Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Now, at one point last week, I was considering screening the interesting and compelling Great World Of Sound which combines fictional story and verité footage into a scathing comment on contemporary salesmanship, scheisterism and somewhat desperate attempts at something resembling fame in 21st century America. Indeed, that film is, of sorts, a mini-Glengarry Glen Ross or Death of A Salesmen. It is more than a bit of a downer of a film though, and not a good way to combat the winter blues we've got around these parts. But wait. Something happened: There was a second 2007 film which captured at least parts of those elements, except instead of a fictional film with 'real' elements, it is a highly stylized and factual-massaged documentary that may just possibly have been the most purely entertaining film of last year.

And it is set in the glamorous world of competitive classic arcade gaming. Yes, there are a very small group of people who still compete for high scores on the first generation of video games that people played in restaurants, bars and video-arcades - Centipede, Pac Man, Q-Bert and the subject of this film: Donkey Kong.

Now you may ask yourself why you would spend 90+ minutes in the world of competitive classic arcade gaming. The answer would be that this slice of get-a-life is spun into a competitive tale of epic proportions with heroes, villains and supportive behind the scenes folks, rigid institutions, cronies, traitors, and just about everything you've come to expect from the great dramas, comedies and tragedies at the dawn of literature and theatre.

The mini-epic documentary may have set lovers of geek-chic on fire last year, but I'm here to tell you that you could put this film on for any audience and they'd be instantly engulfed in this strange little world.

It turns out that the world of Donkey Kong had some long standing high-score records which stood the test of time for nearly 2 decades before the equivalent of the four minute mile (A million point score) was achieved. The previous long standing holder is so-called 'Gamer of the Century,' a fellow named Billy Mitchell who comes across in TV interviews as more than a little arrogant and self-involved (you could even say a god-complex). That is until family man and west-coast high-school math teacher (and all around humble and nice guy) Steve Weibe (that's pronounced "wee-bee") video tapes himself blasting away that score. The organization who keeps the official records, Twin Galaxies is suspicious of this achievement and sends folks out to Steve's house to investigate his machine, going so far to take it apart and photograph the board to look for tampering. Meanwhile, Billy, himself one of the official referee's do not acknowledge the score, calling for Steve to prove his ability in a 'live venue' - an arcade halfway across the country. Thus begins Steve's odyssey to get the official score, against the questionable tactics of Billy and Twin Galaxies. There are victories, set-backs, tears, joy and frustration all scored to a wonderful series of non ironically used 80's tunes. It's impressive how producer Ed Cunningham and director Seth Gordon have captured so much of the spectrum of the human condition with such an unusual subject matter. If this is the modern direction that the continuing metamorphosis of the documentary form, well, bring it on!

Christopher Guest and his troupe would have trouble coming up with all the comic gold on offer in this material, whilst still keeping the empathy and emotion real. At one point in the film someone remarks, "It's not even about Donkey Kong anymore..." and it is one of the most un-intentionally funny moments of the film. Duh. It never was.