In the cutthroat world of competitive classic arcade gaming, hot-wing-sauce entrepreneur Billy Mitchell held the seemingly unbeatable top score at Nintendo's Donkey Kong for years. One day, Seattle-area suburban dad Steve Wiebe, having fallen short in his life's previous efforts, decided to become the new champion. When he beat Mitchell's score on his own machine and submitted the tape to scorekeeping association Twin Galaxies, controversy arose: had the machine been tampered with by another rogue gamer, a Missile Command champion with bad blood for both Mitchell and Twin Galaxies? Only a live showdown can determine the real King of Kong.
Fans of The King of Kong tend to recommend the film by saying, "Sure, it's about guys who play Donkey Kong, but it's not really about guys who play Donkey Kong." To which I would respond, what's wrong with a documentary about guys who play Donkey Kong? Homo sum: humani a me nihil alienum puto. Few subjects are as reliably fascinating as subcultures — see also Trekkies, or any Guest mocumentary — and boy, is competitive Kong-ing ever a subculture.
Yes, you might say that the movie is about more than playing a 25-year-old arcade game about a barrel-throwing ape. It's about standing up to life's vicissitudes, it's about the greasy pole of celebrity, it's about the primal human drive for recognition. But let's not forget about the game and, more fascinatingly, the sort of man driven to spend days straight in pursuit of a high score.
And it will be a man, certainly white, and almost as certainly doughy and unkempt. Now, I'm not one to comment on the percentage of white guys in a group — surprise at the presence of a lot of Caucasoid males is, to my mind, the equivalent of surprise at the presence of oxygen — but damn. In 2008, there are plenty of female gamers — the ratio fast approaches 50:50 — but not in competitive Donkey Kong. Only three women play roles in the film: an octogenarian Q*Bert hopeful that Mitchell uses as a mule for his own high-score tape, and the wives of the two main contenders. Wiebe's is supportive but lantern-jawed. In a fiction film, Mitchell's would be played by Jennifer Coolidge.
This raises a chicken-or-egg question: does a life spent in competitive classic gaming make you dumpy and socially inept, or are the dumpy and socially inept especially well-suited to a life of competitive classic gaming? And what does it mean that Wiebe and Mitchell, the hardest-gaming of them all, are the least ugly? (Wiebe has the look of a onetime high school heartthrob gone slightly to seed in that Pacific Northwest Dad way, while Mitchell somehow manages to look both meticulously well-maintained and impossibly tacky.)
For me, the question is more than academic, since my interest in video games also centers on the classic. I have attended meetings of the Northwest Classic Gaming Enthusiasts and played, suckily, in their Atari tournaments. In the arcade scenes, I couldn't stop looking at all the machines in the background — Spy Hunter, S.T.U.N. Runner, Robotron 2084 — and daydreaming about how much fun it would be to play them. And that's only one of the things I do where participants are not known for the attention they pay to their appearance: I write and do radio about books, fer chrissakes (and my favorite genre of film is documentary). According to the statistics, I should by all rights be ugly, possibly fugly, but, thanks to the miracle of overcompensation, I have had ladyfriends.
But besides fugliness, The King of Kong also hits on another theme I find resonant: the grueling, unpalatable process of being the best at a single activity. I don't know why anyone attempts to get to the top of an established category. Aspiring to become the world's finest ballet dancer, baseball pitcher, symphony oboist or particle physicist seems like asking for a bad life, one jump ahead of ascetic, self-flagellating monasticism. And for what? To wind up, in the best-case scenario, one in a long line of especially gluttonous gluttons for punishment? None of these dudes are having fun playing Donkey Kong: not Wiebe, not Mitchell, and certainly none of the sad aspirants below them. I'm reminded of a Scott Adams blog post:
If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.
The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.
- Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
- Julian Schnabel's The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
- Béla Tarr's The Man from London
- Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood
- Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men
- Robinson Devor's Zoo
- Anton Corbijn's Control
- Ang Lee's Lust, Caution
- Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others
- Jason Reitman's Juno
- Gary Hustwit's Helvetica
- David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises
- Greg Mottola's Superbad
- Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited
- Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
- Anthony Hopkins' Slipstream
- Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis
- Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth
- Jake Kasdan's The TV Set
- David Silverman's The Simpsons Movie