King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

A documentary about a world you never knew existed, a world that seems ridiculous, populated by fringe members of society, filled with passions and rivalries, rules and rule breakers, this is the world of competative gaming. Classic arcade games (pac man, donkey kong, centipede, etc) played for hours to achieve a line on a website (twingalaxies.com) and the awe and respect of a dedicated few.

We meet Billy Mitchell, a legend within the community, holder of multiple high scores, restaurant owner, long of hair and neat of beard. He has flinty, cold eyes and speaks in aphorisms and metaphors, raising classic gaming to new heights by comparing it to war. He’s frighteningly close to the Danny McBride character in The Foot Fist Way. He is the King.

Next is Steve Wiebe, an amiable schlub from Washington State, having been laid off he decides to attack Mitchell’s high score on Donkey Kong jr. He is the pretender.

The film charts Wiebe beating Mitchell, having his score brought into disrepute, trevelling to Funspot (a “world famous” arcade in New Hampshire to compete live and failing to draw Mitchell into a live, one on one “Kong Off”. Mitchell seems scared to lose his title, refusing to even compete, communicating through a little army of sycophantic disciples.

Three dimensional characters are pretty much guarenteed in a documentary, free as they are, from fulfilling the duty a script has prepared for them. Mitchell and Wiebe are rounded characters because (obviously) they exist outside the screen. Mitchell goes from positively Machiavellian and obtuse to being childish and pathetic. Wiebe, far from the schmo he appeared to be, has a wife and kids and teaches middle school science. He wins our sympathy by not rising to Mitchell’s schemes and tantrums, appearing pragmatic about the scene he’s accidentally found himself in.

We see the referees and judges who accept and officiate events and high scores, a strangely heart warming bunch of geeks (not an insult) who do something they love for little reward. Little moments add to the drama, a failed attempt leads one competitor into the car park for a breakdown, a judge runs round the arcade telling everyone to come and witness the “kill screen” on Kong. Talking heads fill in the details the two leads don’t provide and there is always a poignant quote ready for use.

Seth Gordon (Don’t make a film about bad employers in the future Seth) paces the film perfectly, piecing together a narrative that gives the impression of being effortless. He appears to have been in the right place at the right time but this is almost certainly sleight of hand, hiding a very clever assemblage of footage.

The best documentaries draw you in regardless of previous interest in the subject and whilst Kong is no Hoop Dreams ( a tussle for points on a videogame isn’t going to hit as hard as kids struggling to rise out of he ghetto) it’s certainly not out of place in it’s company.

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