Those who are not into reading long self-referential articles can content themselves with the short version of this article posted two days ago.
If I’d known last week what I know now, I’d probably have not written a weblog entry about the documentary The King of Kong. And by weblog entry, I mean a vicious rant cutting to the very heart and soul of this documentary, declaring it fraudulent and beneath contempt.
Oh, not because I was mistaken or anything, and not because I didn’t mean every word. It just seems that what I stumbled onto was one of those mystical memetic blends that occur when you send your feet flying into the right faces, at the right time. You’re suddenly out on a very long limb on a very tall tree and you realize that you might have mis-prioritized your goals. I blew off some steam about a documentary I had a poor opinion about and have therefore subjected myself to a range of opinions and insinuations reverberating far outside where I usually tread. And this debating has been done regarding points of order few people care that much about, meaning the elaborate opinions I end up reading are almost entirely critical. It is not, in the aggregate, a positive and forward-thinking endeavor.
But here I am, the King of Kong hater, called to back up his opinion, and so let’s see what I can do.
Recently I had the pleasure of a visit by Flack O’Hara, author of Commodork, a book I gave a positive review of some time ago. He was in town from Oklahoma, one of only a handful of times he’s ever flown, for a week of classes. We determined he was flying back later in the day on a Saturday, so I suggested I take him up to the Funspot in New Hampshire, since Flack was really into video games (had a nice game room at home) and you can’t do better than to check out the Funspot’s Classic Arcade Museum. We knew it’d be a tight squeeze (it’s about an hour and a half from my house up to the location) but figured it’d be worth the effort.
It certainly was. I gave Flack a very brief tour of Laconia, New Hampshire, and then through the amusement area of Weirs Beach and finally the Funspot. We played skee-ball and a bunch of old games and had a good time.
When we first walked into the Funspot, one of the counters had a small stack of “King of Kong” posters. I saw one, picked it up, and went “oh yeah, one of the arcade films”. I hadn’t given the movie a thought for many months. I also saw it had come out on DVD. I asked if they had one for sale, and they didn’t and suggested I check out the website, billyvssteve.com. Just hearing that domain name reminded me more about the film, and then reminded me this was the one I hated.
Now, some disclosure is in order: while working on my documentary on text adventures I also started doing rough preliminary work on a documentary on arcades. During my preliminary phone calls and e-mails over the last couple of years, I had more than one case of a person talking about “the other video game documentary” and my having to say no, no I’m yet another guy. There were five documentaries I bumped into at various points: Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, High Score, TIlt: The Battle to Save Pinball, The Joystick Generation and King of Kong. While for some people my doing this is a conflict of interest, I’d rather point out that this explains why I didn’t just watch the movie and move on, like I did with countless others. The subject is important to me that I was (and am) ready to dedicate years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to filming, so I am not just a mere bystander, I’m an active participant and a very deeply embedded interested party in this history being told.
Arcades, you see, mean a hell of a lot to me. I grew up in arcades. I can remember the places I went to in the New York area: Dream Machine arcades in Poughkeepsie and Fishkill, the massive arcade in the back of the Nathan’s in Yonkers down the road from Crazy Eddie’s, the bouquet of pine trees and ozone in the Lake George amusement halls, and the times I begged my dad to drive me to the sketchiest parts of Asbury Park, New Jersey, just to slide around on the near-dead funhouses and play ancient rotting amusements near the salt of the sea. My ears still ring with my mother’s screaming as she found me deep in some Atari or Midway masterpiece an hour after I said I’d meet her at the entrance in “20 minutes”. I remember playing a test version of Pengo that used a version of the song “Popcorn” by Hot Butter, only to find when it was generally released they’d replaced it with some generic-sounding classical piece and I spent years trying to find out what that original song’s title was. The drug den arcade in Mount Kisco, the brutal take-all-comers arcades in New York City… these are a part of me. I don’t want that story not told.
So yeah, this subject is close to my heart and I wouldn’t otherwise have planned to spend so much time on it in the future. (I still plan to, lest anyone be misled.) I heard of these other films and in some cases contacted the filmmakers and in other cases waited to see what would arrive. I figured if they got finished, I’d hear about them soon enough.
Now, the other part of me, the documentary filmmaker. This was never going to be my profession, or at least, I never thought I’d have a part in doing documentaries when I graduated from film school. I had had a great time and learned a lot, but I didn’t see it as a vocation I wanted to be involved in. Bear in mind that at the time I graduated, I was trained in things like focus pulling, processed negatives and understanding variant grindings of lenses. I knew if I went pro I’d have an inevitable slide towards getting my ass reamed trying to break into the professional film business. If I was lucky, I could be a film loader or grip or abused production assistant. Some fellow graduates were excited at this prospect but it left me cold and I went into temping and later video games and later computer administration. So filmmaking went dormant, but I kept my little dreams and my outlook on things and went bravely on in life.
