Friday, February 22, 2008

Kong Really is the King...

...of traditional documentaries, that is.

I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about documentary films as I am about many other types of cinema (not that I'm any kind of scholar in any of those, either). If I'm in the mood to be pretentious and claim any sort of real expertise, it might be in relation to the films of Zhang Yimou or old Hollywood musicals (or, um, old animal movies), but definitely not documentaries. I know the ones I've seen that I've thought were really fine (Who Killed the Electric Car?, Street Fight, The War Room, and especially Roger & Me, Michael Moore's first film and in my opinion the only truly great one he's ever made) and the ones I consider to be overrated (The Fog of War, definitely). But the documentary we watched last night is definitely not overrated--in fact, it shoots to the top of this list. I'm not saying anything most of you haven't already heard before from a dozen places, but still: everyone run out and rent The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

You can find out everything you need to know about the movie, and more, just by hitting their constantly updated website. And you can find a thousand positive reviews of the movie all over the internet, so there's little I can add here. Just let me assure you--it really is a traditional documentary, with the talking heads and surprise interviews and sneaked footage and all that. No tricks, no reconstructions (which really astonished me after a while; I couldn't believe that the filmmakers managed to get all this stuff on tape); just very clever editing to put it all together. Through years of tracking about six different stories (involving, apparently, the various quests for and rivalries over the world records in such classic arcade games as Pac-Man, Q-bert, and others) the people behind the cameras somehow found themselves in possession of a truly awesome story: the clash of Billy Mitchell vs. Steve Wiebe to hold or maintain or recapture the title of King of (Donkey) Kong. The result is a movie that is clearly partisan (the filmmakers absolutely takes sides in this battle, no question about it), but nonetheless rings with authenticity. Some people really are completely dicks about their own success; we've all met them, and sometimes we are them. And some people--decent people, hardworking people, talented people--nonetheless can be, when the pressure is on, chumps; we've all been them sometimes too. And then there is the world of people who surround both types: friends and enemies, yes, but also sycophants and enablers, and the sometimes well-meaning but often inscrutable parasites that can only exist because of both.

It's probably not the world's greatest achievement in documentary filmmaking, if only because it doesn't use any of the aforementioned tricks to rethink and expand the realm of the medium (as did the greatest documentary, and one of the best films period, I've ever seen: Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line). But it's awesome all the same. If you've never seen it, rent it; if you saw it in theaters, go rent it anyway. Get into it. Cheer for the good guy and his wonderful family. Boo and hiss at the bad guy and his, er, augmented wife. Knowing there are real stories like this out there, everywhere, just waiting to be discovered, will make you feel better about your own life, I promise.

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