Viewed February 19, 2009 (and then some), The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, directed by Seth Gordon, featuring Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, and Walter Day, among others.
This is a documentary about the quest by Steve Wiebe, a mild-mannered science teacher living in Redmond Washington, to secure the highest score in the arcade game “Donkey Kong.” It is also about the man Billy Mitchell, who set the high score back in 1982; that score thought by many to be unbeatable. And it is also about Walter Day, a video game “referee,” and Twin Galaxies, the organization that he founded to keep track of and mediate arcade game records.
Does that sound boring? It’s anything but. The documentary clearly sets up Steve Wiebe (the newcomer and challenger) as a hero, pitted against the supposedly devious and self-centered reigning champion Billy Mitchell and the band of minions who are in his thrall. (I say Wiebe is a newcomer, but if you watch the DVD extras you learn that he performed in the game early in his life, in private, to a level that had thought to have been reached only by Billy Mitchell. But forgive me while I try not to blog down in detail.)
The game play is not the point in this documentary. It’s all about the supposed character of the main subjects (and of some of the secondary ones as well), about how each is treated by the others, about unfortunate associations and alignments, about intrigue and hypocrisy, and even about redemption. While seeing this movie once is a fascinating experience, you really just have to see it again illuminated by what you’ve learned the first time through, not to mention by the DVD extras that give extra insight and detail.
The filmmakers did not set out to make a movie about these three people. In fact they followed a number of arcade game competitors around with the idea that there would be a good film in there somewhere. They also found other documentary teams doing more or less the same thing, and ended up joining forces with at least one of those teams. Somewhere along the line the story turned into the mythic tale that they ended up protraying.
The documentary presents each of the three main subjects as very compelling multifaceted individuals, and it really makes no bones about what you’re supposed to think about them. Steve Wiebe is the gentle man of many talents, who always seems to come up short in his varied endeavors. Billy Mitchell is a manipulative narcissist who has had much success in arcade games and in his career (and he suggests that one has prepared him for the other). Walter Day, the man who is to judge them both, is a complex person of many interests, yet he seems to worship Billy Mitchell. This is the way the documentary sets them up, mind you. At one point when the film is focused on Mitchell, Leonard Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows” begins to play, and well, everybody knows from that what you’re supposed to think. It’s likely that they (the filmmakers) are largely correct in their viewpoints, yet one does realize that Billy Mitchell is one talented man, that Steve Wiebe has indeed made at least one unfortunate choice in who he associated with to try to get into the competitive society, and that Walter Day does end up doing the right thing as he sees it. And as shown in the DVD extras, one close friend of Billy Mitchell, who helped to promote the documentary at its initial screenings, said something to the effect of “you do have to realize that it’s a movie.”
There are many other people in this film who are interesting in their own right. There’s Doris Self, the 83-year-old woman attempting to regain her Q-Bert title that she first acquired when she was in her 50s (I’ve run across mentions of her in the past as well, for her history in aviation). There’s Robert Mruczek, a Twin Galaxies judge who resigned in protest shortly after one of the pivotal decisions affecting the Donkey Kong score. There’s Brian Kuh, who retired from investment banking at the age of 30 so that he could move near to Funspot in NH to devote all of his time to arcade games, and who has since gone on to some remarkable accomplishments. There’s Steve Wiebe’s young daughter Jillian, who wonders if some people ruin their lives to get into the Guinness record book.
This movie is like a book that you can’t put down. I watched it once, then poured over the extra footage. A few days later I then watched it again. Immediately after that, I watched it with the first commentary track (commentary by Seth Gordon, Ed Cunningham, J. Clay Tweed, and Luis Lopez) and then again with the second commentary track (commentary by Chris Carle and Jon M. Gibson). If there had been more on the DVD, I’d probably still be watching it. Note, though, that the second commentary track was hugely annoying, consisting mostly of the two men trying to out-snide, out-snark, and out-sarcastic each other as if they were doing a bad MST3K performance, always showing off their superiority. Perhaps they did have that superiority, as they did from time to time show off some pretty deep knowledge of the subject area (especially after about the one hour mark).
I’m not really much of an arcade game player. Sure, I loved going to arcades when they were in great abundance, but I was never very good at any that I tried There are many famous games that I’ve never even seen, including Donkey Kong. But I am and have always been fascinated by the nature of skill and accomplishment vs how those things are appreciated. What makes a basketball player worth millions of dollars in this country, whereas a ping-pong player won’t even turn anyone’s heads (so to speak)? If a kalimba player invests as much time honing his skill as does a rock guitarist, why is only one of them appreciated? And does that appreciation even matter to the person with the skill? Is the skill enough?
Much, much more can be said about this film. I appreciate the NH connections; in fact during the lunch break that I took while writing this, I learned that I know someone who appeared briefly in the background. The main thing is, if you’re reading this, see it.