Players Battle for the Title ‘The King of Kong’

An established reputation. A sympathetic underdog. A record — and fame — on the line. A public duel at the arcade. Who will reach the high score and the kill screen in the classic Donkey Kong arcade game?

Such is the drama that fuels Seth Gordon’s 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. At stake is Billy Mitchell’s 1982 Donkey Kong record high score and the fame it brings.

As it turns out, authenticating record high scores on classic arcade games is no small undertaking. Established and operated by Walter Day, Twin Galaxies tracks and validates the high scores on the classic arcade games through watching hours of videotaped game play and through checking the machines. The referees take their unpaid jobs very seriously. The years of score-checking earn Twin Galaxies with authority from the Guinness Book of World Records to authenticate world records as well.

Mitchell’s record remained uncontented until Steve Wiebe comes along. Gordon’s documentary paints Wiebe as a sympathetic hero, one who possesses many talents and tries to succeed but remains down on his luck.

Wiebe undergoes several hurdles throughout the documentary to reach his high score and to receive validation for it, though roadblocks appear along the way. He sends in his recording, and Twin Galaxies sends two authenticators to his home to double check the machine, which negates his score.

The better way to establish a record is on a public machine. In effort to recoup his loss, Wiebe travels to Funspot in New Hampshire and earns a record-high score and a kill-screen that beats Mitchell’s 1982 record. But his glory lasts only a short while, as Mitchell sends along a videotape that shows him reaching an even higher score, which replaces Wiebe’s short-lived record.

The public challenge then moves to Florida, near Mitchell’s hometown. Wiebe and his family come from Seattle, as do the authenticators from Twin Galaxies. A new drama unfolds: Will the champion ever face his challenger in game play? After several days of Mitchell dodging the event, he arrives with his wife on his arm. He works the room, but he never sits down to play. Wiebe, on the other hand, plays multiple games during his stay there, though he also spends time with his family. Despite the unmet public challenge, Wiebe eventually achieves his glory in breaking the record score in Donkey Kong.

Almost everyone I know has a favorite documentary that they just enjoy watching, and The King of Kong is one of the most frequently mentioned ones. Gordon’s focus on the underdog, use of the competition structure for excitement, and respect for the arcade game culture make King of Kong an entertaining watch.

Go around the World in ‘Maidentrip’

Maidentrip invites you to take a sailing voyage around the world with teenager Laura Dekker as she tries to break the world record for being the youngest person to make the journey alone.

Jillian Schlesinger’s 2013 documentary shows Dekker as born to make this trip. Dekker herself was born on a boat and spent five years of her life living on a boat before her parents split. After moving to Holland, she remained deeply connected to and committed to boats. She owned her first seaworthy boat at age 10 and made a solo voyage from Holland to England at age 13.

Despite her depth of experience, Dekker faced challenges in making the trip even though no law specifically stopped her. Courts in Holland attempted to remove her from her father’s custody but eventually failed. The media described her as “spoiled” and “insane,” and one outlet expressed a desire to see her fail. Dekker describes the situation as “the worst kind of famous there can ever be.”

Dekker sets sail without a team or a follow boat, and much of the footage from her journey comes from her own camera. Schlesinger weaves that footage with footage taken by others along the way.

The film guides us through her journey using animated maps that look like watercolor paintings and titles showing her destination. Intertitles mark the miles and days passing, with some periods passing more quickly than others. Dekker stops at beautiful destinations along the way, including St. Maarten, Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, Australia, and South Africa.

The trip offers its excitements and its challenges. A major storm and the Torres Strait actually offer some excitement, as does exploring the various countries she visits. The challenges lie more in the long stretches without people and sometimes without wind, though Dekker finds ways of passing the time.

A solo journey that long often brings some soul searching and personal growth. Dekker becomes even more independent in her journey, and she reclaims her connection to New Zealand by switching to sail under its flag instead of Holland’s flag.

