The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (USA; 79 min.)

directed by: Seth Gordon
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Michael says: "In the world of documentaries I am often left thinking, how did the filmmaker find that story? Other times I think, they really put that film together well to make it a compelling story. Seth Gordon’s THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS had me thinking both of those things. While there is not a doubt that Gordon did a masterful job constructing this hilarious, suspenseful and surprisingly moving film, he found one heckuva cinematic story. Vaguely reminiscent of those other ‘competition’ films (SPELLBOUND, WORDPLAY) THE KING OF KONG chronicles the world of vintage video games, most notably Donkey Kong, while also telling a classic tale of good versus evil. Mark my words: you will laugh, you will cry, you will grip the armrests of your chair in anticipation. It works that well.

"THE KING OF KONG features a cast of characters too bizarre to be fictional. From the reigning Donkey Kong champion, Billy Mitchell, who is a successful restauranteur and suffers from a God-complex, to Doris Self, the grandmotherly Q-bert player trying to win back her title; from Walter Day, the ruling authority on video game competition judging who is a folk singer with a secret rock ‘n roller inside to the alcolyte, Brian Kuh, who strives for championship levels by sucking up to the reigning champ, this is one wacky bunch. The main storyline focuses on Mitchell, and Steve Wiebe, a gentle, unassuming, down-on-his-luck everyman who becomes the first real competition for the title in over 20 years. While this film will inform viewers about the video games and the nature of competition, it all boils down to justice. We’re talking big issues here, and THE KING OF KONG delivers with resounding success.

"It was great to have such a large group at the Chlotrudis Monday Night at the Movies, with all seven attendees thoroughly enjoying the film. The word that best describes me feelings as I watched the film is ‘giddy.’ I haven’t felt this way in a documentary since last year’s THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, with the joy of a well-made and entertaining film vying with my sense of outrage at the circumstances. It goes without saying that documentary fans can’t miss this film, but I’m having trouble anyone not enjoying THE KING OF KONG. I highly encourage you to go have some fun at the movies. 5 cats"

Bruce says: "It is hard to know what to make of a film like KING OF KONG. Let’s start with the title. To set the record straight, this documentary has nothing to do with quarters other than to create a sound bite that triggers memories of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti western days. It's not all that clever; in fact, nothing about this film tickles my funnybone. KING OF KONG is a documentary about Steve Wiebe a genuinely nice man from Washington State who has OCD and wants to be recognized for his Donkey Kong (the popular Nintendo video game) skills. To make it interesting, the filmmaker creates a somewhat fake rivalry that mimics a phony TV reality show. Seth Gordon’s efforts to pit Wiebe against world record holder Billy Mitchell are weak and pitiful.

"Steve Wiebe is the schoolteacher from Washington State who we are cheering for throughout the film. He is driven to beat the world record score of Mitchell, a Hollywood, Florida restaurateur who would be more believable if we were told he was a purveyor of snake oil. With his shoulder length hair, carefully coiffed beard and American Flag tie, Mitchell looks and talks more like a petty crook or a front for the mob than a serious contender for any world record. Add to the mix the fast talking, self-anointed arbiter of video game decorum, Walter Day, who referees video game scoring and ultimately becomes the gatekeeper of video game records for Guinness World Records. Both Mitchell and Day lack credibility, giving the film an imbalance considering Wiebe’s earnest straightforwardness.

"Mitchell videotapes his Donkey Kong games, so no one ever sees him compete in a head-to head competition. Wiebe travels cross country first to Maine then to Florida to publicly display his skills. When he finally gets to Florida the film uses clips of Mitchell and his supporters interspersed with clips of the Wiebe family cavorting on the beach. None of the video experts are particularly articulate or have much to say that is interesting. The film’s slim thread of charm is the hope it generates for the viewer that good (Weibe) will triumph over evil (Mitchell).

"The big problem is that there is really no true contest for video games. This is not a film like AIR GUITAR NATION, which in spite of its silliness, has some claim to legitimacy because the competition it documents has a well-defined format plus clear and meaningful rules. (In addition the competitors of AIR GUITAR NATION have flair and a charming, sophomoric bravado.)

KING OF KONG’s editing is forced and artificial. Here’s hoping that cheap shots like this don’t start lowering the bar for documentary filmmaking. 1 cat"

Michael says (in response to Bruce): "Bruce, Bruce, Bruce…

"Surely you must have been suffering from a migraine or some other ailment when you watched this film to cause you to loathe it so utterly. I’m simply agog. When we saw it in the theatre, we had one of our largest groups (I think we had around 10 people) and we all found the film utterly delightful. That’s certainly not to say that your opinion isn’t completely valid. Obviously something about the film just rubbed you the wrong way.

"I’m very curious about what I perceive as your implication that the filmmaker staged some of the scenes/set up of the film. I actually credit the editing that you call forced and artifical for really underscoring that rivalry that you suggest is fake, and turning it into a piece of heightened entertainment. Did reality play out exactly the way he unspools on the screen? Of course not… I would challenge most documentary filmmakers to deny that they shaped a story out of their subject through their editing. For me that’s what makes a good non-fiction filmmaker.

"I’m sorry you didn’t like the film, and I acknowledge your opinion, but for me, KING OF KONG, while not the best documentary of the year, was certainly one of the most entertaining."

Bruce says (in response to Michael): Sorry no migraines involved. What I dislike about KING OF KONG is the same thing I dislike about MURDERBALL - the trumped up concept of rivalry and manipulation of reality. MURDERBALL did have some fascinating aspects to it which did, in part, redeem itself. It also deplorably exploited a child who was struggling to win the affection of his pigheaded, macho father.