I did in fact begin, film, edit, and finish a movie. The BBS Documentary, maybe you’ve heard of it. To one perspective, this makes me a fine critic, as I’ve slept in my car outside a house to be on time to a 8am shooting schedule and watched a sequence hundreds of times to get the timing just right. But to another this makes me a perpetual agenda-pusher, watching other films as a zero-sum game in which every time they succeed I get a bite out of my ass. Subsequently, my analysis of films can seem informed, petty, bracing, bitter, or any combination. I can’t do anything about this. I am me. All I can do is be upfront about who I am and hope that the informed portions of my personality are dominant in my language while the conflicted aspects waves from the back of the room to let you know they’re there but not officially participating.
My mom enrolled me in my first film school when I was 11, back in 1981. It was pretty inexpensive, just $13 a month. And I made the most of it. Divorced, lucky enough to get a two-bedroom condo in Fishkill, NY, she paid for cable. This was, more than now, an enormously cool thing, like finding a free soda machine at work or winning a drawing and getting just the prize you wanted. The video signals were clear, the channels many and myriad, and I loved watching TV. I don’t mean watching the TV like many people do, like a cat idly watching cars going by, not absorbing, just watching. I mean I studied those shows and channels like a future musician hearing his first notes of jazz wafting out of a club or a future surfer coming to a beach for the first time with his family. I wasn’t about the plot line and who shot J.R. and what was the plot of the Jeffersons; I watched these films as windows into another place where things were being done and I wanted to do those things too. Our basic cable included one free “premium” channel as a gimmie: The Movie Channel, which surprisingly still exists in a messed-around form. This channel played from a rotating set of 30-40 movies every month, showing various recent Hollywood films next to banged-up 1960s and 1970s exploitations. And this is the thing: I watched them all. And not just all of them; I mean I watched individual movies plenty of times. I saw Caddyshack over 200 times. Motel Hell, a few dozen. Same for Times Square and Fort Apache: The Bronx and what has to be in the realm of 300-400 films across the couple of years. I learned angles, pacing, actor presence, set direction, lighting… all the aspects of film production by just watching the things endlessly during these preteen years. Some people watch a film and go “Get ’em, Sheriff”. Other people watch them and go “Why does the gun sound entirely wrong?” I was of the second crowd. I love film. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We didn’t have a movie theater in my town that I could easily get to (or afford), so this was my theater, in my little crappy room in a competent little condo on the edge of town.
With this sort of upbringing, films end up generating questions for me, not answers. I don’t look to movies to go “Ah, so this is how I should feel about a subject.” or “I really hope the bad guy doesn’t get away.” I look at films and go “How the hell did they get clearance to shoot there?” and “Why wasn’t that stuntman killed instantly?” With age has come not less questions, but more nuanced ones: Why does this documentary have a reverse shot where it shouldn’t? Where is the sun in the sky related to the last shot that’s supposed to have just happened? I heard the actor got his tooth chipped doing this shot; did they keep the contact in? What lens could this possibly be?
Maybe this seems like I’m ruining the magic; but in fact it’s even more magical. The card-master Ricky Jay has said that the manipulations required to do some of his tricks are much more complicated and amazing than the tricks themselves, and he has no way to easily reconcile that.
Is my movie-watching experience ruined? Well, I don’t think so. It’s certainly different than most but it’s hardly unique. Many people keep parallel narratives going on in their mind; I stumbled around on this concept on a recent entry and this was part of what I was talking about, this awareness of the medium you were observing and how you would build up tensions in strange ways that you wouldn’t in real life. If a psycho was chasing you and your friends in your actual home, you wouldn’t be thinking to yourself “which of us will survive to tell the tale?”. You’re thinking you’re deader than dead and that’s the end of it. The universe of movies is different, and we let it off the hook for some things and put it on the hook for things we wouldn’t expect of regular living.
Into this way of seeing things comes my relationships with documentaries.
Since I don’t watch films like a freshly-minted puppy, I don’t watch documentaries any other way than with a critical eye, seeing what is on the screen and knowing what’s not on there. I’ve had to browse through a lot of commentary on the tired tack of “because you can aim the camera a certain way, fuck objectivity in documentaries, fuck seeing them as anything but a different realm of fiction, stop acting like they have any real weight of meaning”. I have to disagree. Writers take reality and scrunch it into a few dozen written characters. This does not mean they can’t maintain some level of truth in those characters, or prevent the most common pitfalls of portraying non-fiction: omission, caricature, desecration. You can actually film things and get a good general sense of something without having every single moment appearing on-screen. Believe me, I’ve seen it. It happens, it can be done. It’s not perfect but we’re not talking about perfect, we’re talking about not horrible. And I’ve seen horrible. I think horrible can be avoided.
