Limitations of Genre in “King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters”

I read some critique of the King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Although the film grossed over $700,000 globally (not bad for small-budget documentaries) and achieved critical acclaim (Rolling Stone calling it “roaringly funny”) others had their concerns. After some poking around, most critique falls into one of two categories:

1. Subject matter: many critics disliked the movie because they found the topic of video games inaccessible. Ann Hornaday, a film critic for the Washington Post, opens her critique with the question “what is more tiresome than watching somebody play video games?” This type of critique has nothing to do with director Seth Gordon’s movie making ability or the strengths/weaknesses of storytelling, but dismisses the film for its subject matter alone. While I don’t think this is a very salient argument, Hornaday does have a point: King of Kong will most likely not attract non-gamers, regardless of the actual mechanics of the story or art of the film.

2. Unoriginal themes and “lack of depth:” Hornaday criticizes Gordon’s “all too familiar formula” and says that the film’s “structure … has become increasingly hackneyed with the glut of competition documentaries” (She cites Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound as probable inspiration for Gordon.) Other critics think the film relies on stock characters and overused themes which make the film one dimensional and unoriginal. Blogger Paul Dean agrees that the story is a simple “story about good pitted against evil.” However, Dean doesn’t think this is necessarily negative, but rather essential to writing a compelling story about video gamers, which most of the world is unfamiliar with.

These types of critiques struck me because they were extremely similar to the type of critique that Lord of the Rings (and the fantasy genre) typically receives: either people can’t connect with the subject matter, or they find the themes elementary. I had not thought of King of Kong as a “fantasy” because of its documentary quality, but now I’m not so sure. Examined under the same critique of fantasy, it appears that Gordon does prey on elements of fantasy storytelling to create his film: he sets up an unfamiliar world, describes the rules of that world, and forces the audience to connect with the characters despite their unique reality. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is not a fantasy film, but it invites the audience into a sort of virtual world. To do this successfully, the filmmakers used techniques of fantasy storytelling, and thus are met with similar criticisms. For me, this was an awesome exercise in the possibilities and limitations of genre (documentary, fantasy) and I’m curious to see how some of these critiques are either dodged or manifested in other mediums (film, written narrative, video games) as we move through the course.

-Emma Baker