Sunday, January 23, 2011

Arrested Development -- Reflections on "King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" (2007)

Everyone's got to be good at something...
There's a moment in The King of Kong in which our hero, Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee-bee), is playing a game of Donkey Kong at a video game competition in Hollywood, Florida. Since arriving from Redmond, Washington, he has been waiting three days for his arch-rival, Billy Mitchell, to show for a head-to-head showdown. Billy finally shows up, walks around the arcade like royalty, and then disappears without so much as a nod at poor Steve, who suddenly can't concentrate and loses a man.

I wanted to run up to poor Steve -- who's gaming life had been tainted by the machinations of Mitchell and the old-boy's network of Twin Galaxies (the snobbish torchbearers of classic gaming milestones) -- grab him by the shoulders and tell him to chase the S-O-B down just to call him out publicly. But I couldn't, blocked as I was by time and my TV, and Steve wussed out and kept playing.

This is the sort of documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is. Directed by Seth Gordon, it tells the story of Steve Wiebe and his quest to break the 1982 Donkey Kong record held by Billy Mitchell. Wiebe is a proud, hard working husband, father and teacher. Donkey Kong became his addiction after he lost his job at Boeing, but it seems that his addiction was fueled not by a love for the game itself, but for a desire to feel successful at something. The movie shows him as a jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, and this moves him to tears at times. It speaks to that part in each of us that strives for something greater than mediocrity.

At first, Wiebe thinks arcade gaming is fun, and the process of getting your high score nationally recognized by Twin Galaxies worthwhile. What he doesn't account for is the pride of Billy Mitchell, who's portrayed here as the black hat, with his long, dark hair, probing eyes, constant sneer, and die-hard pro-American ties. He looks a bit like Scar in Disney's The Lion King. Billy will stop at nothing to keep his record from falling, and its his antagonism that makes The King of Kong one of the most crowd-pleasing documentaries of recent years.

Seth Gordon's direction and editing help us to not only keep track of our two main characters, but also build a large cast of characters who are quite memorable in their own right. There's Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies and its most respected referee, who is also a musician with grand notions of recording a rock album in his senior years. Doris Self, a little old lady (who apparently passed away before the movie's release) is seeking to break the record for Q*bert. And Steve's little boy, Derek, always seems to be by his side, either asking for his butt to be wiped after going potty, or taking after his daddy and hypnotically playing his GameBoy at the foot of the Donkey Kong machine in the family's garage.

I loved the familiarity of this film, and its simplicity. It showed us that even within geek culture we have our heroes and bullies, and that the things we love as children have a most profound effect on the direction of our lives. The video game geeks in this film as all in a state of arrested development, living out their adulthoods in arcades as if it were still 1982. There's no attempt to judge them, but the movie offers the observation that despite having more money and professions, these men are still teenagers trying to prove themselves by mastering a video game and conquering each other. Today's teens do it on-line, trash talking each other via headsets while shooting at each other during rounds of Call of Duty or Halo. The tools have changed, but the feelings never do.

Damn it, Steve, you should have chased that bastard down in the parking lot and called his ass out! But like a pimply-faced teenager in the face of the arcade bully, you bitched out and pumped another quarter into the machine. No matter what records Steve might have gone on to break, that's the moment that will live in his memory forever, the moment when both he and Billy Mitchell were cowards. Our adulthoods are supposed to be the time when we can get right the mistakes of our youth -- but when they merely become an extension of our youth, what then?

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