I now want to discuss a number of BBS Documentary episodes I made, and where I found myself with choices similar to those presented to the makers of King of Kong, and where I like to think I did the best I could and not be a sensationalistic fucknut whore. I’ll leave that decision to you.
I knew very quickly my documentary would likely be a half-dozen or more documentaries, all held under one group name (BBS). The question became what these “episodes” would cover. Some ideas came quickly and made it into the final work, others were discarded as reality reared its head, others made themselves known as footage came in. An example of a “lost” episode was Worcester, which was going to cover the BBS scene of Worcester Massachusetts, completely, from the late 1970s to 2000. In this way, I’d have a portrayal of a “scene” showing how it all related in a linear fashion across time, instead of the scattershot combining of many different “scenes” across the country and the years. This turned out to be unrealistic, although I did get an excellent set of 5-6 interviews of people in that area which got into the other episodes.
Another one was Artscene, which was going to be about the use of BBSes to spread art. So I’d cover things like ATASCII artwork and GIFs and NAPLPS and ANSI and MODs and all the great stuff that happened. Two things happened to derail this: size, and RaD Man. Size was just that I realized this was too big a subject to cover in less than an hour, and there were too many players. RaD Man was the interview who, realizing his big chance to get the story of ANSI told, started contacting everyone he knew from the ANSI scene, friend and enemy, and throwing them at me by the truckload. When all was said and done, I had something like 20-25 ANSI scene related interviews, well over 30 hours of this stuff, and so I really had little choice but to focus on that sub-sub-sub-culture the best I could.
The resulting artscene episode gets a wide variety of reaction. Believe me, the pettiness of the ANSI art scene, a scene primarily run by teenage boys, could outdo and outlast anything you might find in King of Kong. Bearing in mind that the conflict was over finding the best text-based artists, you might be stunned to truly comprehend the backstabbing and conniving to yank the best artists from other groups and promise them warez and gifts in return for their jumping ship. The late-night calls, the brow-beating e-mails, the intense backroom negotiations to drive a wedge between friends so that one could be pulled up into the big leagues… it’s in the artscene episode to be sure. I just chose not to make the people relating these stories seem like they were completely messed-up manchildren reliving past meager glories in the sanctity of their grotty homes.
Yes, choice. I chose where to set up cameras so that people were front and center and in pleasant locations. I chose to ask them questions in the form of looking back, not to play the part of still living those times. And I certainly chose to have them give perspective and overview of their scenes instead of hanging them up in shot after shot of mulling over a long-forgotten slight from a decade previous. These are choices I made, and you can argue these are a fiction, but I don’t agree. They’re a construction of truths, real statements given to me and assembled so that the focus falls not on the people as caricatured losers, but on the incredible accomplishments they managed as early teens, the amazing art they created, the way they fought to be the best at this stuff and the works I show speak for themselves. It is hard, objectively, not to look at the artwork these kids created and not be amazed at what they did. I made sure we had plenty of art in there, plenty of examples. I zoomed in to show the level of detail. I had the prideful artist discuss in loving terms the amount of love and honor they put into their works, the kind of virtues that any creator of works he cares about can relate to.
Similarly, there is an episode named Fidonet about the subject of the largest volunteer-run computer network of all time. What the episode very quickly turns into is a meditation of group politics, the manner in which the interaction of at-odds motivations can result in truly destructive battles, battles that ruin lives. And realize this: there were people in that documentary who have never seen it. They told me flat out they were interviewed by me because they felt a duty to tell their stories but they could never bring themselves to actually watch the result. I had people who told me in no uncertain terms that my camera could go to hell. (Some relented later.) The fidonet episode is dedicated to a sysop who, his life in tatters, couldn’t afford to pay the phone bill to keep his fidonet BBS up, the last connection he had to a social group that respected him, and he committed suicide soon after. There is a ton of sadness and pain and anger related to this subject. And it’s in the documentary. And at the center of it all is Tom Jennings, a man whose relationship to his creation ranged from proud papa to deadbeat dad to raging domestic abuse depending on who you talked to.
Tom Jennings could have been mined in any way a filmmaker wished; he’s brash, profane, brilliant, introspective, cynical, openhearted… a true character, in the positive sense of the word. He’s done so much, in so many different ways, and been at a lot of incredible places. He would say things that were truly shocking, followed by an overview of a technical decision that was both insightful and hopelessly obtuse. He understood where mistakes were made and took blame and credit as needed through his multi-hour interview, one I conducted with almost no warning in his workshop in Los Angeles. Tom initially told me he only had a short time for an interview, so I set up very quickly and we just went at it. It turned out he was enjoying the questions and the discussion enough that we extended far out of his imposed deadline; I take this as a compliment and sign of respect for where the interview went.
