Ever since I made the fatal mistake of announcing I was working on an Arcade Documentary way before it made sense to, I’ve gotten a nice healthy bushel of mail from people. I appreciate a lot of it because people are stepping up and giving me contact addresses, ideas, and all the great stuff I would need when I begin that production a year or two down the line. It’s way too early to discuss specifics, but I am very happy at the upside of this. Additionally, people are kind of working as a huge cluster of specialized smart agents, letting me know from all quarters about possibly relevant sites and news. If something happens that goes on in a dark room with sounds like beep and boop, I’m being appraised of it right now.
An awful lot of people, therefore, have mentioned the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which came out last year. The mail usually goes along the lines of “Did you know about this fantastic arcade documentary that came out? I thought it was amazing, you should see if if you haven’t already.”
So to all my helpful compatriots, I just want the message clear: I hate that movie. I hate it on principle. I hate it on personal, selfish grounds. I hate it on ethical grounds. I dispute its content and I despise its message. That it is being considered a modern classic grinds my teeth and riles my fists.
If you’ve not yet seen this blight, let me ruin it for you right now. It tells the tale of Steve Wiebe, a nice guy and happy family man, who happens to have a strong history with videogames, like many of his generation. In his case, he wishes to hold the record for the videogame Donkey Kong. Steve’s nemesis towards this goal is Billy Mitchell, a rich businessman whose ego and self-aggrandizement are of olympian proportions. The record-holder of the Donkey Kong record, Billy crows his achievement. Meanwhile, Steve steadily practices his Donkey Kong and begins videotaping his games, so that he can possibly knock Billy off his throne. We are shown the political intrigue of the videogame score business, including the backroom plays, the spying, and all the conspiracies to protect Billy’s record. Steve is betrayed and lambasted on all sides; questions arise as to his videogame hardware, his intent, and his skills. Billy refuses to even be in the same room as Steve, never letting him have the satisfaction of the two playing head to head on a single machine. At the huge videogame event held to allow challengers to strut their stuff, Steve achieves the world record… but wait! Billy Mitchell has sent in a dodgy videotape with questionable edits to seize Steve’s victory out of his hands. Ultimately, however, Steve comes back and is victorious in his quest to beat Billy! However, at the last moments of this exciting and amazing documentary, we find out that Billy Mitchell has posted a new record on Donkey Kong, pushing Steve out one more time.
Wow, what a fascinating, intense movie dredged from reality that is, right? What an amazing flick, and people who’ve seen it and come to me to tell me about it all rave about how it almost plays like a big morality play and suspense novel all at once.
Yes! Yes it does. Too bad it’s loaded with falsehoods. And by loaded, I mean packed, and by packed I mean like the last Japanese subway car before they have to shut down the line. I have seen both the screener and the final work of this film, and then I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of people, people who should know about the events portrayed in the flick. Here’s some minor, middling issues to consider:
- A core theme is that Billy Mitchell is an asshole, one who doesn’t even deign to spend time in the same location as Steve Wiebe and won’t even come in to eat lunch at the same table as him. In fact, Billy came in and paid for lunch.
- Billy denies Steve the satisfaction of playing one-on-one on Donkey Kong. They’d played Donkey Kong one-on-one a year before the documentary was filmed at a previous championship.
- It seems like Steve Wiebe finally gets a chance to top Billy and that same day, a videotape arrives and Billy tops Wiebe. Steve Wiebe already had the top spot in Donkey Kong, having achieved the record before the documentary started.
- The videotape that Billy sends in has a suspicious glitch. The videotape was a copy and the original was sent in with no glitch.
- Two representatives of Twin Galaxies arcade forced their way into Steve’s garage and looted the machine. Two members of the same social scene as Twin Galaxies and Steve were let into his garage by his grandmother, and asked Steve for permission to photograph the circuit board.
- A number of insiders constantly appraised Billy on what was going on at the competition and took suggestions from him. Multiple times, the conversations being shown from both sides are not the same conversation.
What I’m saying here is that a good percentage of what makes the documentary “good” are made up conflicts, inaccurate reporting, smoothed-over narratives that are meant to make you root for one side or hate the other, when in fact reality doesn’t hold up to these allegations. The whole point of the narrative is that Steve is wronged, denied his rightful place in the record books because of internal machinations. But he had the championship for 3 years! He had played Billy one-on-one. Billy was not on this campaign to cut Steve off at the knees at every turn so to humiliate him and dismiss him, to his own aggrandizement.
(Feel free to check out this collection of statements by Walter Day, head of Twin Galaxies, which is an excellent succinct review of inaccuracy in the film. There are notable amounts of others.)
If you’re going to point and laugh at a subculture, hold up real people like pelts to be sneered at and dismissed as this documentary most obviously does, why even go further and make crap up in editing? Why even be in that business?
The director, Seth Gordon, is hard at work at a screenplay for The King of Kong, which he will then sell to have a fictional movie made. Or, as I am saying, a second fictional movie, but one where he can see 100% of the profits of the picture without having to cut in any of the people whose lives he just took a galactic dump on. Let me be clear: he fucked these people. He couldn’t have fucked them worse than if he strapped them across a air-hockey table and sodomized them with a Wico Command Control Joystick. He interviewed them, had them retrieve archival footage and materials going back decades, recorded them at their homes, their places of work, and at events that they put up at their own expense and time, and then he painted them in clown makeup and threw pies at them for an hour and 19 minutes.
And by doing this, he fucked me, too. Doors that were open to me and my production are slammed shut, people who would have been interviewed by me freely and happily are now rightfully suspicious, and there are places I can no longer hope to go. Maybe, just maybe after I am deep in my production and I show people footage and where I’m going with it I might get some folks to open up, but the damage is pretty goddamn severe. A documentary that rips entire groups of good-hearted people as shadowy, conniving scumbags with razor-thin morality hurts the scene being portrayed and hurts the people themselves. All this effort, just to turn reality into a faked up drama worthy of a dime store pulp. Yes, I am saying the movie is so bad that it has actually sucked my future movie into darkness as well.
When I sit with people to interview them, I always say the same thing: I never want them to regret letting me into their lives. I never want them to watch my film and feel a cold shiver of realization that they were had. Maybe they’re surprised at how their context is with other interviews, or that they fit into the film in unusual ways, but to make someone’s life worse for having given you the gift of their time and story… dude, that’s some high-octane bitchslap. I don’t play that way.
Imagine, then, how I feel when people send me link after link to this production, lauding the incredible story it tells and hoping that I can also do something as entertaining. I guarantee you, I will never be that kind of entertaining.
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