Saturday, October 16, 2010

King Of Kong

One of the downsides of documentaries is that their content can be very ephemeral. I suspect that most of Michael Moore's films will age into irrelevancy as their righteous indignation and anger go from being poignant and timely to strident and outdated. A film following the world record contestants for a classic videogame is much less ambitious than Moore's socio-political potboilers, true, but it nonetheless would be just as moment-in-time because the record is bound to change hands many times after the movie comes out. Indeed, after King Of Kong's release, the record changed hands, and continues to.

However, this is not the focus of the film. The record, and indeed the game being played, are beside the point. It's really about the personalities involved, and the drama they go through before, during, and after the world record attempts, that matters. It's also about the alliances and seemingly devious rules and practices of a competitive, insular scene that few people knew existed. You could therefore accuse King Of Kong of being flagrant in its characterization of Steve Wiebe as the lovable loser, family man, and artistic underdog who is on the outside of the videogame world record scene going up against one of its Goliaths: Billy Mitchell, an egocentric, calculating businessman with a trophy wife. But that all depends who you believe or what you believe. Director Seth Gordon has stated that they actually made Mitchell out to be “lighter” than he really is, but again, who do you believe?

For what it's worth, Wiebe recently reclaimed the top score on Donkey Kong, but this knowledge is boring without the personal struggles and details this documentary gives. Reading the dry fact on Wikipedia isn't exciting without the faces, voices, and drama King Of Kong provides. It struck me as very odd, then, that King Of Kong throws a bait and switch with its climax by showing Wiebe failing at a world record attempt and rolling credits...but actually ending with a baffling coda that delivers the news that Wiebe did eventually succeed. It does this with all the pomp and circumstance of a casual P.S. and blunts its impact in the process. Still, my point remains: it's the rivalry and the political machinations of both sides that are the story here, not who is on top. In other words, it's a character study as much as anything. King Of Kong is full of (to put it mildly) eccentric characters, from the obsequious Brian Kuh, two-fisted-son-of-a-bitch Roy Shildt, to hippie musician/referee Walter Day. You may hate Billy Mitchell by film's end or tire of Wiebe's sad sack personality, but without those elements, the story of the Donkey Kong world record is just as boring as the hot dog eating championships without the “dude comes from nowhere to take it back from the Japanese” story of Joey Chestnut.

If this documentary leaves you feeling mildly unsatisfied, it's probably because there is no true head-to-head competition between Mitchell and Wiebe. They only briefly meet face to face and are never shown playing in person against each other. If King Of Kong had been a fictionalized account, it would undoubtedly have had an epic showdown between the two men. I found myself wishing this was the case since the actual conclusion is the very definition of an anti-climax. Still, I might argue that this lingering disappointment mirrors both Wiebe's own personal history of failures and losses as well as the way everyone in the documentary is bummed that when Mitchell finally shows up to a tournament he refuses to play in front of a crowd or challenge Wiebe directly. The problem of the muted, tossed-in “oh by the way, Wiebe does succeed after all” ending remains, instantly transforming the tone from someone learning to cope with failure while also being finally accepted/acknowledged by his peers, to being an oddly Hollywood-esque happy ending that is about three minutes long and treated with a anti-climactic tone. This weakens the film as a whole and should have been excluded, since the record was bound to change hands multiple times after its release. After all, without success at claiming the record, Wiebe's story is more poignant, affecting, and believable. An ending that says “you may have lost, but you still have your family, your artistic talents, the newly won respect of your peers...and you aren't that douchebag Billy Mitchell” leaves it up to the viewer to decide if this is happy or not. Therefore, it is infinitely better.

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