked and undermined by those in positions of authority among the community (including, at one point, accusations of cheating, and refusal to even engage with him). It works because – despite the trappings of a movie built around a game that everybody is familiar with, but very few care passionately about – it’s the tale of an underdog in a world (or, as he calls it, an “empire”) rallied against him. It gives the movie a familiar and comfortable emotional arc.

Taking it to a whole other level...

Of course, the arc itself lends the film considerable appeal, but Gordon’s film is also blessed with a rather wonderful cast of eccentric and quirky individuals. There have been allegations that the footage had been edited together in such a way as to play up Billy Mitchell as a pantomime villain of the piece, and I can certainly see that. I’d argue it’s impossible to boil down an individual’s complexity and character into a two-hour film, so you have to trust the film maker to capture what they see in the character, and to put that on screen in the most efficient manner. However, while the morality of that sort of editing might be worthy of debate, it makes for a much stronger and cohesive film.

Mitchell is a larger-than-life character, and he makes the perfect foil to the more buttoned-down Wiebe. While Wiebe starts the movie unemployed and ends up as a teacher (which shows a sort of community spirit), the film goes to great lengths to feature Mitchell walking through a warehouse full of hot sauce, or in his office, or in the kitchen of what must his restaurant. There’s something very “wheeler dealer”about Mitchell that the film captures quite well, to the point where we have a sense of what the character might or might not do even before we see it. It’s quite something for a documentary to so skilfully present us with a character portrait that we aren’t surprised by anything that character does, and Gordon definitely deserves credit for pulling it all together.

Saucy...

The backdrop, exploring the arcade gaming subculture, is fascinating and well-handled, managing to cover the broad strokes of the details and the community without going into too much detail. I particularly liked the way that Gordon illustrated the way that Wiebe recognises patterns, etching over the film like Wiebe does over the screen of his own arcade game. The movie never seems particularly petty or vindictive in how it handles its cast, even if quite a few of the gamers don’t emerge in the most flattering of lights. To be honest, based on what we do see, I suspect that they could have all emerged from this looking a whole lot worse.

There’s been talk of remaking the movie as a straight-up fictional comedy. Truth be told, I don’t see the point. For a documentary, The King of Kong tells its central character-driven story with far more skill than most scripted movies. It allows us to invest in characters who really exist, rather than played by actors. It’s clear, it’s clever and it works really well. There’s honestly no need to make this again – they got it right the first time.

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