Tuesday, 24 February 2009

King Of Kong

Many years ago I was blown away by the documentary Pumping Iron. Shot in 1975 and released in 1977 (James Taylor attended the premiere!) it revolved around the subterranean world of bodybuilding, and introduced us to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno.
I had grown up watching The Incredible Hulk (portrayed by Ferrigno) and was fascinated by size and strength. I had become aware of Arnold through magazines and was dabbling with weights myself. So when I eventually saw Pumping Iron I was captivated. The full majesty of a world-class bodybuilder's physique cannot be appreciated from a still photo. That - in my adolescence - is what I wanted to look like.
The documentary bears repeat viewings, even though I have lost interest in looking quite like that, because of the characters involved. Ferrigno is an awkward, naive challenger to Schwarzenegger's crown - deaf and brutalised by a domineering father, he is a somewhat tragic figure (although he would go on to achieve considerable success). Franco Columbu is Arnold's inseparable sidekick but also rival. Joe Weider, the svengali of professional bodybuilding who publishes magazines and sells supplements and whose late brother ran the International Federation of Bodybuilders, is not much in evidence, but fans of the sport would all attest to his immense influence.
And then there is Arnold. He may have a thick foreign accent and dress like a dweeb (for the hilarious reason that in the seventies bodybuilders had to make do with clothes designed for the clinically obese) but he is already a star. Suave, confident, cocky, witty, highly intelligent, he bestrides bodybuilding as a literal colossus. He is quite unstoppable and utterly irresistible.
I was constantly reminded of Pumping Iron last night while watching The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Some of those same feelings came flooding back. The viewer is immediately plunged into the middle of an intense subculture riven with jealousy and intrigue. The people involved are every bit as compelling - for the duration of the show, at least. What is the world under scrutiny? Video gaming. Oh yes.
Arnold is replaced by Billy Mitchell, a Nick Cave lookalike with staggering self-confidence. I want to write "staggeringly misplaced self-confidence", but the fact is that he is very good indeed at Donkey Kong, the Mr Olympia of video games, and that is enough to earn him the adoration of his parents, wife and some other people (perhaps fifteen of whom are shown on screen). One of these is Brian Kuh, who has a similar - albeit vastly more sycophantic - relationship with Mitchell to that of Franco and Arnold.
Steve Wiebe is the answer to Lou Ferrigno. Gentler and much less self-assured than Billy Mitchell, he has struggled to thrive at anything - until Donkey Kong. He has some support from Roy Shildt aka Mr Awesome (despite, disappointingly, not being a bodybuilder) who is a sworn enemy of Mitchell. The scene is set for a head-to-head between Wiebe and Mitchell at Hollywood, Florida. But Wiebe will have to contend with the fact that Hollywood is the adored Mitchell's home town, and that the organisers can't even pronounce Wiebe's name (it's "Wee-bee").
Walter Day is Joe Weider. Day runs Twin Galaxies, who have assumed the task of tracking and verifying world records in video gaming. A renaissance man, Day also plays guitar and sings. But video gaming is his overarching obsession. He and his team watch videos of potentially record games at punishing length in order to ensure that everything is above board. (Circuit boards play a key role in the film.)
The documentary reveals that The Guinness Book of Records has handed over all responsibility for record keeping to Twin Galaxies. Day takes great pride in this, as the ostensible reason is that he and his team are the experts. So indeed they are, but one can't help suspecting that, for all their integrity, the folk at Guinness find the whole endeavour fantastically trivial.
This is one of the central attractions of the movie. There is no doubt that large numbers of people play video games, that the most complex ones require high levels of skill, concentration and hand-eye co-ordination, and thus that being a world-beater is something to be (fairly) proud of. But only a lunatic would prize dominance in video games more highly than the ability to whack a fastball over the bleachers. Or hold down a good job. Ot talk to women. The utter absorption of everyone in what goes on - and this soon includes the viewer of the documentary - is incredible.
In a sense it is even more intense than Pumping Iron. Even during that documentary there is a sense that Arnold wants to go on to other things, and today we can watch the movie knowing that he would become a millionaire through property dealings, enjoy box office superstardom as an actor and govern the most populous state in America. Hell, I won't bet against him getting the US Constitution amended and becoming President. King of Kong is so enticing because being freakishly good at video games is the summit of the participants' ambition.
The movie serves too as a potent reminder that there is nothing inherently admirable about geeks. We all remember some from high school with pity. But by the time they hit adulthood, they actually tend to have more friends than average. Many of them end up in very happy relationships and do well at work. They are comfortable, finally, in their own skin and in their own world.
And in my experience they are no more likely than normal people to be nice. While some of them have been wounded by life and others are obviously quite some way along the autism spectrum, many are just a-holes. The petulant Mitchell does a more than passable impression of one. Some of the least pleasant people I knew at Oxford were geeks. Yet so too were some of the kindest. Hey - I guess they're normal people after all.
Well, sort of. The people in King of Kong aren't normal - and I don't mean that uniformly as a compliment. Some of them aren't very nice. But they are all gripping to watch, and you should get the DVD out at once. If you live in Oxford, try Videosyncratic. The South Parade branch will have the copy I watched back in the next few days.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Anatomy Of An Altercation