"Other competitive documentaries such as AIR GUITAR NATION, WORDPLAY, and SPELLBOUND all involve real competition while examining the lives of those who are driven to compete. KING OF KONG more closely resembles a TV reality show with no real competition at stake. We only see one competitor (Weibe) during the whole film and we see very little that gives us an idea of his skill.

"My taste is not always popular and I certainly have my pet peeves such as the annimation of Henry Darger's artwork in IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL. Had KING OF KONG had a different main focus - that of a video genius struggling for proper recognition - I probably would feel differently. As it is, a phony competitive environment is created by using two dimensional characters like Billly Mitchell and Walter Day, the referee.

"Edward Albee, in a recent interview for his upcoming revival of plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre, was asked why he wrote. Albee feels a play must serve a 'useful purpose.' To be useful it must 'stimulate the viewer intellectually, psychologically, philosophically and morally - teach people something and (help them) re-examine their values. If it doesn't do that it is frivolous escapist entertainment, which you can get on TV.' I feel the same way about film. When a scenario such as the one in KING OF KONG is manipulated to such a degree, for me it falls into the frivolous escapist entertainment category. I do not find it useful."

Chris says (in response to Bruce): "I don't know... to dismiss something as "frivolous escapist entertainment" and be done with it strikes me as elitist. There ARE films and TV shows that are worthless on every level apart from their entertainment value. For me, what keeps THE KING OF KONG from falling into that category is in how it explores (and some might say exploits) the dynamics of a very particular subculture. Billy Mitchell and Walter Day are fairly ridiculous people, but they clearly have a lot of clout in this subculture, and their mere existence is more of a case of truth being stranger than fiction than them having no credibility. I think it's almost heartbreaking to watch Steve Weibe try to validate himself among these people, and struggle in doing so."

Bruce says (in response to Chris): "Throughout the film I remained unconvinced that such a subculture truly exists. I do not for a second doubt that there are many video game addicts. However, there does not appear to be a true structure - a clear set of rules, or a credible number of participants involved to define it as a bonafide subculture. The game rooms were always empty and the leading scorer was a non-participant. I have a feeling the subculture we were supposedly viewing was mostly manufactured.

"The 'frivolous escapist entertainment' comment is elitist for sure; I coopted it precisely
for that reason. The only thing about the film I felt was genuine was Steve Weibe. I
clearly do not wish to convince those who loved the film that they are wrong in doing so. I do want to be on record that I feel the film is not a good one."

Michael says (in response to Bruce): "I’m still confused (and you haven’t yet answered my question) on what gave you the impression that there is a manipulation of reality? What in the film makes you believe that things did not occur as they were presented (with judicious editing, of course). To say that there is no real competition at stake in THE KING OF KONG is a dismissal of something that is very important in the lives of these (and many other) people. As for not being shown much by way of Weibe’s skill, I will give you the fact that watching someone play a video game on film is not the most visually exciting thing, but I felt that THE KING OF KONG actually showed Weibe’s skill quite well.

"And what is the 'proper recognition' you mention below that would have made you possibly enjoy the film more? Again, I take issue with your use of 'phony, competitive environment' unless you can explain why you feel that there is something staged about this film?

"Finally, I must go with Chris on your use of Albee’s controversial quote; mainly because I completely disagree with it. For me personally, I would say that I enjoy a film (or a play) it should teach me something. But I certainly would not enforce that value same judgment for everyone. Lots of people value 'frivolous entertainment' extremely highly in their film. That said, what Mr. Albee suggests is a pretty tall order, and I would suggest that a great number of films and plays fail to do all that he requires, including his own.

"This is a wonderful discussion, and I don’t need to say this, but will just because e-mail does not convey emotional output, I am in no way intending to belittle Bruce or make him feel bad. I respect his opinion greatly and think this kind of banter is a lot of fun."

Bruce says (in response to Michael): "In spite of the film's decided time line, clips form the same interview sessions appear throughout indicating that what is said is more of a general feeling or statement on the part of those being interviewed rather than a response to events at hand.

"In my opinion, other documentaries involving competition do a much better job in convincing me there was a true competitive spirit that exists apart from the filmmaking event. These include:

  • HOOP DREAMS (although it was more of a character study than a statement on competition)
  • LA CORONA (Oscar nominated film about a beauty queen competition in a Colombia prison)
  • MURDERBALL (once again, not entirely successful from my point of view)
  • SPELLBOUND (outstanding example)
  • WORD WARS (another good example)
  • WORDPLAY (ditto)

"One of the biggest problems I have with THE KING OF KONG is that there is no real competition since one of the two competitors refuses to compete. We do not really get to see the video he submitted. As a result the filmmaker creates what I would term 'an aura of competition.' Not very convincing for this particular viewer. To set the record straight, I neither deny that there are video game players who feel passionately about their talents nor ignore the fact that a video game subculture exists.

"As for Albee's statement, I do happen to agree with it as a both a preference and a goal but I do not consider it a '100% rule.' Other people obviously do not vaguely agree or many television shows and escapist Hollywood big screen entertainments would have no audience.

"THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS strikes me as a short step up from TV reality fare. Sorry, that is my gut reaction. As I mentioned before, I know I'm in the minority with my feelings about this film. I have recently been on the other side of the fence, however. For my Monday night film group, I recently screened the Chlotrudis Award-winning documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED. I was fairly confident that it would be a great crowd pleaser. Not so; every person save one loathed it. I was nonplussed."