Maidentrip does exactly what it sets out to do: Document a young woman’s solo sail around the world. Schlesinger’s documentary uses no tricks to heighten the drama, but instead relies on the ups and downs of seafaring through Dekker’s perspective to keep things interesting.

Locating Famous Music in ‘Muscle Shoals’

Music evokes connections to places: Seattle grunge. Kentucky bluegrass. Delta blues. The Greg “Freddy” Camalier-directed Muscle Shoals (2013) offers another musical connection to consider, this time to a small town in Alabama.

Not one, but two, legendary recording studios contributed to the developments in popular music history. The first, FAME Studios, was co-founded by Rick Hall, a taskmaster with an ear and a skill for making good music. In the studio’s early years, he produced Etta James’s “Tell Mama” and Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.” He boosted the careers of Arthur Conley and Aretha Franklin, whose first album with the studio won a Grammy and sold 1 million copies.

The Swampers, the name for some of the studio musicians on some of these tracks, eventually left FAME and start their own studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The studio recorded sessions with Bob Dylan, Traffic, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others. The Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Sharp viewers will recognize the archival footage from the iconic rockumentary Gimme Shelter (1970). Other footage appears archival but actually is reenacted footage, which blends in well.

Bono, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards appear as rock historians in this documentary. Along with the studios’ founders and managers, Camalier interviews the artists and others involved with the recording sessions. He deftly weaves these voices into a coherent narrative not dominated by one voice. Instead, the multiple voices provide a richer picture of what happened during and after some key recordings at both studios. I appreciated the balance among the singers, the session performers, and the producers in these stories.

But what is it about this small town in Alabama that inspired such big sounds? Camalier’s documentary suggests the Tennessee River, with its original name of “the river that sings,” as one source. People and a hard work become another suggestion, as does overcoming adversity. Hall’s life story is full of tragedies, from the loss of his first wife in a car accident to the loss of his father later in life. The departure of The Swampers hits him particularly hard. All of these hardships potentially connect with this sound as well.

Music is as much about people as it is about place, after all.

After watching Muscle Shoals20 Feet from StardomStanding in the Shadows of Motown, and many blues music documentaries, I am struck by the generational differences. Maybe a better way of putting it is the generational gaps in the musicians who appear in the documentaries. Alicia Keys and John Paul White (one half of The Civil Wars with Joy Williams) are the youngest musicians to appear in this documentary. Makes me wonder how today’s music will be remembered and by whom in documentaries made forty years from now.

The Mind-Bending Twister of ‘The Unknown Known’

The Unknown Known represents Errol Morris’s attempts to understand the complexities of 81-year-old Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford. Despite the extended character portrait, however, the known still remains unknown at the end of this documentary.

No one else could have created this portrait of such a divisive political figure. Morris is well-suited to handling complex subjects, as he has shown with The Fog of WarStandard Operating Procedure, and other documentaries. Many of his usual techniques appear here: stylized text and archival materials, clean interview settings, recording device shots, a haunting Danny Elfman score. Morris also engages his interview subject from behind the camera throughout the documentary.

Rumsfeld confounds. He comes across as precise yet vague, pithy yet desultory, likeable yet maybe not so much. The interview scene subtly suggests these disparities. Rumsfeld sits against a dark backdrop with mostly bright lighting, except for the shadow that appears across the left side of his face. Those with strong opinions about Rumsfeld — either way — will probably see their opinions affirmed.

Those seeking definitive answers and explanations about what happened during the Iraq war, however, will be disappointed. The documentary more so chronicles Rumsfeld’s career against the backdrops of war and political upheavals. His career unfolds through a combination of Rumsfeld’s own commentary and archival material montages.

A type of archival material central to the story’s unfolding is Rumsfeld’s voluminous memos. He suggests that he dictated a “million” of them during his political career. They serve as an archive of his work and ideas, and the archive is so vast that even Rumsfeld himself fails to remember what he said or meant in some of them.

