Tuesday, September 4, 2007

If you haven't had a chance to check out Seth Gordon's unbelievably absurd documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, I suggest getting your inner nerd on and heading out to the theater before this movie disappears way too soon. Yes, it's about grown men (and one really old lady) who play antique video games, like, from the eighties obsessively... and one of these grown men calls Donkey Kong "a metaphor for life" without any irony whatsoever, but these high-score junkies are actors in an epic, never-ending morality play over something so trivial and irrelevant it's literally one of the most amusing things I've ever seen. The main rivalry in competitive gaming — and it's fought out with the same passion that starts riots in British soccer stadiums — is between two men, Billy and Steve, each trying to score the world record in Donkey Kong, although it spirals into a surprisingly resonant story about nothing less than the pursuit of the American dream.

The movie's star is Steve, the movie's Everyman character, although he's anything but when he steps in with the crowd at the arcade. Steve is a nice guy who cries a lot, a loser by birthrite, and an utter failure at everything he's ever done... except for, he discovers after he loses his job, Donkey Kong.

Billy Mitchell is the film's subject, proclaimed "Video Gamer of the [20th] Century," the personification of the Establishment, and one of the best villains ever captured on film. He set a world record in Donkey Kong back in 1982 that went unchallenged for twenty years, and he's carried around a huge sense of entitlement and self-importance ever since. His life has always been full of fame (among the thirty or so people who follow gaming competitions), fortune (there's no monetary prize for any of these games), and beautiful women (another gamer disputes this, and complains about how there are never "any DDG — drop-dead gorgeous — women" in the arcade), and these days Mitchell runs a hugely successful hot sauce business, has a trophy wife, and wears a different patriotic tie every day of the week. And then Steve makes a video of himself beating Mitchell's high score (and also being a less-than-stellar parent in the process) and Mitchell loses his shit, turning paranoid and questioning Steve's game, his video, and his integrity. Mitchell literally sends some of his acolytes — okay, his two acolytes — to break into Steve's house and examine his machine. He's a stream of Machiavellian machinations, totally clueless about how petty he is, believing everybody's laughing with him instead of at him, and oddly, a loser by choice.

But along with the background cast of dorks, dweebs, and doofuses — including the folk-guitar playing referee and some dude who calls himself "Mr. Amazing," The King of Kong makes a subtle point about how we all struggle for respect in the world, and for the forty-year-olds still playing Joust and Contra in the arcade, there's no road to that respect unless you're seen first. I empathize with Steve, a misfit in the real world who even has to push hard to fit into his own little niche... but I'm also happy to say that I understand Billy. He's never going to be a great man, maybe the best he can do is be great at Donkey Kong.