Two documentaries recently released demonstrate what I consider to be good movie-making while using two different and honest approaches to their subject matters. What’s interesting also, is that they’re at completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of, let’s call it “social relevance”.
First up is The King of Kong, Seth Gordon’s look into a world most of us couldn’t care less about: World champion retro-gamers. I mean, seriously, I can sort of see the interest in modern games like Unreal Tournament, which have a sort of football-esque feel and head-to-head action. These have the potential to be really fascinating live. Well, maybe.
But 1980s-era quarter munchers? Pac-Man? Centipede? Donkey Kong? I just don’t see it. In fact, Donkey Kong pretty much put an end to my time in arcades. In order to get good at these old games, you had to memorize patterns. That strikes me as one of the biggest waste of time and energy imaginable: Memorizing an arbitrarily constructed and delicate pattern for the purpose of getting good at a video game. I mean, seriously, it’s harder than learning Latin, without the attendant utility and respect-mixed-with-fear you get from knowing Latin.
The beauty of this documentary, though, is that you do end up caring. Though a fair number of statements by the competitors were laugh-out-loud funny, especially when applied with just the tiniest bit of perspective, you have to give these guys their props. They’re not really wasting any more time than the average TV watcher (or moviegoer, hey) and in that time they’ve become the best at what they’re doing.
And there are a lot of poseurs, as well. People who would pretend to the crown of video game mastery, and a lot of them–no matter how hard they work at it–will never touch the hem of our two heroes, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.
The movie takes the (always dramatically fruitful) angle of the underdog challenger (Wiebe) looking to dethrone longtime champ (Mitchell). The two are polar opposites as far as their social personalities. Mitchell is a smooth-talking high-powered businessman type who wears a pony tail (yes!) and could easily be selling real estate or doing the motivational lecture circuit, and who views himself as a winner.
Wiebe, by contrast, is a sort of lovable loser, a nearly great athlete (whose big shot was blown by his father), musician (he looks good playing the drums, but I couldn’t tell you if that was good drumming, and his piano playing–well, it reminds me of mine), artist, out-of-work aerospace engineer, whose life is full of near misses, but who uses his mastery of Donkey Kong to make a name for himself.
We’re treated to the cardboard table that is retro-game-score-record keeping, an organization that looks like it’s run on quarters and out of trailer parks and pre-fab homes, but which prides itself on its integrity. And we have the shunned would-be retro-gamer going by the name of “Mr Awesome” who claims they’ve shut him out.
Mitchell repeatedly gets favorable treatment from the record keepers, which tweaks our sense of fairness, and he ducks out in a chance to go head-to-head with Wiebe, who fails to beat the high score live, just a couple of blocks from Mitchell’s home and restaurant.
Of course, at the level of DK they’re playing, sheer randomity is as big a factor as anything as to who gets the higher score. While either of them can routinely break the long-standing 650K score, neither can guarantee what will happen after that, leading to a lot of taped scores. And Mitchell gets the chance to point out that he’s simply not prepared–out of training!–to go head-to-head with Wiebe at that point.
Nonetheless, reconciliations are made, and people mostly come across looking like real people, in all their flawed glory. Wiebe gets his place at the table for a while, then Mitchell comes back, and so on.
Wiebe’s personal story has a happy ending as well, as he finds his niche as a school science teacher, and brings his considerable focus to bear on making science interesting for kids.
Contrast with In The Shadow of the Moon.
2016: Updated with formatting and pictures. At the time of this update, director Seth Gordon is slated to helm the Baywatch movie. No joke.