Subsequently, Tom later sent me a personal collection of history he’d built up over the decades related to Fidonet. This collection of images, essays, e-mails and code, which I called the Tom Jennings Collection, is up on textfiles.com as we speak. There is some insightful stuff in there, and painful stuff as well. That was quite a thing to pass along to me, and I appreciate it to this day.
When the documentary came out, the discussions on Slashdot included an appearance by Jennings, this fellow I made the centerpiece of one of the episodes, and this is what he wrote:
“As one of the victims of this horrible plot, I have to admit it’s pretty good. OK it makes me look good, which is probably an accident or mistake; but it does present some of FidoNet’s complexities in a realistic, non-trivial-making light. Which is not easy. For better or worse, things are NOT oversimplified to make a digestable story, which probably took a lot of nerve on Jason’s part. Simple linear stories probably sell better.”
This is critical: this comment came post-release, and this is Tom Jennings saying this after he’s seen the episode that covers Fidonet. (He was in attendance at the showing of the beta version at the 2004 Vintage Computer Festival.) Did I soften the blows delivered to Jennings? No. Did I make him out to be a pussycat when he wasn’t? No. What I did was focus on the man’s work and show how his character imbued that work with certain qualities, such as resilience, simplicity, adaptation. People will come away from it thinking he’s a strange guy, or be even more amazed by him, or be surprised that that was the famous Tom Jennings. Nobody, I think, comes away hating him. Certainly nobody is provided with a story in which it’s Tom Jennings “versus” anybody. Tom is what he is in that story, and through a very large combination of interviews (well over 40), we are painted a rounded picture of what made Fidonet so alluring, but also what drove almost every major character away from it over time. I am very proud of that episode.
I could have “punched up” the story, focused on just one or two people. I’d do this for two reasons: to make the story more “interesting” and because, in some way, I would have contempt for my audience they they couldn’t sustain more than one “story arc” in their heads. I could have used these people, people who felt burned and abused by Fidonet, and been one more slap in the face for the entertainment of thousands. It’s not hard to do, really. Cut this statement in with another, let them linger too long on a question I just posed so they seem lost… wait for them to say something off camera or indicate they have to use the bathroom and cut it against someone asking tough questions and there we have it, everybody’s a weasel hypocrite who won’t own up to their part in the “mess”. It’s easy. It’s too damn easy.
If you watched any of my stuff (and you can certainly watch it for free in a lot of locations) and didn’t know of all this choice and agonizing in the background, well, fine. It’s not your job to consider what balancing acts and ethics I traveled through to come to the final cuts of the episodes. But I assure you, it was there.
As a result, I am a very tough critic about films and specifically documentaries that let their audience down by taking the easy route or who treat their subjects with disrespect for no good reason. I know the hypothetical situation where the subject is evil or criminal and so to bend to his wishes is to give voice to his propoganda; and such a film ensures placement in the stage of public opinion so that a man who wrongs appears wronged himself. This is a situation so rare in documentary filmmaking that it’s a rounding error.
Have I made myself clear.
So now we come to King of Kong, a documentary in which, according to its packaging, “An unprecedented rivalry rocks the electronic world to its core!”. Not only that, we “join novice gamer Steve Wiebe on his quest to destroy the top score of gaming legend Billy Mitchell, the uncontested champion of the Donkey Kong world for over 20 years”.
Let’s spend a few moments on the DVD packaging and presentation, because I think it’s got some indications of the “heart” of this production.
First of all, your purchase gets you three physical items: a DVD, an amray case, and a reversible label on the amray case that allows you to flip over the cover and replace it with a wide cartoon drawn by Scott Campbell. The packaging says he’s an “acclaimed artist”, and I don’t know him, but that’s not saying much since I don’t know a lot of people. He certainly made a nice cover, even if it’s hidden by default.
These three items are all you get. No booklet, no inserts, no nothing. DVD, cover, plastic case. The question naturally comes as to why you even need to be buying this physical item at all; there’s absolutely nothing special about it. An ISO and two TIFFs will give you the same experience. And there’s even a bonus: putting this DVD into your drive makes it attempt to install the InterActual DVD player, a software DVD player that, among other things, phones home to New Line Cinema, distributors of the DVD. Oh, that’s excellent, that’s truly awesome. We’re told that we can’t experience the full features of the DVD without installing this software, which I am going to assume for the time being is an utter lie; feel free to correct me if you know differently.