The toughest sequence addresses the “torture memos” about treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, which Morris addressed in Standard Operating Procedure. Rumsfeld discusses signing off on some “approved” procedures but not others. The list itself is horrifying, and the decision of which ones to “approve” or “discourage” seems just as horrifying.

The pictures of these torture tactics became the spectacles of horror in Standard Operating Procedure, so it seems fitting that Morris would take the opportunity to ask, “Why do you think the pictures did it?” Rumsfeld’s answer about their being “disgusting and revolting” feels almost too obvious.

Yet Rumsfeld plays himself as seemingly unaware of the extremes in torture happening in the prisons. He claims at one point, “Zero were waterboarded at Guantanamo. The military never waterboarded anybody in an interrogation.”

Morris takes several opportunities to ask Rumsfeld questions off-camera throughout the documentary. Rumsfeld remains measured in his responses, even as Morris’s tone becomes more incredulous.

For example, Morris asks, “How do you think they got away with 9/11? It seems amazing in retrospect.”

With a small smile Rumsfeld replies, “Everything seems amazing in retrospect.”

Morris also asks, “Was it failure of imagination, or failure to look at the intelligence that was available?” His question refers to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and how it caught the United States by surprise.

Rumsfeld looks at the camera for a moment and then pauses. The documentary then cuts to another shot, which raises a question of what Rumsfeld actually answered.

Ever the spin master, Rumsfeld remains full of platitudes and witticisms in both his comments with Morris and his interviews with the press. For example, he claims, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

That kind of thinking informs the rhetorical gymnastics that inspired this documentary’s title. The rhetoric comes from a spiel Rumsfeld delivered to the press and a memo he wrote. It presents a series of oxymorons that supposedly explain how intelligence works. The phrase “unknown knowns” refers to “the things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Near the documentary’s end, Morris asks a question many people might be asking themselves: “Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?”

Rumsfeld’s reply this time is just as vague as his other ones.

“That is a vicious question. I’ll be darned if I know.”

Morris ends the film with a rather poignant note: “In memory of Roger Ebert 1942-2013.” Ebert died a year ago this month. He is still missed.

‘Urbanized’ Focuses on Design in Cities

Urbanized is the third part in a trilogy directed by Gary Hustwit about the roles of design in contemporary society.

This 2011 documentary focuses on the roles of design within city planning. Cities represent a confluence of people and interests, and citing planning reflects the complexity of those intersections.

The range of interviews represents that complexity as well. While both Helvetica and Objectified featured primarily designers in those fields, Urbanized brings in a range of voices, from city planners and mayors to community organizers and residents. The result is a different feel for this documentary than the previous two, one that is lighter and more humored. At the same time, though, the subjects informing this piece tend toward more serious, centering on advocacy, but design offers potential solutions to these urban problems so long as it focuses on people and their needs.

These solutions appear in different ways in countries around the world. Improving people’s lives within the cities is the underlying theme for most of them. In Santiago, Chile, Alejandro Aravena describes a housing project that centered on participatory design, wherein the future occupants of the home offered input into the home’s construction and finished the second half of the home’s construction themselves.

The Khayelitsha area of Cape Town, South Africa, becomes another area where design has improved conditions for people walking, children playing, and everyone feeling safer.

People’s movement throughout the city becomes a consideration. Traffic generated from numerous single-occupant vehicles frequently becomes an issue, and former Bogotá, Colombia, mayor Enrique Peñalosa describes his approach for democratizing the issue through the uses of bus systems and bicycle paths.

Public spaces to stay and relax in become another theme. One segment explores The High Line in New York City, an abandoned railway that was turned into a park area through the efforts of local groups.

As much as Urbanized focuses on the positives of cities, it also mentions some of the issues. Sprawl is one, with its monotonous design, its far reach, and its car requirements. Urban flight becomes another. Detroit’s population has declined significantly from its 1.8 million high, and one result is abandoned properties throughout the city. Mark Covington describes his program for cleaning up the areas and creating a community garden in the now-vacant lots to help those struggling to make ends meet.

