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by Bill Gibron

25 Sep 2007

While we like to consider ourselves clued in, culturally speaking, it is fairly obvious that most of us spend our lives in sheltered consideration of the unique “underworlds” around us. For example, before comics became an edifying talking point, few people recognized the growing ‘funny book’ constituency. Competitive high school speech and debate has grown from insignificant extracurricular activity to one of the top three considerations used by colleges to determine admissions. From ESPN’s coverage of the National Spelling Bee to schools for teaching Klingon, there is an entire subterranean subculture out there, divided along particular parameters and existing within its own set of strictures and guidelines. All a documentarian has to do is break down the barriers. If he or she is lucky, they can then tap directly into the friendly fringe zeitgeist.

This is exactly what happened to Seth Gordon. When he discovered that old school arcade games – read: the pre-console titles that swept the adolescent demo back in the early ‘80s – had their own regulatory commission in charge of awarding high scores and certifying player status, he was immediately intrigued. When he stumbled across the story of Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee-bee), an ex-Boeing employee turned school teacher who was battling to secure his status as reigning Donkey Kong champion, he found the catalyst to dig deeper into the dynamic. The result is the marvelous, masterful King of Kong, a film that illustrates one of the universal maximums inherent in competition: for every winner there is a disgruntled loser, and even the friendliest levels of rivalry will be tainted by issues of cheating, cronyism, and unbridled ego.

For those of us long out of the fun zone loop, Gordon sets up the situation. Back in the earliest phase of the Me Decade, just as games like Pac Man and Asteroids were capturing the public consciousness, Life Magazine gathered together a collection of the reigning title champions for a photo op. Among them was Billy Mitchell, a long haired hero with an amazingly high score on Donkey Kong. For decades, the record stood, becoming a bragging right for its holder and, in some ways, a significant section of his overall personal make-up. When we meet Billy in his post-millennial phase, he’s a maxim spouting restaurateur pushing his own brand of hot sauce via a slick, self-styled self-promotion philosophy. He’s an energetic example of a go-getter made good, a man who never backs down from a challenge, be it in life, or on a classic joystick machine.

That is, until Steve Wiebe comes along. Your typical hard luck story, this flummoxed family man is watching his entire life slowly slip away. Jobless, and purposeless, he decides to tackle the Donkey Kong record as a means of outside the box therapy. Perhaps, if he can beat the high score, he can reclaim a direction in life. Before long, Wiebe achieves his aims, and submits the results to the Twin Galaxies organization, an entity started decades before to authenticate video game achievement. Thus begins the battle, as the validity of the score is challenged, and Wiebe learns of the backstabbing, rules violating infighting among the various Galaxy members. Even his own association with a disgruntled nemesis of the organization throws the entire process into question. Before long, Mitchell is made to put up or shut up. His response is remarkable, to say the least.

Whether via luck, fate, or the innate ability to unearth the natural narrative in a situation, Gordon stepped into one of the most hilarious, haunting human dramas to ever be associated with an arcade game. The King of Kong does a sly job of establishing its heroes and villains, painting both Mitchell and Wiebe as admirable and, in some ways, painfully pathetic. We admire and despise them throughout the course of events, wondering how either adult can place so much importance on what is, in essence, a hollow achievement. The obsessive playing of these machines, with their repetitive actions and rote memorization, is not a question of talent as much as will. Both of our main ‘characters’ complain of a lack of respect, but the proof is in the activity, not the public’s perspective. 

Luckily, the ins and outs of Donkey Kong are breezed over to get to the real meat of this story. When Wiebe destroys Mitchell’s record outright, leaving no doubt as to who now warrants respect, the many individuals surrounding Twin Galaxies and their overall lack of transparency and established ethics is just mind blowing. About the only people who come out unscathed are Walter Day, Galaxies’ New Age leader who tries his best to maintain order inside what is, basically, the chaos of individual hubris, and his “record authenticator” Robert Mruczek, who speaks of inscrutable principles and a life spent sitting in front of his TV, screening VHS tapes to verify scores. Everyone else has an obvious agenda, a reason for wanting to keep what they have while striving to be considered fair and friendly. Yet no matter how hard they try to seem just and reasonable, we see through the facade.

Naturally, all this interpersonal angst builds to one of those classic showdowns where, in front of a filmmaker’s camera and away from all the backstage wheeling and dealing, a true determination can be made. In The King of Kong, it happens twice, and the results both times are astonishing. Avoiding spoilers, Wiebe is made to prove his mantle in person. What happens illustrates his desire to reclaim his reputation, as well as other player’s manipulation of the system. When Guinness gets involved, agreeing to use Twin Galaxies’ scores as the benchmark for their book of records, the stakes are raised significantly. And as usual, it brings out the best, and the absolute worst, in human nature - and the accompanying corruptible characteristics.