I’m saying a relatively puffy torrent could give you 100% of the experience. This is petty and trivial but it is true. And ostensibly a torrented version wouldn’t ask you to install a home-phoning software DVD program every time you stuck it into your computer. That this does that very thing signals, to me, old-style thinking and cynicism about the audience and their role in the ownership of this DVD, that is, gape-mouthed zombies.
Every interviewee from the BBS Documentary I could track down (some have moved, some were filmed at conventions) were sent a copy of the documentary, free of charge, my cost. They were sent this with no prompting and due to a promise I made to myself at the onset of production. Imagine my surprise to find out that people featured in the documentary had to buy their own copies. Of a New Line release of a DVD. Man, that speaks volumes right there.
But okay, fine, nobody’s overly interested in my sniping at choices likely outside of the filmmaker’s hands. The fact is, they probably had no say in their packaging being done dirt cheap and the DVD installing quasi-spyware into the machine of anybody unfortunate enough to own a computer and want to watch a movie on it. Once you get signed up to the big boys, these little choices are entirely out of your hands and all you can do is take your money and buy a swimming pool. I got it. C’est la vie. Verdict: Not Guilty. Let’s just go in on the core of what pisses me off about this movie and its structure, and then leave it at that.
The King of Kong has a relatively simplistic situational conflict here, which is exemplified by the domain name of the website selling it: Billy vs. Steve. Billy Mitchell, Hot Sauce seller and videogame champion, versus Steve Wiebe, family man and pretender to the throne of Donkey Kong domination. It sounds simple because it is simple. It’s meant to be simple. Man Vs. Man, one of the core conflicts of story. One has the crown and another man, true of heart, means to win this crown. That the man at the top would rain down any and all obstacles in his path to prevent him would be expected. Additionally, it makes a parallel to the game itself, which features this very metric. Well, except the man at the top is an ape. But stick with me.
The fact that story is so simple is because it has been edited that way in this film. You saw off any parts that don’t quite fit and suddenly the bed is exactly the right size. Both my episodes Artscene and Fidonet had stuff that made the stories I told more complicated; the question I asked myself was if they fundamentally changed the stories as well. If they didn’t, then I would cut for the sake of clarity or brevity. But if the element being considered was a fundamental aspect and motivation, then I had to find a way to shoehorn it in, even if it got a little weird and complicated. I trusted my audience could take it.
So let’s stick with a couple examples of where I don’t like King of Kong‘s style. I am not going to go after every single last detail in every bit of the movie, because that would simply be a waste of time; many other articles are written, statements made, and evidence collected to rage over specific debates. I’m going for a couple whoppers and will imply strongly that this indicates stylistic/ethic choices that riddle the film. And you can take that however you want to.
The core of the story is this: Billy Mitchell is the World Record Holder of Donkey Kong for 20 years and counting. Steve Wiebe wants to get a better score than Billy Mitchell and become the new World Record Holder. Steve is thwarted at every turn, mistreated by the establishment, and considered a pariah by the petty and bickering nerd nest that is Arcade Recordkeeping. He wins, and then is beat down by Mitchell. The fight rages on.
Great. Now how about Tim Sczerby.
The King of Kong FAQ has this to say about Sczerby:
“While our movie focuses on the rivalry between Billy and Steve, one other gamer has a very high-score in the Twin Galaxies database on Donkey Kong, Tim Sczerby. After repeated investigations into the validity of Tim’s score, and after finding one dead end after another in our Twin-Galaxies-assisted attempts to reach Mr. Sczerby, we determined that his consistently disputed record was impossible to verify and did not merit inclusion in the film. The experts on the subject of Donkey Kong, especially Brian Kuh, always referred to Billy Mitchell as the reigning champion and maintained that his unrivaled skill put him on top of the record holder chart.”
Walter Day has this to say about Tim Sczerby:
“Billy Mitchell scored 874,300 points at Twin Galaxies on November 7, 1982. His record stood until August 17, 2000 when Tim Sczerby scored 879,200 points in Auburn, NY. When Tim scored this new record, his achievement was published on the Twin Galaxies website and the story was sent out all over the Internet. Also, Walter Day, Chief Scorekeeper at Twin Galaxies personally phoned Tim and congratulated him on his great accomplishment. A few days later, Billy himself phoned Tim and congratulated him.”
Day cites this interview conducted with Sczerby in September of 2007, in which Sczerby shows disappointment at not being mentioned in the documentary.