The best design begins with people in mind, but not all applications of design remember that. The Stuttgart 21 plan sought to bring a high-speed rail through the city, but it required substantial changes, including killing 200-year-old trees, removing parks, and losing an historic building. Both the city officials and the protestors had their views, but ultimately the city officials were voted out and the plans’ future remained uncertain.

Urbanized uses case studies from cities all around the world, but I wonder, what about Australia?

Watching HelveticaObjectified, and Urbanized together made for an interesting experience. The trilogy reminded of one of the reasons I adore documentary: I really learned a lot from these films. They encourage new ways of seeing old things. They balance both the positive and negative implications of the possibilities of design. They demonstrate the complex thinking about design without oversimplifying and without overintellectualizing. And, in the end, they remind us what every documentary is fundamentally about: people and possibilities.

Design Plays Role for Everyday Things in ‘Objectified’

Objectified is the second part in a trilogy directed by Gary Hustwit about the roles of design in contemporary society.

This 2009 documentary focuses on the seemingly invisible role design plays in the creation and application of everyday objects, from something as simple as utensils to something as complex as cars. Much thought goes into the creation every object, which balances designing for more challenged users, such as someone with arthritis, and designing ultimately for mass production and consumption.

These mass-produced items also embody stories of their own gained from the cultural rituals surrounding them. While a couple experts share those stories, the documentary’s greater focus lies more on the design thinking that informs, though arguably that thinking is informed by those very same rituals.

The documentary explores object design as well as design philosophy and its applications at a corporate level. Some segments show the design process for a vegetable peeler or a hedge trimmer, while other segments connect design with corporate image, namely Apple. Apple Senior Vice President of Design Jonathan Ive offers some insight into what process means for the company. “It feels almost un-designed,” he says, commenting on the complex relationship of all the work that goes into the design despite an object’s simple appearance. As Dieter Ram, a designer who worked for Braun and oversaw the design of more than 500 products, claims, “Good design is as little design as possible.”

The microchip complicates contemporary design by blurring the line between form and function. Design critic Alice Rawsthorn cites the iPhone as an example.

While design carries with it associations of elitism, the documentary attempts to break that image down some, citing examples of Target and Ikea as companies bringing design to everyday audiences.

The running theme of design for mass production raises the question about excess and audience. Sustainability offers a challenge, and one artist noted that much ends up in a landfill. Further, the audience in mind for the designs already owns plenty, so why continue designing for them? (To keep the consumption processes driving some economies going.)

Objectified includes interviews with key figures in today’s design world from around the world. Unlike Helvetica, Objectified includes more women experts and brings their voices in more frequently.

Montages of images render the designed objects in a way that forces a “re-seeing” of them for their details and not just their function. For the most part the images’ inclusion makes sense — such as the sleep indicator light or the charge indicator lights on a MacBook Pro — but other times they appear random, such as children riding bicycles.

‘Helvetica’ Uncovers History of Ubiquitous Font

Helvetica is the first part in a trilogy directed by Gary Hustwit about the roles of design in contemporary society.

This 2007 documentary focuses on the more than 50-year-old typeface that still appears on signage, advertising, and other documents around the world. Because of its age, Helvetica offers an interesting look at the changing nature of type and design from the analog era to the digital era.

This theme appears in the first sequence in the film. The film opens with a typesetter choosing individual letters and arranging them as part of the printing process. Throughout the documentary, montages show both city scenes and logos that use the font, such as American Apparel, American Airlines, Verizon, and Target. Both New York City subway signs and IRS tax forms also use the font.

Interviews with experts in the design field reveal the history, meaning, and importance of Helvetica. Words and phrases such as “modern” and “more machined” attempt to describe what the font means in terms of design and its uses.

While many experts express an admiration for the font, not everyone shares that view. When asked about why the font remains popular after 50 years, Erik Spiekerman replies, “Why is bad taste ubiquitous?”