One of the most astounding aspects of The King of Kong is not the outcome, but the access. There are times when Gordon captures a situation and it is so startling in its naked criticism that you wonder how the participant involved allowed its inclusion. Mitchell gets many of these eye opening moments, and one can’t help but think he was aware of how his reactions would make him appear. It’s either a case of self-assured superiority, or blinkered brazenness. Wiebe walks a fine line as well, especially when his long suffering wife expresses her clueless connection to everything going on in sobbing disbelief. While some of the outside machinations are indeed bizarre (Galaxies’ “officials” arrive, uninvited, at Wiebe’s home and harass his family) and indicative of the perceived stakes of these fanatics, it’s the individual dynamic that speaks the loudest in this stellar documentary.

Which brings us back to the topic of subject matter. The King of Kong is proof that you don’t need Earth shattering events of cosmic import to create a compelling film. Instead, as Gordon proves time and time again, playing bystander to individual’s everyday lives can offer an entire oeuvre’s worth of possibilities. There are dozens of untold stories in this surprisingly effective film, threads that could easily be developed into their own astounding statements (Day’s desire to be a musician, Mitchell’s amazingly devoted parents). But thanks to the perfect blend given the storyline, the careful incorporation of just enough to win us over, The King of Kong doesn’t feel fractured. Instead, it’s flawless. It’s not just proof that fact is more compelling than fiction – it’s an acknowledgement that, buried beneath the standard social fabric is a wealth of untapped material just waiting to be discovered. Audiences will be glad that this director went digging.

by Bill Gibron

25 Sep 2007

When lists are made of the important post-modern movies, Jaws usually gets its due. It’s heralded for its breakout blockbuster novelty, and illustrative of the Tinsel Town transformation from art into artifice. Fans point to its endearing entertainment value and scholars compliment its wise decision to marginalize the monster – in this case, a wonky and unwieldy mechanical shark – for the sake of some solid suspense. But beyond the commercial and the critical, few have noted its cultural significance. While Star Wars and Halloween get all the obsessive, geek glory, Stephen Spielberg’s expert exercise in flawless filmmaking is the popular kid who can’t catch a break when it comes to lasting social and industry significance – until now.

The Shark is Still Working says it all. It’s a double edged announcement, a title reference back to a seminal statement made during Jaws’ tenuous production. It’s also the name of Erik Hollander’s near definitive documentary on the film. A masterful companion piece to the various supplements surrounding the perfect popcorn hit, it’s the smart and insightful sugar coating on three decades of fascinating fish stories. Unlike DVD extras which give us details into every aspect of the production, or a generalized historical overview, what this filmmaker wants to accomplish is something far more esoteric. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of Jaws creation, Hollander hopes to reveal how a simple silver screen adaptation of a bestselling novel became a lynchpin for a greater artistic appreciation.

Now actively seeking a distribution deal, the story behind The Shark is Still Working is divided into two halves – The Impact and The Legacy. Each section states its purpose with amiability and authority, using interviews with all living participants (including Spielberg and his quintessential cast) and testimonials from talent (Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, Eli Roth) who view Jaws as instrumental in inspiring their passion for film. Interspersed amongst all the accolades and explanations, we meet the devoted, the long time lovers of the movie and its many merchandised variants. Using a first ever Jaws Fest Convention on Martha’s Vineyard as a central staging conceit, Hollander walks us through the initial discussions, the day to day travails, and the lasting import of what many originally feared would be a well meaning fiasco.

The first thing The Shark is Still Working reminds us of is Stephen Spielberg’s then novice status. Throughout the introductory material, meant to give context for those not born during the director’s neophyte reputation, we witness how chutzpah, matched with blind studio faith, fostered a motion picture masterpiece. The iconic filmmaker speaks frankly about his fears and his production nightmares, stating in open terms how the lessons he learned while making Jaws influence him to this day, and occasionally find him waking in a nightmarish cold sweat. Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider second the apprehension, wondering aloud how a ‘kid’ in his mid ‘20s with limited feature film experience could conceivable make a movie filmed in and around the open ocean. It’s the preparation for a series of war stories, but oddly enough, Hollander barely skirts the history.