Let’s go to the proper archives. Google Groups has this posting by Sczerby asking where and who he needs to talk to with his new record he recorded on videotape. Here’s Walter Day looking for Tim based on news getting back to him. Here’s a thread where Sczerby was a little late sending along some equipment, and after a short time made things right. I cite this simply because of the idea that he couldn’t be found; here were a couple people who certainly found him. Here’s an interview with Sczerby regarding Donkey Kong, winning it, his thoughts on the game itself, and so on. (This was a tad buried, but I did find it). The article is from October of 2000. I also have the official press release from Twin Galaxies, dated in 2000, announcing the beating of Mitchell’s record by Sczerby. It has not been “updated”, “clarified”, or “corrected”.
This is all problematic truth, you see. It complicates and muddies the simple story of Billy Versus Steve. It means that the world records were a vaguely vigorous competition, with occasional advances in the top score, to be sure. But it was hardly a case of the Great Master being approached by the Brave Knight to win the kingdom from darkness. Assuming they were unable to make the phone calls to get a hold of Sczerby, they opted to not mention him at all, rather than make any mention of him and complicate matters. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think any slickly made statement by anybody can justify that action. I’d walk off a production doing it.
Now, before I mention the second issue, let me spend a little time on trivia.
Did you know the gearbox of a F1 racing car needs to be used in 4 events or a weight penalty is added to the cars each time they switch one out? Or that a car may not issue electromagnetic radiation between 2.0 and 2.7GHz without written permission? (Rule 79). Did you know a Battlebot-acceptable entrant must be able to be turned on with 45 seconds and turned off within 60? (Rule 4.2). Or how about the fact that a batter in major league baseball is entitled to two base advances if his fair ball bounces into a bush? (6.09e).
I mention all these delightful rules because they’re a fact of life. If you have people competing for anything, from glory to cash, you will have to have people making sure the playing field is level. And those people will have to institute rules. And then somebody is going to come up with something that entirely blows the ruleset, and they will have to make more rules, often after careful deliberation, shouting, accusation and conspiracy theory. This is the same in all sports, whether you physically or mentally exert yourself.
That these exist in the context of videogame records is not shocking or weird or pitiful; it’d be such if there were none at all.
Walter Day’s “Official Video Game and Pinball Book of World Records”, which I have here in my office (autographed by numerous people), has an massive section (hundreds of pages) about his history with video games, running his arcade, and the conflicts and drama resulting from trying to be a dependable record-keeper for scores. Initially, anybody who had Twin Galaxies’ phone number could call up and declare their score. No verification, no anything. It only took a few screw-overs for this to change. The realization that boards could be modified added more rules. The dipswitch settings were a factor, as were chipset revisions. Over time, the rules were added to, refined, modified as needed. They function, in every single way, like every other known competitive event. This wasn’t done to lock people out of competing, keep the cabal in power, hog the fading glory. This situation has existed in all sports; it’s just that this one is relatively young in its life, when weird controversies are still the norm and within living memory. I promise you, go spend some time on the short career of Edward Gaedel and you will be rewarded far beyond King of Kong’s controversy.
It is so easy, such low hanging fruit, to pick up on a discussion or rule-based debate, focus on the machinations of this debate, and then cut it so it seems they’re out to “get” the person. Wiebe played his submitted game with an odd board. The rules team dealt with this what appears to be clumsily, but most certainly not in an out-of-bounds manner. I agree it’s a frustrating thing. I also agree that people a decade earlier didn’t get this level of scrutiny. Later record-claimers will harken back to the relative lack of scrutiny people in 2005-2007 were getting. This is normal, I am sorry to say. The movie, however, smells a conflict, and then joins the pack.
A particularly acerbic review mentioned that the fighting is vicious because the stakes are so small. (This is actually an old Henry Kissinger quote about university politics.) Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes naturally use the film to determine the character and soul of the people in the movie. Terms show up like “nerdy obsessives”, “stranger than fiction”, “people for whom time has stopped somewhere around 1982 “. And these are the positive reviews.
Well, they’re positive because as far as the viewer is concerned, the story is great. The arc is well-defined and satisfying. And for a lot of people, that’s as deep as it goes. Whether it’s all actually true is kind of beside the point. In the spate of deeply-debated political documentaries that have shown up in recent years, that idea of “truth” in a non-fiction film has been worn down to irrelevance. That’s sad, and I hate to say this is the case, but it’s a fact. Real is no longer real. Non-fiction means you didn’t pay your actors. Journalism is what newspapers used to do. Documentaries mean the camera shakes more.
I’ve had to wade through dozens of people explaining in earnest that this position of truth within the context of a documentary is irrelevant, beside the point, and much ado over nothing. Well, really, in the era of the microtheft, a lot of ethics are much ado over nothing. Whether to copy that data, whether to say something that would get you sued if you printed it in a paper but which you happily post to a world-wide forum, whether you can sniff the first matches to a concept in Google and consider that due diligence… that’s all kind of neither here nor there unless there’s money involved. I realize this is how things are and I am not above engaging in this myself.
