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King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

King of Kong carries the subtitle of Fistful of Quarters for a reason. It calls to mind the western showdowns of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns complete with heroes and villains. But then Gordon bring his epic down to size by making it a mere fistful of quarters.

Billy Mitchell, Pac Man king in The King of Kong (Picturehouse)

The film lays the groundwork for this face off by going back to the early eighties when Mitchell was crowned an arcade king (he excelled at Pac Man and Donkey Kong) in a Life magazine article. Mitchell seems to have ridden that fifteen minutes of fame for more than two decades. He even looks like he's stuck in an eighties time warp with his long, mulletesque hair, cowboy boots and stiff walk. He comes across as slick and successful in an Amway sort of way, you know always talking about positive thinking. But twenty years is a long time to rest on one's laurels.

That's where Steve Wiebe--Mitchell's polar opposite comes in. Wiebe loses his job on the day he signs his mortgage, he takes on the thankless job of teaching high school science, he spends his unemployed hours playing Donkey Kong in his garage while trying to care for his kids, and he displays none of Mitchell's confident showmanship. But Wiebe proves to be a dogged competitor who leaps through various hoops and over hurdles in his attempt to dethrone Mitchell.

Gordon realizes that there's nothing more fascinating than obsessed people, and in Mitchell and Wiebe he has an amazing pair. Gordon obviously favor Wiebe and the design of the film is for the two to be rivals, a kind of David and Goliath tale. There have been some complaints that Gordon manipulated the footage to paint the two as hero and villain and Billy Mitchell has responded to the film in an MTV interview. Mitchell's friend Steve Sanders sums it up this way: " Is the movie accurate? I would say yes. Is the movie fair? I would say no."

Referee Walter Day oversees Steve Wiebe in The King of Kong (Picturehouse)

But that doesn't detract from the entertainment value of the film. Gordon manages to build tension as the two dance around each other--Mitchell seeming to avoid a public showdown and Wiebe just aching for a chance to succeed at something. Gordon also finds considerable humor as well. Gamers are often easy marks for derision but Gordon doesn't make fun of them. He shows their intense obsessiveness and their inflated sense of the importance of events but what Gordon ends up finding in all this are universal themes about striving for recognition and what success in America means.

The film also has a number of interesting supporting players, most notably Walter day who founded Twin Galaxies and established it as the overseer of all gaming records. At one point he even provides us with a song. Day, who begins as a strong supporter and even cheerleader for Mitchell, comes across as kind of the Walter Brennan or Eli Wallach (if we continue the spaghetti western analogy) character--a scruffy old timer with stories to tell and increasingly divided loyalties.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (rated PG-13 for brief sexual references) is a cleverly made documentary that realizes you can start with something small and seemingly insignificant and make a highly effective and entertaining work.

Listen to Tom Fudge, Scott Marks and me discuss King of Kong on August edition of The KPBS Film Club of the Air .

And check out Culture Lust on King of Kong.

Companion viewing: A Fistful of Dollars, American Movie, -----

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