The Nitty Gritty

But more than all of those I am an entertainer. I carry around a ukulele with me for the same reason a gangster carries a gun; better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Stage or sidewalk, Your Pal Pete shows are just where they happen.
Currently, I'm working on a musical, RagnaPOP(or she's got the bomb), set to premiere at this year's Capital Fringe Festival. I'm also working on music, comedy, and musical comedy; for kids and/or adults.
The fruit of these projects will be available on this site, so check back regularly!

Monday, September 03, 2007

The King Of Kong and America

Last weekend I saw an extraordinary documentary which I highly recommend called The King of Kong . It Is the latest in the long string of extraordinary documentaries- Why We Fight, Dig, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, Super Size Me among many others- that I have seen over the past few years. For the traditionally poor box office that they do, docs tend to be much more consistently entertaining than the “regular movies.”

I realize that most blog writers usually strike the second before the iron is fully hot and that this movie has already been written about extensively, but it took me a week (and many discussions about it) to fully map out all the elements of the emotional and allegorical effects this movie has had on me. One reviewer (I forget who) hit it right on the head by saying this movie has more emotional involvement than any movie about playing Donkey Kong has a right to be.

I just want to take some time to say that Austin is a fantastic town for the movie lover, thanks to the local Alamo Drafthouse. On top of packing their calendar with special events and movies so obscure, they had to tell me that they existed, they have little twists based on the movies they show; like the free old school Donkey Kong game in the Lobby and the retro videogame commercials they showed beforehand- a real tiptoe through the Your Pal Pete tulips. They have taken this to the next level by staging special screenings like Goldfinger at Ft. Knox, Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devil’s Tower and Deliverance in rural Georgia.

Anywho, The King of Kong’s surprisingly complex story starts off simply. Suburban Washington state, regular guy Steve Weibe decides to try to beat an almost two decade old world record Donkey Kong core. As the details of his life start coming through, the filmmakers paint a picture at first of Steve as a classic underachiever, failing in attempts at a career as a baseball player and musician. Like most of us underachievers, Steve has undeniable talent, determination and focus, just not always in the right direction. The “also ran” label begins to wear away the more the viewer sees the reality of Steve’s life; He has a job that he loves as a science teacher, He’s got his Master’s Degree in one year while helping parent 2 kids and a massively understanding wife, who seems to realize what she got into by marrying him.

So, he sets up a modified Donkey Kong Junior arcade game that also plays original recipe Kong in his garage and plays it constantly at every available moment-and in at least one hilarious recorded instance, some not so available moments. It’s a process that obviously appeals to the way his mind works as he breaks apart the strategy and patterns to finally video tape himself beating the high scores of both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., though the movie only concentrates on Donkey Kong. Steve sends the videotape to the recognized authority on high scores: Twin Galaxies.

This is where to movie gets rolling. Steve had unwittingly entered the world of retro gaming, chockfull of people that have seemingly traded any normal semblance of a social life in exchange for proficiency at arcade games that most us forgot about when we got the original Nintendo.

At the center of this clique is Billy Mitchell, a videogame champ from the era when video arcades were nearly everywhere back in the early 80’s, and the original record holder of 5 original arcade games, including Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. I realize that the problem with documentaries is that often they use footage out of order and quotes out of context but it’s difficult to see the context where Billy wouldn’t come off as a rusty douche nozzle. Even the comments provided by Billy’s friends and family, while ultimately loving in nature, provide unexpected ammo for the douche nozzle argument. He stops just short of talking about his records and achievements in God-like terms but not by much, an attitude enabled by the other members of this subculture, who consider him their king and speak of him breathlessly.

Steve’s attempts to have his scores recognized is beset at all sides by personal grudges and paranoia that have nothing to do with him, deception and Billy Mitchell’s Machiavellian attempts to stay the “King of Kong.”

I won’t say anymore about the movie itself. I know I could just say “Spoiler Alert” but it doesn’t work for me and I want you to see what I mean for yourself.

The first thing that hit me hard from a personal stand point were the silly-and in my opinion unethical- roadblocks put in Steve’s way. It reminded me of a few memories of my own childhood when I would get good at something and the kids around me would change the rules until someone else was better at it than me. It’s been hard, even as an adult to not take things like that personally, even though the reasonable part of me says I shouldn’t. And it’s not hard to relate to the impenetrable clique concept after years spent trying to get my non-hipster band shows in DC.

But upon scrutiny, the aspect that was really unveiled was the allegory of the playing of the game of Donkey Kong as the American Story: how it’s suppose to be against how it often is. Steve is the American as he’s supposed to be: Self motivated, hardworking, honest, full of personal integrity and “can do” spirit. Billy is American reality: letting his bluster and ego do all of the work and hoping that’ll be enough. He’s never wrong. Why? Because he says he’s not.

Billy’s habit of putting “USA” as his high score initials and wearing of American themed neckties at work got me to go even further with this thinking and made me think about the Bush Administration. For all of Billy’s talk about fairness and standards for excellence(or Bush’s talk of freedom and safety), it’s obvious through their actions that they have a pathological desire to maintain a status quo that they themselves have created, hypocrisy be damned, and have surrounded themselves with the right people for it .

For readers that know what this blog is called (myspacers, it’s called “The Underacheiver’s Progress“)- you might have picked up on why Steve Weibe is such an engaging protagonist. Even though I don’t think he’s called an underachiever outright, that’s a term that was nonetheless put on him, and a term that society puts on you first, when you don’t reach what it has established as being your full potential. But the fact is that we are told to strive for excellence in a society that often has no place for it to flourish. The children that have the most trouble in school are usually both the slowest and the smartest. We’re supposed to want the best, but still happily settle for mediocre. It’s a hallmark of the lives of truly exceptional people to have their stories peppered with people who tried to tear them down and discourage them along the way, for little more than jealousy and reverence to the status quo.

Thank god for Steve Weibe, and the rest of us who seek to carve out our own way.

Update: Because I have extremely limited access to the internet, I didn't realize that many of the points I've made have actually already been made by a few movie critics. I can only claim ignorance.

2 comments:

jake said...

good read pete, I'll need to Netflix this one.

jake said...

except that it a new movie, so either I'll wait or......
hope that Phoenix grows a pair and starts showing some indy flix