But please see clear to forgive me, after I spent 10 percent of my life on a single film project, sweating over the details and despairing over the accuracy and fairness within it, to hold a candle to other such projects and call into question actions and choices that hurt people.
So let’s bring this over to Billy Mitchell, and while we’re at it, Thom Henderson.
Was Billy Mitchell hurt by King of Kong? I guess it all depends on your definition of “hurt”, doesn’t it. Is he physically cut and bleeding, and has his home and workplace been vandalized or burned? No, not that I can determine. He hasn’t been driven from his places of comfort, made to answer to a court of law, lost his livelihood… no, he’s doing fine there. Are his children teased at school? Maybe. I haven’t heard anything to that extent, so I can’t tell you.
But how many times has Mitchell been pilloried, his name called out in anger, his reputation smeared, insults flung in his direction? Well, all initial measures seem to fall somewhere in the realm of countless. I interviewed a number of controversial figures for the BBS Documentary, and one of them was Jack Rickard, who was the editor of Boardwatch magazine and quite a rabble-rouser in his time. I asked him, during his interview, how comfortable he was going into these controversies, and he said, clearly, “Jason, this is your movie.” Later, he made this statement, which I am paraphrasing: “At the end of the day, you realize there’s a guy in the lobby who people throw vegetables at and who they hate, and that guy ain’t you.” This is the attitude of a true celebrity, someone who realizes the nature of that, and who’s come to terms with that. Billy Mitchell may or may not have hit that level of celebrity. Maybe he was totally prepared for this. Maybe not. His interviews on the subject, now coming fast and furious, don’t seem to indicate that. He is not enjoying his fame, not delighting in the attention, not feeling like he’s got a whole new audience. I would prefer to think, at this point, that he feels pretty fuckin’ used.
Seth Gordon, the director of King of Kong, has this compassionate view:
He’s such an icon, kind of like a WWF wrestler. The thing about Billy is that he’s a self-created construct as an icon. I never met anyone like him in my life. It was truly eerie to spend time with him. Everything was so rehearsed and p.r. savvy. You never got the sense of talking to a real or complete person.
Bear in mind here, Seth Gordon has what are called the “life rights” to Billy Mitchell. This means they have a contract where they can use his life as the basis for a fictional movie, one in which they’re working on as I write this. They are going to construct a movie out of this documentary and any limits they had internally for what could be on screen or not will be gone. Dollars to donuts there will be a fistfight, or a car chase. Maybe a machine gets smashed. Maybe there’s a love triangle. You get to say it’s based off a true story, make your mint, and go home. Gordon will drive around or live in an object acquired off Billy Mitchell, and I wonder if he’ll remember that in his later years. I wonder if anyone asked to sign a contract with him of any nature regarding any film project will remember it too.
Is Billy Mitchell “real”? I have no doubt that he says things that are over the top. I have no question that he goes off the rails on certain subjects. I also know that if you interview people for hours on end, at various days, you will get some pretty crazy stuff. How you choose to deal with that stuff is a little bit of who you are as an interviewer and editor and director. There’s no question you can “filter for crazy”, or “filter for nice”, or filter for whatever the hell you wish to. I never claim that Billy’s not capable of throwing out whoppers. I’m saying that when you lace his words with an implication of malice, of cheating, of lying to stay on top, then you are moving into caricature and needless trashing of a real person to achieve your goals. Chasing Ghosts has Billy Mitchell and a whole other range of players, and gives you the story without turning the whole experience of video games, and arcades, into a petty small-minded pissing match.
Let me tell you a little story about making a film featuring a person who was involved in a conflict.
An unavoidable, one might say critical, juncture in BBS history is the ARC-ZIP or SEA/PKWARE battle. Waged in the late 1980s, it centered around intellectual property with regards to compression software. This sounds dry on the outset but once you realize the lives involved, the stories, and how history changed because of it, it is anything but dry. I knew I had to make an effort to research it and, if possible, get the figures involved and do a segment or episode on it. The two main figures were Thom Henderson of SEA and Phil Katz of PKWARE. Phil Katz was dead; he’d drank himself to death in a hotel room 2 years earlier. All indications were that even if I’d attempted to interview him 3-4 years previous, it wouldn’t have been informative, but I’ll never know, will I? Thom Henderson was open to being interviewed, and I had no idea how that would go. I tried to get PKWARE to do an interview, and all they’d do was put me in touch with a PR flack who hadn’t known Phil at all. His family, which he’d distanced from long before (he’d fired his mother, a co-founder, from the company) was unfindable. His best friend that I could find said he wasn’t comfortable being on camera, but he’d let me know if I was being unfair or wrong to Phil. This was setting up to be a pretty unbalanced thing. But I went on, asking people’s opinions, not giving my own, trying to get a sense of both these men.
