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The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters

By Andrew Latimer • January 20th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original release: august 17th, 2007
Running time: 76 minutes

Director: Seth Gordon

Cast: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Steve Sanders

The King Of Kong

Something that’s always stayed with me when it comes to documentary cinema is the idea of simple human interference. How much impact does a filmmaker have on what he or she is filming purely from being there? Would the situation be entirely different if the camera wasn’t there? There’s a telling moment in Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Trap in which anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon is asked whether the decades-long research he carried out amongst the Yanomamö tribes was contaminated by his very presence. He angrily walks off screen.

In many ways, this feels like the base of narrativisation in documentary cinema, a branch of semiotics chronicled by theorists including Christian Metz and Roger Odin. Why is a filmmaker there in the first place? To discover brand new traditions and capture them on film or to confirm a narrative he or she thinks exists already? What makes a great documentary is its ability to imbue grand themes and conquests, which are all the more resonant because of their authenticity. It’s what makes the saddest documentaries truly heartbreaking and the happiest ones wholly life-affirming. Werner Herzog is a master in this area. In truth, the most successful documentaries are ones which are able to use tactics of storytelling, to in a sense, fictionalise their material. Seth Gordon’s King Of Kong not only throws us into the bizarre world of retro gaming, it adopts the principles laid out by Roger Odin which explain how filmic processes can tell a story.

Gordon’s film is by no means a competitor to behemoth documentaries such as Shoah or, more recently, Baraka. These films tell of global conditions, snarled in historical tumult and disharmony, or of untouched lands which have yet to be tainted by the poison of technological vacancy. King Of Kong is about rivalry in its most direct, competitive and redemptive form. It confirms Billy Mitchell as Gamer of the Century, a title he earned after holding many world records on classic arcade games, but notably for achieving and retaining the highest score on Donkey Kong of 874,300 in 1982. Mitchell boasts about how his success as a retro gamer, and as a poster-boy for international scorekeeper Twin Galaxies, have ‘carved out a part of my personality that benefits me every day’.

King Of Kong

What Gordon works towards in this opening five minutes is what Roger Odin calls: the construction of a diegesis (the production of a world). We’re dragged into the glitz and glory of retro gaming, which traditionally is a nerdy area – mainly depicted as teenage kids with acne struggling to prove themselves to their peers. The fact that Gordon also overlays Joe Esposito’s You’re The Best to shots of triumphant contenders and clips from Pac Man, Kong and Defender rouses the material and paints hardcore gaming as a life worth living. Far from Olympians and trophy winners, the diehard gamers we see on screen are still caught up in the craze of 80s action, relishing their fame in the eyes of other players.

After this opening few minutes, we start to see the introduction of narrativisation. Mitchell says, ‘if I have all this good fortune, if everything’s rolling my way, if all these balls have bounced in my favour, there must be some poor bastard out there who’s getting the screws put to him’. There’s a quick cut to the home of Steve Wiebe, a workman-like father recently made redundant and looking for any distraction from the anxieties of life. After researching Mitchell’s record score online, Wiebe, with a sense of playful innocence says, ‘Hey, I can beat that’.

Gordon details Wiebe’s skills at length; he can play piano and drums, he’s a talented sketch artist, he was on the basketball and baseball teams at school, and has a remarkable level of hand/eye coordination which enables him to succeed at Donkey Kong. So here is our hero, aiming to take down the score of Billy Mitchell who’s King Of Kongmilked his accolades for far too long. It’s true of any film that we’re made to root for certain characters, and require a certain payoff at the end – the rewarding dénouement. But in King Of Kong, this is literal. We want Wiebe to take down the Mitchell monopoly. He has Twin Galaxies and all the retro players on his side; Gordon constructs a majestic David and Goliath encounter out of geeky gaming.

How and why we root for characters in film is the third step in Roger Odin’s fictionalisation manual. It’s called the mise en phase, an ‘alignment of the filmic relations to the diegetic relations in such a way that the spectator is made to “resonate” to the rhythm of the events told’. Although Gordon’s rhythm feels a little forced at times, pulling us between Mitchell and Wiebe’s stories, it’s clear he wants us to resonate with the sizeable task facing Wiebe. Not only do we resonate with his financial instability, but we appreciate how tough it is to dislodge a record which has been held for so long, and has almost been crystallised by history.

While the mise en phase is the central idea to why we resonate with characters and situations, it doesn’t explain the practical side to convincing us. That’s done by Odin’s next step, the construction of an absent Enunciator, to efface ‘in such a way that the spectator [believes] that the world and events that are shown to him exist in themselves’. With documentary cinema, it’s of course clearer to us that these events do exist outside of the camera – they haven’t been written and programmed purely to entertain us. But this step appeals instead to the staging which takes place in documentary.


  • Metz, C. 1974. Film Language: A Semiotics Of The Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Odin, R. 1995. A Semio-Pragmatic Approach To The Documentary Film. In: Buckland, W. ed. The Film Spectator: From Sign To Mind. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 227-235.

The timeline presented by Gordon is what makes us really buy into the narrative. He pits Wiebe and Mitchell against each other as talking heads, overlaps discussions of skill with Wiebe’s drum playing, and intensifies the level of threat posed by Wiebe to Mitchell right up until the final few scenes. This creates an emotional layer to the film which sees Wiebe exerting his strength and will-power to overcome the challenge, and this layer is what makes us truly appreciate its legitimacy.

For all we can deconstruct cinema, it’s true that the stories woven over the course of ninety minutes can change our lives, or at the least have some kind of emotional impact on us. King Of Kong displays how filmic modes and processes owe themselves to our inherent desire for reliving moments of accomplishment, success and great pride. Without them, our ability to engage in poignant discourse would be limited; we wouldn’t understand and comprehend how tactics have such dramatic influence on how we digest information – even if we know that it’s a tactic. This film is an exemplar of how to create, develop and personalise narrative to capture hardship in its purest and most adversarial form. Far from being a film about gaming, it is a film about conquest. But you’ll have to watch to see if Wiebe breaks the record…

Andrew Latimer

Andrew Latimer

Andrew started out writing theatre reviews in Edinburgh while studying for a degree in Arts Journalism. His interest in film came after attending several festivals across the UK. In particular, he discovered a love of documentary cinema, specifically the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

Andrew loves films which investigate stories of undocumented struggle and solitude. Some favourite docs include Grizzly Man, King of Kong, 5 Broken Cameras, L'encerclement, Inside Job and Shoah.

Andrew runs a Scottish arts review website, TVBomb, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ajlatimer.

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