Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Rebuttal: "The King of Kong" and the Loss of Innocence in the Age of Compulsory Media Street Smarts

I am a cultured man; I like to take part in the finer things in life. I like good books, fine wine, exquisite cuisine and fit clothes that both allow me to express myself and at the same time don't speak for me. I like to do all these things whenever I'm not busy shooting zombies in the head with a shotgun.

That's why last night you would have found me at a jazz bar listening to a Brazillian band from Denmark, Mais Uma, whilst eating a cheese platter made of no less than three cheeses (brie, blue and a interesting orange one) and sipping red wine under the stars on a mild Shanghai night. My girlfriend as my wonderful company, it was a magnificent night of culture and discourse.

That's right. You know that James Bond guy? I live the same life as him.

Of course, he doesn't have a neighbor that starts hammering at 6:45 AM, nor does he likely find the trash of a ripped open envelope with discarded fish parts in it on his window (and I live on the tenth floor - are you suspecting the same neighnors like me?) To compare, James Bond runs around and saves the world - well, at least the world as the Brits no it. Myself, I can't really compare with a guy like that, and let's not forget he's fictional.

All the same, James Bond wouldn't be living it up with such culture and great company while having a serious discussion about video games. That's right: go back to you Pussy Galore, you misogynist.

Joanne and I enjoyed our wine and cheese while debating the integrity of "The King of Kong", the movie I had just analyzed yesterday. We had seen the film the night before (just as I said - I live every day like a king!) and now had gotten a chance to discuss it together.

Joanne had be intrigued by the film, and had searched for further information on the film the next day. On Wikipedia, IMDB and on other sources, she found that certain facts had been omitted or altered to present a narrative and form a particular bias. Several of the key participants in the movie have complained that the movie does not present the actual truth.

Without cutting and pasting from the end-of-all-information-Wikipedia and giving a loose paraphrasing of the key facts, they claim that: Wiebe and Mitchell are on better terms than the movie suggests; that Mitchell had indeed met Wiebe several times and had not snubbed him as suggested by Mitchell continuing to drive past the restaurant that Wiebe was dining in; that they are not rivals since a third party, Tim Sczerby, had beaten Mitchell's 1982 score in 2000; that though Wiebe's taped game of a million-plus was rejected, the high score reverted to one Wiebe had made earlier; and that the million-plus score of Mitchell submitted by tape was actually eventually rescinded.

I know - the glorification of facts (gleaned from Wikipedia, no less) makes for pedantic exposition and wordy writing. People who read for fun and English teachers everywhere won't be pleased. However, since this is an argument, we have to do this right.

Joanne makes a good point: "The King of Kong" is a documentary, but this is a documentary that is anything but objective. Rather, it is a slick piece of filmmaking that tells a good story at the expense of its participants. The bias in the movie goes out of its way to slander Mitchell as a villian, and taints his public image. A documentary deals with real people with lives, and a film like this can go to have dire ramifications for its participants.

As a documentarian filmmaker, Joanne contends, you are dealing with news since you are telling stories about reality; this makes you a journalist. And even though there is no Hippocratic Oath-equivalent for journalists as there is for doctors, there is still expected a high standard for the integrity of truth, both by the profession itself and the public that consumes this news. An infamous instance of professional journalistic perjury is the 1980 news story "Jimmy's World", in which Janet Cooke faked a news story about an eight year-old heroin addict. It is a well-written, if fake, story that would win Cooke a Pulitzer Prize. Even after admitting her guilt and returning the prize, Cooke was vilified for her forgery of the truth and did not work in journalism ever again.

Joanne contends that from watching the movie we are led to form a specific negative opinion of Billy Mitchell. While many of the audience of the film have and will never meet Mitchell, we are given proof of his capacity for evil and therefore think poorly of this man. If a documentary is made about a true event and involves real people, then it is owed to these real people to depict the truth as a whole. Report the facts truthfully, and let the audience judge for themselves. Be a journalist, be objective, and reveal the truth.

Strong argument. Joanne has a point here. Also, I'd like to point out, as she points out, that Mitchell being a douchebag is besides the point. Perhaps he really is; but since many of us won't meet him in real life and get to enjoy a photo op with him, his American tie and his thumb, we shouldn't judge him from a movie. After all, many of us have preconceived ideas and opinions of celebrities (like gaming superstar Mitchell) when we don't even know them. If a movie star leaves his wife for a much younger woman, we are all shocked and dismayed at such callous behavior; but, we don't know the truth. We don't know these people, so it is unfair to judge them.

At this point, I'd like to say that while she emphatically defended her point with passion and raw gusto, at times her points reduced me, a veritable think-tank of video game opinion, to contemplative silence. However, since we were drinking wine and eating cheese under the stars while listening to bossa nova music, I wasn't at a loss at being quiet and thinking while looking cool. You know, I prefer draft beer, but put a glass of wine in my hand and all of a sudden I'm tossing out nonsequiturs and quips like I'm in a throw down with Dorothy Parker. "And then the cat said, 'Me-ower corrupts, and absolute me-ower corrupts absolutely.'

Terrible, I know. Not New Yorker material. I didn't actually come up with anything last night, well, anything useful, but then I was drinking wine.

I'll come back with this: I knew about the discrepancies with the truth when I wrote the analysis. My personal contention is that Mitchell is a douchebag, but that wasn't my argument, and neither do I believe that it is the argument of the movie. As I already wrote, I think the movie is about the fact that in order for Wiebe to become Donkey Kong champion, he has to break the cult of personality of Mitchell and suffer Mitchell scheming and machinations. Wiebe can't just play video games well to win; instead, his worth as a "good" man is tested against the worth of Mitchell, a man who values his fame, is narcissistic and enjoys his capacity to dominant and influence others for his own gain; this makes him a "bad" man.

