The King of Kong

Best Documentaries to Represent America

A few months ago I posted a list of the 25 films that I thought best represented America. Someone then suggested that I make a list of the documentaries that I thought best represented America, which I thought was a great idea. So after much consideration (because there are a lot of great documentaries about American culture), this is the list I came up with: the 10 documentaries that best capture the intricacies and complexities of American culture. If an alien came to America and needed a DVD primer on what we’re all about, these would be the documentaries I would suggest. (In chronological order…)

Salesman (1969): This Maysles Brothers film about door-to-door Bible salesman is the quintessential portrait of middle class American capitalism in all of its comedy, tragedy, and ambition. It’s like Death of a Salesman except real. See also: Grey Gardens (1975).

Woodstock (1970): I had to include a music doc on this list, and there is really nothing better than Woodstock, the iconic documentary about the famous 1969 music festival in Upstate NY. It’s a treasure of American history and a paean to the tumultuous and free-spirited tenor of American culture in the Vietnam era. See also: Don’t Look Back (1967) or Gimme Shelter (1970).

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976): Barbara Kopple’s seminal documentary about a 1973 coal worker strike in rural Kentucky stands as one of the most singular portraits of the blue collar Americana ever seen on film. Her unobtrusive observance of the thick-skinned residents of Harlan County, Kentucky is a valuable testament to a particular time and place in American culture. See also: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936).

Sherman’s March (1986): Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary began as a film about the famous Civil War general’s march to the sea and ended as a self-conscious study of romantic neuroses. Very American. See also: Bright Leaves (2003).

The Civil War (1990): Ken Burns is to American documentary what Ozu is to Japanese cinema. That is: he’s the master. Any of his films could have made this list (Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc) but I think the 11-hour Civil War is perhaps his most momentous achievement. And what is more American than The Civil War? See also: Baseball (1994).

Hoop Dreams (1994): This is the Citizen Kane of American documentary, in my opinion. It follows two young basketball stars in inner city Chicago over a five year period as they aspire to get college scholarships and make their NBA dreams a reality. It’s a film about much more than basketball, however. It’s about the American dream and the unfortunate systemic issues that keep that dream at bay for so many people. See also: American Teen (2008).

On the Ropes (1999): Before last year’s American Teen, Nanette Burstein made this amazing, intimate documentary about three young boxers and their trainer in New York City. In many ways it’s like Hoop Dreams: Boxing, dealing with similar issues of class and race and the American dream. See also: When We Were Kings (1996).

Spellbound (2003): A compelling narrative of 8 kids in the running to win at the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. It’s a film about competition, diligence, diversity, upward mobility, class, race, and a lot of American other things. See also: Mad Hot Ballroom (2003).

The Fog of War (2003): Errol Morris is one of the best American documentarians, and this film—a psychological portrait of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara—is a great biographical film about a figure that looms large over 20th Century American history. See also: Standard Operating Procedure (2008).

The King of Kong (2007): This is a fun documentary about nerdy middle-aged “gamers” and their obsession with world records, but it is also one of the most profound cinematic microcosms of Americana to hit the screen in recent years. See also: Murderball (2005).

Donkey Kong Nation

“Always, after he was in bed, there were voices—indefinite, fading, enchanting—just outside his window, and before he fell asleep he would dream one of his favorite waking dreams: the one about becoming a great half-back or the one about the Japanese invasion when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world. It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of ParadiseNote: This is the first of a three-part post series on competition in the American psyche. Coming on Sept. 10 is part two: “The Battle of 9/11.”

A documentary film was recently released in L.A. called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. If it comes to a theater anywhere near you, please go see it. The film's subject matter at first appears rather frivolous: competitive videogaming, specifically the battle for world records in “classic” arcade games from the early eighties like Donkey Kong. Indeed, for much of the first third of the film, you’ll wonder if it’s a mockumentary (in the vein of Christopher Guest). All the talking head stars of the film are about as nerdy as stereotypical gamers get.

But the film isn’t chiefly about making fun of pasty, aging slackers with mullets and fingerless gloves who play arcade games all day. It is extremely funny, don’t get me wrong—one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. But beneath the ironic 80s soundtrack (everything from The Cure to Animotion) and geeky earnestness of the whole competitive gaming world, Kong is a rather profound—and deeply moving—film.

It’s all about competition—and how obsessive, ingrained, and life-consuming it is. Especially in America. Especially for men. There is this drive within us to be the best at something. Whether it’s winning a gold medal, becoming a successful sauce salesman, being the world’s “foremost military superpower,” or simply holding the world record Pac-Man score, we all desire that glory; that “top dog” status.

The King of Kong follows two men—Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe—and their vicious rivalry to see who will ultimately hold the world’s top score in Donkey Kong. Mitchell, a hot sauce salesman from Hollywood, Florida, held the top score from 1982 to 2006, when Wiebe—a 7th grade science teacher and family man from Washington State—came out of nowhere to take the title away. On one level the film is a classic tale of good (Wiebe) vs. evil (Mitchell), but really it is an examination of the pride of victory and the sting of second place, and the ultimate dissatisfaction that comes from both positions.

When we win at anything it is definitely a good feeling, but after reaching any summit, there’s always some other mountain to climb, something else to go after. Being in second place is perhaps preferable: at least there is a definite goal to work toward, an end to focus upon, a definition to our life’s pursuit.

As we see in the Fitzgerald quote above, the becoming of something great—not the being of it—is where the glory lies.

Kong is a beautiful little microcosm of American life. We are a country founded upon competition and an always optimistic ethic of tomorrow: what we don’t have is within reach, what isn’t here today might come tomorrow, who you are today is not who you will always be, etc. It’s a glistening sentiment that makes the patriotic heart beat stronger, but beneath it lies the sad reality of human nature and earthly existence: there will always be someone better, glory is fleeting, legacies are tenuous, and the greatest of the great is still just a candle in the wind.

Even so, competition is a good thing, and certainly no more pointless or temporal than anything else in this life. Competition pushes us forward, and Hegelian progress is made (through the friction of dialectics), even if there are casualties along the way. Competition is innate to humanity, and people like Plato recognized that from very early on. Plato had a term called thymos, which is the essential part the soul wherein man desires recognition, demands respect of his dignity, and feels pride. It is this part of the human soul that allows us to act in contrary (e.g. sacrificing ourselves for some greater purpose) to our reason and other instincts. It is in thymos that our innate sense of justice exists, and—as contemporary scholar Francis Fukuyama argues—where noble virtues of selflessness, idealism, self-sacrifice, courage, and honorability originate.

Thus, while competition can be painful and the fruits of winning rather unsatisfying, it is still the engine that drives a successful society. It is the chief means by which man can begin to understand his identity and see glimpses of his self-worth—and in the process realize that any worth he might have cannot come from anything he can ever do (because even the greatest achievements in the world leave us ultimately unworthy before the vastness of sin and mortality), but rather from some grace-giving Other.