Friday, February 08, 2008

Jason Scott did not care for King of Kong

Last summer, I posted a glowing review of the documentary King of Kong, which is about the battle for Donkey Kong supremacy between two passionate players. It's a wonderful movie, drawn with the broad strokes of underdog sports films, but with a penetrating look at an American subculture most of us had no idea existed. Still, even in the original review I suspected some editorial intervention:
The film stops being a quirky look at an American subculture and becomes a baroque good vs. evil story. There's no question that some creative editing makes Billy Mitchell come off like Darth Vader and Steve Wiebe like the second coming of Jesus. We never see Mitchell with his kids, although presumably he has spawned a few. And on Wiebe's rejected Donkey Kong tape, he's interrupted by his crying son who needs his rear end wiped. Does Steve help? No -- he keeps going for the record.

Obviously, the perceived fudging of facts didn't keep me from enjoying the film (same goes for most film critics). For Jason Scott, though, King of Kong is a travesty. To choose a hilariously representative excerpt, take a look at this:

The director, Seth Gordon, is hard at work at a screenplay for The King of Kong, which he will then sell to have a fictional movie made. Or, as I am saying, a second fictional movie, but one where he can see 100% of the profits of the picture without having to cut in any of the people whose lives he just took a galactic dump on. Let me be clear: he fucked these people. He couldn't have fucked them worse than if he strapped them across a air-hockey table and sodomized them with a Wico Command Control Joystick. He interviewed them, had them retrieve archival footage and materials going back decades, recorded them at their homes, their places of work, and at events that they put up at their own expense and time, and then he painted them in clown makeup and threw pies at them for an hour and 19 minutes.

Ouch! Remind me never to get on Jason Scott's bad side. Or Seth Gordon's, really -- this makes him sound like the Marquis de Sade. Of course, if the editorializing really is this blatant -- and I have no reason to doubt that it is -- then Scott is right on point. King of Kong is being sold as a true story, and it seems as though it wasn't. But this isn't the first documentary to play fast and loose with the facts (cf. Land Without Bread), and it won't be the last.

Where does a documentary filmmaker's reponsibility lie: with his subject, or with his audience? King of Kong wouldn't have been half as entertaining as it was if Seth Gordon hadn't made the creative changes he did. It's more gripping than most sports movies that get made, all the more so because we believe it's basically true. Steve Wiebe is the underdog, the guy who always falls short, the guy who seems to provoke mostly sympathy from his friends and family. Billy Mitchell is like a cult leader, the man who's managed to situate himself at the center of his followers' worlds. If somebody told you this story in a fictional context, you would never believe it.

But Scott cites multiple instances of editing changing the context of events in the film to make Billy Mitchell seem like the bad guy. This one is jarring: "A core theme is that Billy Mitchell is an asshole, one who doesn't even deign to spend time in the same location as Steve Wiebe and won't even come in to eat lunch at the same table as him. In fact, Billy came in and paid for lunch." That's certainly not the Billy Mitchell we get to know from the film. And no, it's not fair to him that he's portrayed as an Olympic-level prick if he isn't. I can only wonder how some of the people featured in King of Kong felt after it came out. I made special mention in my review of the sycophantic Brian Kuh -- what if he was treated even more unfairly than Billy?

Certainly it doesn't seem as though Seth Gordon let the facts get in the way of a good story -- no, a great story. Before watching King of Kong, I watched a more even-keeled and less interesting arcade documentary called Chasing Ghosts. Billy Mitchell featured prominently in that one, too, and while the film's structure was more informational than dramatic, nothing I learned about him there caused me to doubt what I was seeing in King of Kong. A wise man once said that you can't carve the Mona Lisa out of crap, and Seth Gordon couldn't have made this movie without some raw materials to work with. That's the job of an artist.

And for all that Scott worries about the damage Gordon's movie might have done to some of the people involved, I'd bet my life that the Billy Mitchell brand has only been enhanced as a result of it. What bigger favor could Seth Gordon have done for him?


Jason Scott said...

Well, first, let's basically ignore your last paragraph, which is up there with "He's going to get a fine house and car because of the settlement he got from the cops beating him up." I don't pretend Mitchell doesn't talk some over-the-top smack for what constitutes a minor hobby or utter sub-sub-culture for most people. I don't think that if we scoped through the 300 hours of raw material they had, we'd suddenly find endless smoking guns of Mitchell hugging children and turning the other cheek to any spoken or indicated challenge. My issue is that the idea of the end justifying the means in a documentary makes for an ethically broken film.

This affects me because I make documentaries, and people come to me with King of Kong as example of a great documentary and indications I should make my films like that, and I'm just not going to. I blew off some steam why, and there we go. I care about these; my first set of films took me four years to make and that's about the same for the current one, and maybe the one after that. That's a lot of time to invest, and along the way I end up face-first against this sort of filmmaking.

I take it seriously because I have to. I don't expect you to, and I'm sure you sit down at the restaurant not caring when the last inspection was, either; as long as the sandwich tastes good!

Mitch Krpata said...

Well right, that's exactly it. As a viewer, what I want from a movie is an entertaining or enlightening story, and that's what I felt like I got here. Until I read your post, I wasn't aware that there had been any negative fallout from the film, assuming that all publicity was good publicity. I was just glad to have seen a movie that I really liked. I wonder: if Seth Gordon had made a more fair movie -- presuming that he's lying or mistaken when he says it is fair -- then would it have been half as worthwhile for his viewers?

Thanks for the comment, Jason. Good luck with your current project.

grasshopper said...

Billy Mitchell is the ideal video game villain, nappy facial hair and everything