Instead, he gives us the basics – the shark worked/didn’t work, a three month shoot gets extended to seven, Spielberg escapes to LA while second unit work finishes the film – and then it’s off to the rhetorical races. We learn how the mechanical monster and its notoriously inconsistent functionality were visualized, how Robert Shaw used his own inherent writing skills to polish the famed “Indianapolis” speech, and how a fake head and the editor’s own pool became a celebrated shock moment onscreen. Beyond the hourly battles against tide, weather, exhaustion, incompetence, and filmic fate, Hollander also explores the industry impact. No one thought the film would eventually redefine the business model, though initial test screenings suggested a modest return. Watching the project move from disaster in the making to cultural benchmark is part of The Shark is Still Working’s archeological fun.

Those of us lucky enough to be teenagers when the movie hit screens in 1975 can attest to this section of the film. From the Time Magazine cover story and numerous tie-in publications, to the numerous lampoon references, to the main movie poster, with its oversized beast about to devour an oblivious, skinny dipping female, Jaws went from book to social staple so quickly that to call it a phenomenon would be a massive understatement. Before his pal George Lucas came along to cement the status of big screen spectacle as the next wave in the artform’s advancement, this funky fish story was a clamorous cause celeb. Via montages and displays, anecdote, and actual news reports, Hollander highlights the initial impact, arguing that a kind of symbolic synchronicity between audience and artist was occurring.

As if to emphasize this bond, Carl Gottlieb’s tell all onset diary The Jaws Log is discussed at length. Considered by present filmmakers like Singer and Smith as a kind of movie insider’s Bible, we see how a quick tie-in tome suddenly stands as a constructive confessional for anyone interested in discovering just how difficult it can be to helm a Hollywood production. We are then introduced to other industry insiders like Greg Nicotero (F/X god) and John Williams (soundtrack composer extraordinaire) and listen as they list the ways – both directly and indirectly – that this movie made their careers. To see such influence being acknowledged and defended is heartwarming, especially after all the hand wringing and kvetching over the lack of logistical prowess. But then The Shark is Still Working takes it all a step further. And it’s at this point where Hollander’s point goes from salient to insurmountable. 

At Jaws Fest 2005, thousands of fans descend on the Martha’s Vineyard locations, each one bearing the amiable alms of a lifetime devoted to the film. Many sport tattoos and other celebratory body art, while a few have taken their fascination to the borders of fanaticism. We meet a man who makes a hobby out of imitating Robert Shaw’s salty sea captain character Quint, and witness as he lives out a life long dream – recreating the now infamous “chalkboard” scene from the film on the actual movie backdrop. It’s a sequence that comes dangerously close to idol insanity. Equally intriguing are the collectors, the people who’ve made it their goal to gather as much of the Jaws memorabilia available as possible. For some, a plastic cup or knock off t-shirt is not enough. For these dedicated individuals, years creating their own detailed models or lavish oil canvases remains the only way they can fully connect to Spielberg’s creation.

As sequels are discussed (and dismissed) and child actors chuckle about their place in history (there’s a monumental convention moment when the various Brody progeny from the films are reunited), the sphere of influence exacted by this film is finally understood. While it may not have a regressive recreationist society surrounding its narrative, people dressing up like Hooper and Chief Brody and reenacting their classic confrontations like a certain set of Jedi wannabes, Jaws is still cinematically significant. It stands as an important moment in motion picture history, the time when directors were finally acknowledged as the true guiding spirits of aesthetic truth. It may have been a bumpy road getting their, but as long as Spielberg was functioning, a cranky fake shark was not a big concern. The fact that, three decades later, it manages to still “work” magnificently is all that matters. 

by Jason B. Jones

25 Sep 2007

Janice Harayda, proprietor of One-Minute Book Reviews, former books editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle , does NOT like Lloyd Jones’s Booker Prize-front-runner, Mister Pip.  The nub of her complaint: Jones writes for third-grade readers.  Here’s her evidence:

How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, and got a grade level of 4.4 for it. To see if the passage was typical, I entered two later pages and got even lower grade levels, 3.1 and 3.5, an average of 3.6 for the novel. I also entered text from another finalist, On Chesil Beach (grade 8.6), and the past winners listed below with their reading levels.

Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip

Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip

I have to say that I wonder about this methodology.  Reviewers have usually noted that Jones’s simplicity is deceptive, that, like Conrad, he’s achieving a variety of effects with tone (here’s one of many who make this claim).  Such effects would, necessarily, not show up on the Flesch-Kincaid stats. 

For example: if you reproduce the experiment with May Sinclair’s masterpiece, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean,  you’ll also get odd numbers.  For example, chapter 2 is apparently written at a 2nd-grade reading level.  Now, no second grader on this earth could make heads or tails of Sinclair. 