Mitchell probably isn't a "bad" man in terms of your usual community standards. Its clear that he supports many charities as he does help the culture of competitive classic gaming (he is donating the Donkey Kong game cabinet with which he set his high score in 1982 to the potential Video Game Hall of Fame in Ottumwa, Iowa). An avowed family man, he does not put his family before video games, as Wiebe is unfortunately shown doing in the movie. In fact, Mitchell and his family aren't featured in the movie, leaving Wiebe to be seen as the only stable and normal participant. If he met me, he'd probably give me a thumbs up.

However, just because certain things were fudged in the movie doesn't mean we can't learn certain things. I found it impossible that the documentarians had a camera with Mitchell the exact time Wiebe was at Funspot setting his record. If you pay attention, you'll see that Brian Kuh didn't go off and had a conversation with Mitchell on the phone - it appears that the audio and video aren't in sync. Also, the end where Wiebe breaks the record is only seen by the camera observing the screen, not on Wiebe and his son. The shot of his son hugging his father at the point of vindication is probably taken from another time and in another context. It happened, but it just didn't happen like it did in real life.

The difference? Movie magic.

With editing and the re-arranging of certain events, you can do anything. Mitchell contends that he said hi to Wiebe at the film's climatic moment that purports the first meeting of the two in which Mitchell apparently snubs Wiebe - an insult the whole high school will be buzzing about for weeks until the next snubbing. It's easy enough to edit it where Mitchell's "hello" winds up on the cutting floor next to the "truth".

But you know what, Joanne? It doesn't matter. (And, imagine me waving a glass of wine in my hand as I expound my argument)

See, this is a movie. Even though the audience may learn things from this movie about real people, it's a tight and well-told story from an equally well-made movie. As a work of art, it has an argument - or thesis or main idea what have you. This main theme is sound, even under scrutiny (go on, go back and re-read all my superfluous diction). The liberties make for better storytelling, making things more exciting and dramatic.

It's a documentary, but we shoudn't take a documentary as being a mirror of truth. These are movies made by people who have an opinion, and no matter how objective the person purports to be this bias will still come through. We are all media literate in this age of information where every body wants your vote, your dollar, your faith. Every piece of information has a spin on it depending on where it's from. I'm sure by now that every person knows to distrust what they read on the internet without first discovering the source of the information, even though many people take Wikipedia as fact (citation needed).

In fact, I'm sure you can take the footage shot of "King of Kong", give it to two different directors and come out with two different perspectives. What makes "King of Kong" and this perspective relevant and important is that the filmmaker is trying to say something specific, have a particular argument. And he did it well. Very well.

Let's bring up Michael Moore. This guys makes great movies; the thing though, is that they are his version of the truth. It isn't the actual truth, and I can honestly say that because you have to seek the truth yourself. Moore's mastery is such that he makes an incredible argument that, during watching, simply go along with it. Another documentarian with a humongous bias is Nick Broomfield. While we may all be completely certain that Aileen Wuornos was sent to death legally insane in "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer", contrary to Florida law, we should remember - we're not medical professionals, but instead led along a well-made argument to believe that which Nick Broomfield believes.

I love the William S. Burroughs quote at the beginning of the movie: "This is a war universe. War all the time. There may be other universes, but ours seems to be based on war and games." It fits this argument, because a war is being constantly waged: the battlefield is your mind, and the two sides are you and everybody else that wants you to believe what they believe.

Seth Gordon, the director, has an opinion, and made a great argument to go along with it. Along the way, there are some artistic licences taken to enhance his argument but we should not expect anything less.

Let's look at two other movies, both fictional. "Fargo" (1996) is a movie that has an opening card that states it is based on a true story; what follows in an incredible story that plays to our notion that yes, these crazy things could have happened and heighten the drama we witness. Well, it wasn't based on a true story at all; of all the arguments to prove this, the end credits state just like any other fictional movie that it "wasn't based on a true story and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental". This is a great literary device to tell a story well that drive home the film's message that some people should quit while they're ahead(Showalter and Grimsrud), while some people just don't know how to quit (Jerry Lundegaarde).

Let's look at "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). It is stated again and again for emphasis that Speilberg wanted to present the story as faithfully as possible; actors would go and interview war veterans to get their side of the story. Said veterans all stated upon watching the movie that it was indeed very faithful. However, it's a work of fiction, and as such it has a thesis - a main theme or message - and as such a bias. Let's remind ourselves that, though it was based on true accounts, I'm sure, what we're watching didn't actually happen as it did in real life - it's movie magic. Do soldiers look like movie stars? Are all soldiers as idealistic as Tom Hanks' character? Are we aware that we are watching a image projected onto a 1:1.618 white backdrop, manipluated and edited and scored with music, all with the intention of manipluating our thoughts?

I don't want to make war veterans be all sinister and that. Certainly, "Saving Private Ryan" contains the single best affecting act of violence committed to film, that of the German soldier plunging his knife into the Jewish-American soldier's heart OH-SO-SLOWLY. Yup, good film, important message, awesome battle scenes that will have you ducking if you have Dolby 5.1 sound - is that outdated by now?

Joanne, we should expect bias in all forms of media; we should take pains to figure out the meaning and subtexts of things, lest we be confused with tangential information that gets lost in the spin and tide of persuasion. Also, I want to finish the rest of that cheese platter. James Bond would approve.

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