One documentary from the US last year spoke to avid videogamers more than any other, and in the process told a brilliantly human story about good, evil and Donkey Kong. In this week’s Further Reading, Kim Newman celebrates The King of Kong.
This is the most exciting, audience-involving film of any kind I’ve seen this year. At none of the previews of the summer’s blockbusters was I part of such a vocal, enthusiastic and wholly-gripped crowd as I was at a relatively small screening of a picture which has made its UK debut as a DVD retail item.
The King of Kong is an aptly ragged-looking documentary which takes a completely uninviting subject — a controversy in the world of retro-computer gaming about whether longtime Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell should cede his title to contender Steve Weibe — and makes it the stuff of legends. Donkey Kong, for those who don’t remember, is (or, rather, was) an early, fiendishly difficult game from the Super Mario Bros stable, in which the plumber tries to ascend various ladders to rescue a princess, while avoiding missiles tossed by a malign ape. From the DVD extras, I learned that the game was originally supposed to feature Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto, but the Japanese designers couldn’t get the rights to the characters and came up with their own.
Billy Mitchell, hailed as ‘the gamer of the century’, is a reptilian, faux-cool smarm-bucket who invokes fanatical loyalty from longtime rivals and associates, including Brian Kuh (the third-highest DK scorer), who scuttles around with Renfield-like devotion to his master, and Walter Day, the bizarre Roberts Blossom lookalike who has taken on the mantle of definitive judge for the field (an accolade confirmed when he strikes an alliance with the Guinness Book of Records).
Though a patriot, a family man, a successful hot sauce tycoon and rated as ultra-cool by his circle, the goateed and distinctively coiffed Mitchell comes across onscreen as a classic villain. Even his closest friends call him devious, but he is also tragically puffed up in his idea of celebrity, flirting with the interviewer and referring to himself in the third person as if he were a world leader planning a counter-coup rather than a probable saddo whose highest achievement (a perfect Pac-Man score) means less and less with every passing minute.
Wiebe, by contrast, is a classic underdog: following a run of near-miss careers in baseball and music, he took up the game after being laid off, then reinvented himself as a science teacher loved by his students. Crucially, in this showing at least, he doesn’t even seem to think that much of his knack for DK, though he is clearly as obsessively devoted to chasing the record as Mitchell is to keeping it.
Director Seth Gordon intended a more general inside-retro-gaming documentary but lucked into an astonishingly potent storyline and must have sorted through acres of footage to get stuff this good. So good, in fact, a dramatised remake is reportedly in the works. It has vivid supporting characters, including Roy Schild (aka ‘Mr Awesome’), a secondary ‘evil mastermind’ in Wiebe’s camp and Wiebe’s amazing children (a young son who shouts ‘stop playing Donkey Kong‘ as Dad is on his first record-breaking attempt, a tweenage daughter who wryly observes that a lot of people ruin their lives trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records).
You also get as many ups and downs as a sports fiction film, with the added plus that since it’s a true story the outcome isn’t decreed by cliché — though there are triumphs and disasters near the end, the story goes on and you can’t stop yourself looking up on the internet to find out who reigns as the current King of Kong. Everyone, including the near-saintly but not sanctimonious Wiebe, reveals more about themselves than the average reality TV contestant would, with many jaw-dropping statements about epochal achievements and grand calamities that took place in a world of game-playing marginalised by the end of the 1980s.
Mitchell and cohorts act in such a way that, even if it turned out Gordon manipulated and edited the hell out of the footage, it would be impossible for your conclusions about these people not to be — to some extent – horribly true. When Wiebe sends in a tape of his first record-breaking score, Day has agents talk their way into his house to assess his personal DK machine to see if it’s been tampered with, Mitchell claims only scores achieved in public count and the record doesn’t go into the books. When Wiebe does it again at a games convention, Mitchell has protégé Doris Self (an 80-year-old Q*Bert whizz) hand over a blurry, splicey tape in which he purportedly sets a higher record which Day and company accept within ten minutes.
I don’t see how this incident could be spun in a way which doesn’t suggest the tiny sub-culture was stacked against the outsider, though there’s a subtle thread later in the film, which I suspect comes from a dawning awareness of what they look like on the record, as Day and his crowd (except the loyal Kuh) begin to feel the long-time champion has been less than honest with them and respond to Wiebe’s essential decency even as they consistently mispronounce his name.
There’s a stunning moment when the antagonists almost meet, for the only time in the film, as Wiebe is openly friendly to Mitchell, who cruises by ignoring him at a games machine while making a snide remark to his wife; it may be that when the cameras weren’t on them, these men have played each other or treated each other courteously, but the audience I saw it with hissed a pantomime villain and cheered for the decent contender. Even Mitchell’s obviously genuine decency towards Doris, a little old lady whose gaming career he enabled and championed, doesn’t take the sting out of his Dick Dastardly act elsewhere.
It makes good use of 1980s inspirational pop music, and — like the best of these ‘American weirdo’ documentaries (American Movie, Spellbound) — works up a vein of melancholy sympathy for folks who fanatically and unselfconsciously pursue goals that seem absurd. The middle-aged guy dressed like a teenager who wistfully remembers thinking that the guys who racked up big arcade scores would have hot babes clustering about them perfectly encapsulates the delusional, funny-sad heroism of the world of Kong.
Good documentaries can be made about significant subjects, like the recent Iraq/torture-themed Standard Operating Procedure and Taxi to the Dark Side, but sometimes outstanding true life films spin gold out of ostensibly ridiculous, trivial material.