Friday, October 01, 2010

KING OF KONG

Darth Vader. Blofeld. Hannibal Lecter.

Add to that list of famous movie villains a new name: Billy Mitchell. Except, this time, it's not a work of fiction, he is from the documentary KING OF KONG. Of course, even documentaries take a point of view, so it may be a one-sided story, but in the context of the film, he is indeed a completely revolting snake oil salesman who claims to hold the world record for Donkey Kong.

I never played Donkey Kong, but I played a lot of other video games in the early 80s when I was at MIT. I understand the obsession that these games breed. I played Defender, Galaga, Joust, Centipede, and numerous other games. In grad school I became obsessed with Tetris and Dark Castle on the Mac. When I started actually working for a living, it became impossible to waste time on video games and I stopped.

A few years ago I decided that I would try to get more in touch with the video game generation and I bought an XBox. I quickly found the only game I had even a remote interest in was the MLB Baseball game. But not having played any video games for over a decade, I was routinely losing to children and it was very frustrating. It reminded me that one of the things I hated about video games was that no matter how good you are, in the end, you finish by losing the game.

So when I came out of my coma after a lengthy illness, one of the first things that I decided was that I was not going to waste another valuable moment of my life doing something that I did not enjoy, and playing video games was one of those things. After I returned from the hospital, I threw my XBox into the trash can.

This meant that I went into viewing this film with a lot of my own personal back-story, even though I never played Kong. Honestly, I expected the movie to be a lot like TREKKIES, which was filled with lovable losers, social rejects, and eccentric weirdos. Although that is certainly true to some extent, the characters are much more like pro athletes than the rejects I expected. The real hero of the film (the way that events are presented) is Steve Wiebe (rhymes with bee-bee), a former baseball and basketball player who is a junior high science teacher with a loving wife and two kids.

Early in the film there is a reference to a game venue in New Hampshire called the FUNSPOT. I actually had to stop watching because instantaneously a huge flood of memories came back to me. Even though it was clearly a new sign, I knew immediately that this was in Weirs Beach on Lake Winnipesaukee. When I was in elementary school, my parents had a summer cabin close enough to Weirs Beach that we frequently visited there. Our cabin was far enough away from everything else that I was constantly bored and would beg my parents to take me to the Funspot so that I would have something to do. Of course, at that time there were no video games (although at home we had Pong), at the Funspot I played mostly pinball, Skee-ball, "the claw," and miniature golf. It was about as much fun as I could have at that age.

Strangely, I had not thought about the great times we had there in ages. Even weirder, I had just written about my father because of a newspaper article about them, and on Facebook had mentioned my mother because of the anniversary of her death. In fact, these are some of the last memories I have of my parents together before my mother died, and certainly some of the happiest. So a movie that already had personal meaning to me suddenly became much more personal. Imagine my surprise when the second act of the film returns to that venue for a lengthy competition. It was really weird to watch.

In any case, Mitchell becomes an easy villain because he relies on fame that is 25 years old when he set a Donkey Kong record, and then repeatedly refuses to participate in a live contest, yet continues to claim championship. It's very easy to hate him. In fact, if you type "Billy Mitchell" into the Google search, predictive text assumes you are going to search for "Billy Mitchell is a Douchebag." (I wish I were making this up.) As easy it is to hate him, it's just as easy to like Weibe, who clearly charms his junior high school students as the guy next door.

This is one of those documentaries, that, like SPELLBOUND, is fascinating no matter how little of an interest you have in the subject matter. I highly recommend this to all.
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