I toddled off to a non-league football match this afternoon. I enjoyed it a great deal - the team I was supporting won 4-0, and I had a most enjoyable chat to a guy who used to work at my old college.
It could all have ended rather unpleasantly, however.
Nick Hornby, in his seminal work Fever Pitch, hilariously and affectionately depicts a fundamental truth of lower tier football - the fact that many of the fans are certifiable. One of the home supporters at the club I visited this afternoon belongs in that category.
He looks normal enough. Sporting boyish good looks and an earring he carries a copy of The Guardian, and looks every inch the left wing intellectual. Occasional remarks have caused me to believe that he has a pretty high IQ. But throughout every match he alternates between admirably energetic vocal support for the home team and preposterously childish abuse of the opposition and match officials.
Towards the end of the game I sidled up next to him, as he has a plum spot on the halfway line and my aforementioned old mucker had left. As one of the opposition was substituted, the fan loudly opined that this chap's removal from the game was a matter of no surprise. When some of the opposition took him to task for this, he further indicated that the player was rubbish.
It became apparent that the fan had been subjecting the opposition to an endless stream of invective throughout the game. Some of the team not directly involved in the game began closing in on him. Three of them threatened him with physical violence. He refused to apologise or back down.
It was an odd sensation. None of them showed any signs of malevolence towards me, and I felt surprisingly comfortable. This is in contrast to a couple of occasions recently when - under huge stress - I have had to discipline myself not to lose it.
Two things emerge from what happened just now. First of all, it showed the crucial importance of staying calm and saying few words while making each really count. I put my arm round the guy who had caused all the aggro, and gently led him away. I explained that I wasn't having a go at him, and he readily agreed. Thus no-one got hurt, and no-one lost face. Some of the opposition players came into the bar afterwards, and there wasn't even a hint of awkwardness when they saw me.
Secondly, it showed how easily the opposite approach - i.e. allowing things to get more and more heated and aggressive - can easily spill over into assault. I think there could quite easily have been a fight this afternoon, and had three or four of them attacked the mouthy bloke, I would have felt duty-bound to defend him (apart from anything else, I seriously wonder if he is mentally ill).
This is how stabbings and shootings happen. Lots of probably stupid and certainly ill-educated teenagers in London are full of piss and vinegar, and don't know how to extricate themselves safely from a confrontation without feeling emasculated. So they pull out their knives or their guns.
Sure, we need more police on the streets, and we need to allow them to stop and search people again. But we also need to teach people - especially males - how to behave properly.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Think Again

Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion Baroness Warsi has condemned politicians for ignoring the problem of polygamy:
"There has to be a culture change and that has to brought about by policy makers taking a very clear stance on this issue, saying that in this country, one married man is allowed to marry one woman."
Er, in this country married men are not allowed to marry anyone ...
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