Later on, Harayda claims that:

  He can’t be trying to imitate Great Expectations, because a page from Charles Dickens’s novel registered a grade level of 10.7

But this really does compare apples with limes.  Victorian expectations of prose were so different from modern ones.  The idea that one needed the equivalent of a modern 10th-grade education to grasp Dickens just doesn’t mesh with the reality of 19th literacy practices.

Mister Pip may well not be the best choice for the Booker Prize—I’ve not read all the finalists, and so can’t say anything with confidence—but this is a remarkably thin objection (especially since Harayda ties Lloyd Jones’s stylistic choices to racial assumptions!).  Plus, it makes my head hurt to think that Microsoft Word’s grammar checker—the bane of English professors everywhere—could play any role in literary judgment.

 

by Jason Gross

25 Sep 2007

No splashy headlines yet but they’re selling DRM-free tracks for 89 cents each, under cutting Apple/iTunes by 10 cents.  How much this cuts into Apple’s market remains to be seen as they don’t have a best-selling gadget like the iPod to tether this to.  But the idea of songs with out any stupid DRM restrictions is very appealing and the price cut is obviously a shot at Apple’s firm 99 cent policy.  Also, since Amazon is such a name brand, that’ll go a long way to roping in customers and getting a good foothold in the market.

by Rob Horning

25 Sep 2007

The most recent BusinessWeek has an article about how many employees miss out on the overtime they may be owed under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was enacted during the New Deal in order to promote higher employment. The idea was that by forcing firms to pay time-and-a-half overtime wages for any hours an employee works over 40, they would discourage long hours and hire more workers instead. But as the article points out, the math no longer works out—the benefits and training that any new employee requires makes overtime a better deal for management, particularly if they can get away with not paying it. How can they do that? By making wage workers mistakenly think that they are salaried employees who are “exempt” from overtime.

What makes that piece of subterfuge possible is the longstanding association of overtime with blue-collar work, itself a product of FLSA. The law established a distinction between work eligible for overtime pay (which was anything that could be done interchangeably basically by any trained worker) and work that wasn’t—namely any kind of work that required judgment, management ability, or administrative talent any professional or creative work, any work where the worker’s individual talent and personality factors in. So naturally, workers concluded if their work was meaningful or satisfying in any way, then it wasn’t eligible for overtime. Only those working on mindless tasks would expect overtime. Moreover, to be offered overtime was an implicit suggestion that your work should be meaningless to you, that only money should be able to induce you to want to be doing it anymore than you already unfortunately have to. Thus, at one of the places I’ve worked as a copy editor, the other copy editors were fighting to be regarded by the human resources department as exempt, as this would prove officially that their work required judgment and not just the mechanical application of standards passed down from managers. Whether they were right about this is an open question, but it seems to me that surrendering overtime to feel pride in your job is an absurd sacrifice. And no employees, salaried or not, should be resisting the opportunity for overtime, or the additional leverage over their employers that rights to overtime supplies. And the fact that meaningful work is in some ways its own reward doesn’t change that. Companies seem to get away with paying employees in meaningful work—in autonomy and in decision-making latitude. If money really were the ultimate key to autonomy, the ultimate invitation to decision making, that neutral storehouse of value that we decide to turn into whatever we want, perhaps we’d be more outraged about this. But the truth is that money can’t necessarily buy the satisfaction of having power and responsibility, the gratification of being taken seriously by people and entrusted to exercise one’s own judgment in the planning for achieving a common goal. This is underscored by a comment in a sidebar to the article from a professor of leisure studies (a oxymoronic discipline if there ever was one):

This brings to mind an oft-forgotten fact about overtime laws, which is that they were rooted in a time when many envisioned a steady reduction in the hours Americans worked. (John Maynard Keynes predicted a two-hour workweek by 1980.) That vision is long gone. In the intervening years, says Benjamin Kline, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, a huge change has taken place. The ideal of working fewer hours vanished long ago, partly as a result of economic imperative but also because of a cultural shift toward embracing work, particularly by professionals. “The image I use is that our faith is in our jobs” now, he says. The sense of purpose and identity that we used to find in religion, “we find more and more in our work.”

We look to work for meaning as much as for pay, so if we’re getting one, we perhaps don’t mind getting short shrift with the other. Thus it’s likely that the more an employer can create the illusion of meaning for its workers, the greater the share of profits it’ll be able to retain for itself. In order to fight this, we as a society would have to establish meaningful work as an automatic given rather than a glamorous substitute for other kinds of compensation. But unfortunately, there will always be that ever-enlargening proportion of non-meaningful work that needs to be done by someone.

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