A film about the nuances of a font and of design needs to be beautifully shot, and Helvetica does just that with clean camera work and uncluttered interview sequences. The montages bring together images from cities around the world, and they do so smoothly and neatly. The music provides just the right underscore to bring these elements together.

What struck me in this documentary is how few female experts appear. The first one appears about 45 minutes in. That makes me wonder just how few women work in the field.

‘The Armstrong Lie’ Uncovers Truths about Former Cyclist

The Armstrong Lie is a well-made documentary about a man whom I just can’t like and like even less after sitting through this two-hour film from Alex Gibney.

Lance Armstrong used to be known in the cycling world for his seven wins of the Tour de France, his comeback from cancer, and his philanthropy through the Livestrong Foundation. Armstrong insisted that he never enhanced his performance through blood doping, drugs, or other means — that is, until March 2013 when he confessed during an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Calling himself a fan at one point, Gibney started documenting Armstrong’s story in 2008 when Armstrong attempted a comeback to cycling. Gibney opens the documentary with Armstrong’s lowest point: his interview with Oprah and his confessions therein. Armstrong’s story doesn’t get much higher from there.

This documentary’s story thus functions on two levels: Armstrong’s changing story in that time span and Gibney’s thoughts on making the documentary about Armstrong, which he conveys in voiceover throughout. While I understand Gibney’s reasons for putting his own perspectives in the piece, I felt they offered little in terms of understanding the former professional cyclist.

Despite his extensive charitable contributions and fundraising, Armstrong still comes across as unlikeable in just about every interview and archival material. He bullied people into keeping quiet about his doping history, and he rode an immense wave of fame and fortune on those lies. Even though he admits to them, he appears unrepentant, unemotional, and even smug.

The documentary is well shot despite the lack of charismatic subject. Shots of cyclists, including ones taken from the bikes themselves, enhance some of the competitions’ excitement. Overall, the structure works and the materials flow smoothly, but in the end the story remains almost static in its telling.

‘Rain’ Tells a Subtle Story, Shot by Shot

YouTube offers a treasure trove of older titles, though some offerings raise questions. Is the title part of the public domain? Is it made available through fair use? A handful of descriptions claim public domain, while most others claim nothing at all. The murkiness of copyright laws makes these claims questionable anyway. I would prefer the copyright holder see monies back from my watching the piece, should the holder want them.

Archive.org offers another treasure trove of older titles. An important section to check out is the Prelinger Archives. The collection features Coronet Instructional Films, which were shown in middle and high schools. These films addressed such hard-hitting topics as making friends, dealing with parents, and writing better letters. They even offered advice on citizenship, morality, and love.

One short I found on both YouTube and Archive.org is Rain, by Joris Ivens and M.H.K. Franken. This 1929 piece is one of the city symphonies, which included montages of cityscapes set to composed music. Ivens and Franken spent several months filming in Amsterdam, and Hanns Eisler composed the music. The short offers no other type of sound.

The sequence that unfolds shows the everyday activities within the city as people and traffic move through the sunshine to their destinations. Soon, clouds crowd the sky, the drops start, and then the rain arrives. As the people and vehicles move through the downpour, the rain creates its own traffic down roofs, gutters, and streets. The rain eventually slows and stops.

That summary above suggests nothing about the thought that went into creating all of the shots that appear within the film. A couple themes emerge. One theme is indirect representations, such as through reflections and shadows. In one of the more famous shots, a bike rolls by, and we see the bike’s wheel and spokes in shadow on the road. Trees and people reflect in the puddles.

Another theme is moving shots. The camera is mounted to multiple forms of transport, such as a bike, a car, and a trolley car. As the vehicle moves through the rain, so does the camera.

Lev Kuleshov’s experiments demonstrated how we as audiences mentally fill in meanings in juxtaposed shots, for me it’s that subtlety in the shots and their arrangement that makes Rain so interesting to watch. Modern technologies make montages easy to create, but the shots themselves make a montage truly memorable.