The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
directed by Seth Gordon
by Ian Pugh Sarcastically described as Rocky for video games, The King of Kong is superficially about how human beings will latch on to any opportunity to acquire fame and admiration--but really it's about how easy it is to laugh at nerds. The documentary follows the subculture of obsessive retro gaming, because there's a shake-up in the works: junior-high science teacher and family man Steve Wiebe is closing the gap on the (world-record) high score for "Donkey Kong" held by pretentious hot-sauce mogul Billy Mitchell. These middle-aged oddballs are given just enough rope to hang themselves: a video game "referee" excitedly explains how he'll watch a video of a possibly record-setting game for hours on end; Wiebe straddles a line of neglect for his family; Mitchell grandstands and has fawning acolytes; and of course there are the inevitable Star Wars references. While it's practically impossible to paint such buffoonery in a favourable light, director Seth Gordon compounds a bullying aspect to it by crudely mocking the outdated nature of their fixation, surrounding their endeavours (and occasional temper tantrums) with Top 40 hits from the games' heyday--tunes that can be found in '80s sports movies and on the "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" soundtrack. A friend of mine reasonably wondered if such a mentality mocked the very idea of a cultural zeitgeist for its inevitable obsolescence; I'd say he's right, except The King of Kong refuses to acknowledge that the so-called golden era of the medium ever had any cultural significance at all--"Pac-Man Fever," it seems, never actually happened and video games themselves are a childish frivolity only enjoyed by the socially inept. (Indeed, Wiebe becomes the hero of the piece mainly because he eventually gets out of the racket altogether--and because Mitchell is such a windbag.) There's no doubt that obsessing over them is unhealthy, but "Donkey Kong" and "Pac-Man" deserve (and receive) a certain amount of attention not only for their iconic status in American pop culture, but also as crucial stepping stones in the evolution of video games as they creep into acceptance as an art form. The King of Kong won't even contemplate the very possibility of that, and it resorts to dorky straw men to justify its stance.