When I was a kid I imagined that every intersection
was a contest. It was me on a bike versus the cars to see who
could get across faster. I would time the light the other direction
and jump on the pedal of my Raleigh at the precise moment I
got a green. In my head was an announcer doing a very professional
job of casting the race. And as impartial as he was supposed
to be, really he was rooting for me and found excuses for the
times I lost. Usually I won, though, because I was really fucking
good at racing old ladies in Datsun B-210s for 60 feet. I could
usually be across before they even noticed the light had changes.
I came out of that phase, partly because it
was pretty lame, but mostly because I grew up. I found more
important things to occupy my time, such as my parent's nightly
arguments or whether balloons filled with water were good tactile
approximations of boobies. Besides, it's not like anyone else
cared about my bicycling. If they did, they'd have to be pretty
damn weird. There wasn't going to be an ESPN show about bike-car
intersection drag racing. I know, I pitched the idea, along
with the "pedal cam", a tiny video camera strapped to the end
of the crank and taping the traffic while rotating in tiny circles.
It was fucking rad, even if it did make you queasy.
While I watched the new documentary The King
of Kong, I thought about the petty little contest I made
up just so I could be champion of something, no matter how pointless.
That's what this movie is about, that there is competition for
everyone, no matter how banal and trivial, and that no matter
what level, some people will take it way too seriously. The
movie is so fucking good I would eat my own shit to see it again.
Ah, hell, who am I kidding? There are several things that could
convince me to eat my own shit: especially the Tavern's "Free
Beer if You Eat Your Own Shit" happy hour. Still, that's pretty
heady company for a non-fiction movie about grown men obsessed
with the video games of their childhoods. In particular, it
is about the pursuit of a world record for "Donkey Kong", a
game from the early eighties about a giant ape who has stolen
Mario's girlfriend, and the player has to navigate through several
construction sites and a pie factory to rescue her. Over and
over and over.
A movie about old guys playing old video games
doesn't sound very interesting. Well, except to the people in
this movie. That's because they live in a bizarre, insular world,
where who holds the world records at Joust, Defender, Q-Bert
and Ms. Pac-Man are not only important, but are the center of
the universe. The movie features a cast of true-life weirdos
and loners who are almost all men, almost all virgins, almost
all social misfits and almost all so reduced to insignificance
in the real world that they have retreated to this weird, competitive
club where who can shoot the most space aliens in a 25-year
old game defines manhood and courage. Just think about this:
somewhere in this country right now there is a middle-aged man
playing Mappy, not for fun, but to define his worth.
Lording over the cavalcade of social freaks
is Walter Day, who runs an organization called Twin Galaxies.
It documents and verifies world records in video games. Walter
is a ghost of a man, pasty, hollow-eyed, perpetually exhausted
and consumed by his organization. It's probably the only place
in the world where he's relevant. He thinks it's still 1982
and actually says he always wanted to be the guy whose high
scores at Centipede the pretty girls noticed. These days he
wears a referee jersey while officiating gaming tournaments.
In The King of Kong, the world of Day
and many other sad little men is centered on adulation for a
world-class asshole named Billy Mitchell. Mitchell wears cheap,
patriotic ties that you might see on the clearance rack at Wal-Mart,
has a mullet he blow-dries and fusses over, and a weasely face.
He runs a chicken-wing shack, sells hot wing sauce and thinks
he's pretty big shit. He looks like he's had at least one bitchin'
Camaros in his past. He talks easily about how great and clever
he thinks he is, even though his accomplishments don't extend
beyond old video games. He doesn't do anything that won't directly
reflect glory on himself. He also holds multiple records at
video games, including Donkey Kong.
The world of King of Kong is filled with
men who can talk at length about "kill screens" and can't come
to the phone in the middle of a rousing game of Ladybug. There
is one eighty-year-old woman who's champion of Q-Bert, but she
never achieves her true potential because she gets distracted
by bingo. In this sad crowd, Mitchell is idolized. I doubt any
of the other gamers spend a whole lot of time thinking about
what an asshole he is. He has what they want, which is fame
within their insular world. To a guy like lonely, nervous Bill
Kuh, who considers himself Mitchell's protege, there is no greater
achievement in life.
So Mitchell is the villain. The hero is Steve
Wiebe, a mild-mannered man from Washington who revived his love
for Donkey Kong after losing his job a few years ago. Wiebe
is a total-outsider to the creepy world of serious gamers. He
is almost normal; hell, the man has a wife and kids,
which are two things most of the others can never hope to have.
Losing his job shook him, and being the best at Donkey Kong
is a way to get his confidence back.
Wiebe is obsessive-compulsive and meticulous.
When he decides he wants to hold the world record in Donkey
Kong, he thrusts himself into a world he could not possibly
have anticipated. Anyway, I had no idea this subculture of virginal,
pasty nuts with their own lingo and rivalries existed. He moves
a game console into his garage and practices for hours, eventually
beating Billy Mitchell's best score.
That brings the wrath of Billy Mitchell, who,
under the fabulous mullet, is insanely insecure. Under his coercion,
Twin Galaxies sends people to tear apart Wiebe's game console,
looking for an excuse to disqualify Wiebe. They can't find anything
obviously wrong, but concoct a conspiracy theory involving Mitchell's
longtime nemesis, Roy "Mr. Awesome" Schildt, who gave a gameboard
to Wiebe. Mr. Awesome is a swell foil. He once self-produced
a video called Mr. Awesome's Guide to Getting Girls where
he dressed up as Patton and preached about "poontang" while
standing in front of the American flag. He also has a Pontiac
Firebird with lightning bolts taped to it called the Awesomemobile.
He's actually one of the more socially normal people in competitive
Twin Galaxies subsequently voided Wiebe's record.
Mitchell waxes poetic about how records should be set in person,
with a referee and audience. And what follows is a pattern of
Wiebe traveling across the country to legitimize his record
and Mitchell trying very hard to avoid him, and manipulating
behind the scenes to discredit him, including submitting a questionable
videotape of a new record as soon as Wiebe undisputably tops
him in front of Walter Day. And back and forth, but mostly with
Mitchell acting like an insecure pussy who won't compete in
public. Twin Galaxies serves only to benefit Mitchell because
he is, in his greasy visage, the closest thing they have to
a rock star.
What's incredible is that although Wiebe is
an outsider, his decency wins over Mitchell's sycophants. By
the end of the movie, Mitchell's spell has largely been broken
and his former followers openly root for and admire Wiebe for
the decent guy he is. Walter Day even apologizes for how shitty
he's treated him.
The King of Kong is the best fucking
movie I've seen this year. Easily. Ultimately it's the story
of modesty and hard work eventually winning. I may not have
either virture, but at least I can respect them. This is the
story of an outsider trying to enter and conquer a world of
strange men afraid of outsiders, especially those with lives.
It's a battle between a man who wants to be treated fairly and
a horde who want to preserve their little paradise. By the end,
I was rooting so damn hard for Wiebe that I nearly cried when
Mitchell's machinations once again denied him the record. Sure,
Wiebe's a little obsessed with Donkey Kong, but he's such an
unassuming guy, and he doesn't wear hideous ties, gloat, brag
or flip his hair over his shoulder. Like his young daughter
points out about the Guiness Book of World Records, "Some
people will ruin their lives to be in that book." Wiebe is the
guy who won't, and he's up against a lot of people who will.
God damn, what a fucking awesome movie. Five
Fingers for The King of Kong.