Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Fistful of Quarters and a Pocketful of Dreams

With the heaps of great movies released in 2007, who knew that a documentary about the old-school arcade version of Donkey Kong would be one of the most exciting and inspirational films of them all? I certainly didn't. I had heard some great things about The King of King: A Fistful of Quarters, but I still had my doubts. The first time I watched it (I've watched it twice), it took me a little while to get into it. At first, I was totally laughing AT the gamers. These people just take video games so seriously that they don't seem real. But they are, and the more you get to know them, you either love them or hate them, at least the people shown here. By the end of the film, you will form very vehemently definite opinions about every single "character" in it.

One such person is Billy Mitchell, scumbag gamer of the universe. Since the early 80s, he's held the Donkey Kong record, and no one has ever come close to beating it. He has been hailed, worshipped as a god even by some sycophantic idiots, as the best gamer of all time. He'll be the first person to tell you that. Billy is not known for his modesty. And he has a mullet. Mess with it all you want, comb it, style it - sorry, dude, that's a mullet. Billy is an asshole, one of the most unlikeable people ever captured on film. He says things like, "No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It's sort of like the abortion issue" and means it. Billy is what we call our antagonist.

Enter Steve Wiebe, a mild-mannered middle school teacher from Washington. Steve is smart and talented and has been really good at many things in life, but he has never been the best at anything. He has a wonderfully supportive wife and two incredibly adorable and precocious kids. All of Steve's failures have left him with painfully low self-esteem and at the mercy of his OCD. Steve decided one day to look up the records of top video game scores, and he saw Billy Mitchell's revered score on Donkey Kong and said, "Hey, I can beat that." So, he sets out on a quest to do just that. Steve is our protagonist, and the classic underdog.

There are other supporting players (no pun intended), like Walter Day (long-time video game referee with a suppressed desire to live a simple life on a farm and become a folk musician), Brian Kuh (the most annoying person to ever exist, and Billy's number one lackey), Mike Thompson (Steve's best friend), Nicole Wiebe (Steve's wonderful wife), Doris Self (an 80-year-old intent on breaking the world record in Q*bert), Steve Sanders (Billy's closest friend), and Roy Shildt (Billy's long-standing nemesis and self-titled "Mr. Awesome"). I'll let you see the movie yourself to find out why he calls himself "Mr. Awesome." You won't be disappointed. It's as ridiculous a story as you might expect.

The film chronicles Steve's passionate crusade to beat Billy's score, and I won't tell you any more than that. I don't want to ruin it, because it's such a surprising film. It's a nail-biter until the very last second. Director Seth Gordon accomplishes something that most narrative filmmakers never do, and that is to tell a compelling story. Sure, documentary involves a lot of luck when it comes to getting footage, but luck has nothing to do with how well this film turned out. The final product is the result of finding a great story to begin with, diligent shooting, choice camera set-ups and framing, meticulous editing, and perfect aesthetic additives like transitions, visual effects, juxtapositioning of images, and music. Some of the shots are composed so perfectly that there is no way it is only accident. This is intuitive filmmaking at its finest. Gordon and his camerapeople knew where to be and when. Editing is probably the most crucial part of the documentary process when it comes to putting the footage together, and The King of Kong is among the most successful I've ever seen.

It's just startling to me that this film tells a story better than 80% of the narrative films out there today. You have your good guy and your bad guy and a wide array of colorful supporting characters, all of which you feel like you know personally after watching them for an hour and a half. The film flows seamlessly because the structure is so impeccable. There's a definite central conflict that totally engages you, and lots of little conflicts along the way to keep you constantly guessing. Seriously, most narrative filmmakers can only dream of making a film this good. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and I was cheering and jeering loudly and passionately. I was also so moved by it. This film is a triumph and a masterpiece.

In a year of wonderful, distinctly American films, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters might just be the most self-reflexively American of them all. I think most people believe that title belongs to There Will Be Blood for its scathing attack of capitalism and religion. I respect that opinion, and I agree to an extent. But I'd argue that The King of Kong is the ultimate reflection of American society and the true, more direct exposure of American sensibilities (the good, the bad, and the ugly). There are two sides to the American coin - the pure, indomitable, self-fulfilling pursuit and attainment of the American Dream, and the bloodthirsty, cutthroat, greedy desire to be the best at any cost. No film exposes and examines these two sides better than The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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