By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

Both Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters premiered the same day.  Chasing Ghosts premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2007.  The King of Kong premiered at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival, taking place as well in Park City, Utah, but reserved for films with budgets under $1 million and only for first time directors.  Other movies at Sundance included Black Snake Moan, King of California, The Savages, Snow Angels, Eagle vs. Shark, Reprise, Waitress, Once and Rocket Science. The King of Kong, by my personal calculation*, is easily the biggest movie out of Slamdance that year.

Don’t mistake that I’m saying popularity equals quality or the film festival where your movie premieres means a difference in quality.  Still, Sundance, like Toronto and Cannes just seems to mean a higher pedigree, the difference between a regional dog show and the Westminster Kennel Club.

So, why is The King of Kong more popular than Chasing Ghosts?**  I think it is that same reason that made the video gamers of both stories so special: specialization.

I just finished Chasing Ghosts and it is fascinating.  Just like Confessions of a Superhero or Murderball or Grizzly Man or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room or Capturing the Friedmans, there’s something about true stories and the voyages in life that people take to get to today that make my eyes and heart open wide.***  Following the story behind the boys and older boys**** in a picture from a Life magazine photo shoot in 1982 on the main drag of Ottumwa, Iowa made me smile many times.

The classic Life Magazine photo from November 1982, taken in downtown Ottumwa, Iowa with the gamers and some Ottumwa High School cheerleaders. Billy Mitchell, featured in King of Kong, is third from right at front with the moustache and his hand on the Centipede game.

But, it’s no King of Kong Chasing Ghosts gave us glimpses of many different video game champions.  Boys that spent up to 60 some hours straight playing video games.*****  We learned about strategies (and saw some cool, modern 3-D images) for Pac Man, Berzerk, Centipede, Frogger and Missile Command.******  Each person had strategies and abilities that made these games easy for them.  Each person had a compelling life story.  The only names I remember though are Steve Sanders and Billy Mitchell and that’s because they were also in The King of Kong.*******

The King of Kong just looked at one game.  The King of Kong just looked at the rivalry for this one high score.  It followed Steve Wiebe as he tried to unseat Mitchell’s high score and what how much that meant for him at that time in his life.  It had a compelling narrative because it focused on one thing, kind of like these video game specialists.

Why do we love specialists?  Why do we put the most elite athletes, the most elite soldiers like Navy Seals, the most elite actors/directors/producers that win Oscars on pedestals, sometimes literally in the case of the Olympics or sports draft coverage?

I’d like to think this is some grand philosophical question, but it’s not.  We all want to be the best at something, so we celebrate those that become the best.  The richest man in the world.  The most beautiful woman in the universe.  The fastest.  The strongest.  The biggest weekend at the box office.  The smartest.  In recent years of baseball analysis and the Baseball Hall of Fame, most researchers (and conversely voters) show that emphasis every year.  The guys like Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell who were pretty good at everything–and therefore each a great player–aren’t nearly as appreciated as those that did one thing well, like hit for average, play defense, steal bases or hit a bucket load of home runs (though because of steroids, that isn’t as smiled upon as before).  Being the best wins, second place will always be a set of steak knives and third prize is you’re fired.

Capitalism expects us to specialize.  We do one thing well, and we trade the money we make from that to other people that do their one thing well.  So, did I like The King of Kong because I’ve been trained to like the specialized over the general?  I’d like to think that isn’t the case.  There’s room in the world for both movies, and I’m glad I saw both.  If you ask me which one I liked better in this case, it’s Kong.

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*Check out the list here. I’ll admit, films with James Cromwell, Tony Hale^, Ali Larter and Gary Busey feel like they should be bigger, emphasis on “feel” and nothing more.

**I’m basing this on the fact that I saw The King of Kong in a movie theater and watched it on TV over Thanksgiving this year.  I finally found Chasing Ghosts on Netflix Instant when a friend recently recommended it to me and it appeared in one of the lists that Netflix tailors to my watching patterns.  Netflix is like my best friend who always can tell what I’m in the mood to watch.  Except that Netflix is a cyborg, bent on taking over the world.

*** A note – in some cases the emotion from my “heart” is sympathy.  Sometimes it is appreciation.  Sometimes it is horror.  Films that generate feelings always rank high in my book, but the documentaries that evoke horror I’m much more likely to never, ever, ever watch again.  Like Capturing the Friedmans.

**** After watching the documentary, it feels weird to use “men” as their noun, even to this day.  Yes, they have kids, wives, girlfriends and jobs, but you look into those eyes as they talk about video games or other aspects of their lives, and the boy inside still takes center stage.

***** I loved the still picture of one video gamer being fed French fries as he played.  If this happened today in New York, he would have been video gaming’s Alex Rodriguez.

****** I have to admit to being a little more curious about the Missile Command guy.  It looks like he made video game themed pornos.  I can see that having major appeal.  I mean, how many guys would love the fantasy of sitting at home, playing video games, when all of the sudden, a knock comes at the door and there are three buxom women who want to pleasure you.  I’ve probably said too much.  Still in the argument of specialization, I want to see a movie about him.

******* Ok, maybe a slight lie.  I think I remember the name Ben Gold.  I also don’t remember the Twin Galaxies owner/ref names that appeared in both films.  It probably helps that I’ve seen The King of Kong twice.  Then again, it’s been almost four months since I watched it compared to about four hours for Chasing Ghosts.

^That’s the Arrested Development and Community  Season 1, episode 19 fan talking.  I’m going to go ahead and assume you know Ali Larter and not give her a footnote.  Why? She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.^^

Ali Larter in Heroes

^^World is defined as a section of my mind circa the first season of Heroes.

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