Improper representation: a manifesto on documentaries (incl. King of Kong and Mississippi Queen)
I am of the opinion that there is nothing worse than a documentary with an agenda. When I go see a documentary, I want something that educates me, something that shows me something I would otherwise not be able to see. What I do not want is to be force-fed some director’s disgustingly one-sided view of the world. Whilst trapped in the darkness of the theatre, after having paid an entrance fee, the audience is vulnerable to all sorts of mad propaganda.
Among the worst of these are movies that seem to be fighting for something helpless; whether they be cute dolphins or schoolchildren, moviegoers are especially susceptible to manipulation under these topics. However, I’ve tried to avoid these due to the angry reaction they incite, and instead have stuck to lighter pieces such as The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
They say that “winners write the history books,” but who reads history books nowadays? I propose an update: “he who writes the history books (aka, films the documentary) is the winner!” King of Kong is the story of two men fighting to be the internationally recognized champion of Donkey Kong, an early Mario videogame. The main record holder is an outspoken gunner named Billy Mitchell, but he’s not the hero of the movie. A quiet schoolteacher, family man named Steve Wiebe buys an old arcade unit of Donkey Kong and plays it in his garage. Pretty soon, he gets good, and begins challenging Billy Mitchell’s longtime place as the king of Kong. The film covers Steve’s journey to have his score recognized, and face off against Billy Mitchell the old fashioned way, in person at the arcade.
Despite his best attempts, Steve is never able to play against Billy, who seems to avoid this new challenger at all costs. The movie is filled with interviews of both players, their friends and family, as well as the members of Twin Galaxies, the group responsible for verifying and record-keeping gaming achievements. I applaud this movie’s generosity at giving us a detailed peek into a small niche world; I feel like I have learned something about the difficulties of the gaming record world.
What still nags me, though, is wondering just how much is genuine about the documentary. As the audience, we are clearly meant to favor Steve over Billy Mitchell, yet there are plenty of interviews of both. I wonder if Billy Mitchell knew how he was going to be portrayed in the movie, whether his wife and parents knew that while they were being filmed that their words would be eventually juxtaposed against Billy Mitchell’s failures, his cowardly (or so it seems) actions. Billy’s friends’ interviews provide a rather cruel irony in their praise of his character, which adds yet another layer to an already negative portrayal.
Is it too harsh for me to judge what I assume is meant to be a mostly harmless story? Not having been present for any of these events, I can’t tell what really went down, if Billy Mitchell is as big a jerk as he seems. All I have is my skepticism, and I can’t help but heed this sense that not all is as it seems.
King of Kong is a lighthearted film, and by comparison, I felt very differently about Mississippi Queen, which took on a much more serious issue. To be fair, Mississippi Queen is marketed as a personal exploration, and I do admire filmmaker Paige’s courage, but it’s just not what I look for in a documentary.
Mississippi Queen is a documentary we watched in class, in which Paige explores the southern ex-gay ministry. At first, I thought that this would be a good, unbiased approach into an extremely controversial topic, but it soon delved into a story that was too personal, literally too close to Paige’s own home. She starts by interviewing several women who have changed their lifestyles, and I was surprised by their stories. I guess I had always assumed the movement to be a vicious, religious harkening, full of close-minded leaders. But several people that Paige interviewed were not only extremely open to different opinions, but had clearly given a lot of deep thought to their decisions and feelings. Of course, Paige includes a few angry, championing guys, but their interview scenes are filled with little text notes from the Bible that contradict exactly what they are saying; it’s done in a way that leaves the filmmaker’s opinions clear.
I like the film until it became about Paige. She includes interviews of her parents, of her wife, and as the film progresses, lets too many of her own feelings interfere with what was previously an interesting look into a loaded field. If Mississippi Queen’s content had, say, been used to make a feature movie (Based On A True Story, BOATS, of course), I feel I could have been much more okay with Paige’s journey as a personal story. As it is, when I watch a “documentary,” I want an unbiased, impersonal, educational approach.
It is always much harder to rate documentaries than it is to rate movies (see The Cove or Waiting for Superman). The real world is full of real people, and by judging documentaries, I feel guilty, as if it were the actual people I am judging. Perhaps in my reviews, I have already judged them, but all the same, as a matter of what principle remains, I will refrain from tacking numerical values to documentaries.
As it is, I hope that you, the reader, can still appreciate the opinions and thoughts I have expressed. And should you choose to go forth and peruse the aforementioned pieces yourself, I hope that my ideas will remain in your thoughts, either reaffirming your own or providing content for always-welcome debate.