What emerged was that Thom was a curmudgeon online, a brisk and exacting personality which left you feeling pretty spanked when you were wrong. But he was also a tireless contributor to Fidonet, software, and communities. His efforts kept projects doomed to disuse alive and well, and then handed them off to others. Even when his company was in tatters, he sold off the properties to companies that still utilize his technology.
Finally, the time came to interview Thom. I travelled to his home in Virginia, met his son, toured his home, met his wife. I asked, impulsively, if she’d sit for an interview too, and she said yes, which was wonderfully kind. So it was that I had two interviews that day and not just one. I interviewed them separately.
I expected this was going to be tough, and I said honestly to Thom when I first came in, that I’d reviewed all the material I’d collected, and that objectively, I’d found he was in the right. Quietly, he said “Thank you.”
We conducted the interview in his dining room, going over fidonet, starting his company, his thoughts of some of the people he’d met. By this time I’d done well over 150 interviews, so I knew where to go and always had something to ask. Occasionally his voice would crack but things were going well.
Somewhere in there, I asked him a question about the controversy and if he was bothered by the characterization, and suddenly he was crying.
Now, maybe you have no problem with walking into a man’s house and making him cry. I guess in some businesses, you just have to roll with the tears, know you’re doing what you gotta do. I didn’t feel that at all. What I felt was horrible.
He cried and told the story of how the one enjoyable part of his shareware business was the fan mail he got, how he and his wife would drive out to the post office and get the mail and as she drove back he’d happy read these letters about how ARC and SEA products were helping them and making their lives better. But then the letters stopped doing that. They turned to hate mail. They were vicious things, telling him how evil he was and how bad a person he was, speculations on his thoughts and his motivations. And so his wife stopped driving him to the post office, and started filtering his mail, so he wouldn’t see them anymore. More than anything else, that was what had gotten to him, the thing that Katz had taken away from Thom that he missed the most.
So really, what I’d done there was hurt Thom Henderson. I came back into his life with this painful part of it, 15 years later, and hurt him.
But you know, when I put together the ARC-ZIP episode (later renamed COMPRESSION) and sent it to him to see, I told him flat out. “If you’re not comfortable with this, if you don’t like it, let me know and it won’t go in.” He wrote back and said he and his wife were fine with it. I then told him I was giving him irrevocable, permanent rights to the film such that he could distribute and copy and even sell it however he pleased. He’s the only other person besides myself with any rights to my films. He has it for download from his site to this day.
And to this day, people who sent him hate mail contact Thom Henderson to tell them they’re sorry. And Phil’s friend contacted me and told me he found nothing wrong with the film.
If time and opportunity permitted, I could hang out with Thom and his family, share a dinner, chat about my current productions and their current work. I’d feel comfortable in that room. I’d feel good about myself and I’d feel happy to have known them these years, long after I was a teenager and hearing of this story in dribs and drabs online. I could look him in the eye and feel, even though I’d hurt him that evening in his living room, that I did right by him.
I sincerely doubt Gordon could feel that way. He can walk into any convention with the film under his arm and find fans and friends applauding him, to be sure. I’ll bet he could be in a lot of places and feel welcome. I don’t feel he could feel comfortable with the majority of the subjects of his film, even if he got around to giving them free DVDs. I don’t think he’d feel right at all.
So yeah, I’m pretty done with talking about this movie. It’s just one of many in the genre I have problems with, alongside a ton I have no problems with whatsoever. I realize my issues with it are not everyone’s issues. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I hope, somewhere buried in these thousands of words, you might see where I was coming from. This is me, this is how I roll.
Some random links about this subject, in case you could possibly want to read more:
- The Oxford American, The Perfect Man: How Billy Mitchell became a video-game superstar and achieved Pac-Man bliss, by David Ramsey, June 2006.
- Midwesterner’s Guide to Living in New York City, Leaping Flaming Barrels (King of Kong Review), August 21, 2007.
- Midwesterner’s Guide to Living in New York City, Counterpoint to my King of Kong Review, August 23, 2007.
- Midwesterner’s Guide to Living in New York City, My Conversation with the King of Kong star Billy Mitchell, August 28, 2007.
- Twin Galaxies, Former Donkey Kong Champ Chats With Twin Galaxies, September 8, 2007.
- Zota, Donkey Controversy (with excellent discussions by “cast” members, February 7, 2008.
- The Onion AV Club, The King of Kong, Continued, by Josh Modell, February 8, 2008.
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