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The Reelist: Obsessive Hobbyists

The King of Kong joins a growing body of documentaries that provide windows into subcultures of obsessive hobbyists. These aren't poker players or skateboarders; their passions are more esoteric, ranging from Scrabble to speed-eating. Here are 12 of the best.

Seth Gordon's celebrated documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (TFF '07), out next week on DVD, recounts the exploits of America's two best Donkey Kong players, and the fanatical subculture that surrounds them. It also joins a growing body of documentary filmmaking devoted to the competitive, often-endearing kooks and oddballs—or otakus, as the Japanese call them—who take their quirky hobbies to the extreme. We're not talking about more accepted pastimes like poker and billiards or skateboarding or surfing; rather, these are people who give their all to the cause of Scrabble, air guitar, or competitive eating. They know how strange their single-minded obsessions seem to mainstream society, but they're unable or unwilling to give them up, often devoting their lives to their esoteric pursuits. Their stories are appealing not only because they're often funny, but also because it's hard not to admire such fierce devotion to a single pursuit, and because many of us have strange obsessions ourselves, which we'd like to indulge if only we could. And if you're someone who needs a new hobby, this is probably as good a place as any to start your search.
Enter to Win this week's Reelist on DVD

Wordplay

Dir. Patrick Creadon, 2006
Patrick Creadon's engaging look at the world of crossword puzzles moves from the brains that conceive them to the millions of enthusiasts who try to solve them every day. Puzzle Master Will Shortz—editor of the popular New York Times crosswords for twelve years—gives audiences a privileged glimpse of his methods for constructing a puzzle, and the film features interviews with many other puzzle makers as well as noted puzzle enthusiasts, including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Bob Dole, and the Indigo Girls. The second half of the film focuses on the 2005 annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, founded by Shortz himself, where dozens of contestants gather for some friendly—and colorful—competition.

12 Fiction Features About Obsessive Hobbyists
  

Searching for Bobby Fischer
Dir. Steve Zaillian, 1993

 

Dangerous Moves
Dir. Richard Dembo, 1984

 

WarGames
Dir. John Badham, 1983

The Go Masters
Dir. Duan Ji-shun and Junya Sato, 1982

The Last Starfighter
Dir. Nick Castle, Jr. 1984

The Wizard
Dir. Todd Holland, 1989

Strictly Ballroom
Dir. Baz Lurhmann, 1992

 

Billy Elliot
Dir. Steven Daldry, 2000

 

Tommy
Dir. Ken Russell, 1975

 

Best in Show
Dir. Christopher Guest, 2000

 

Balls of Fury
Dir. Ben Garant, 2007

 

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004

Spellbound

Dir. Jeffrey Blitz, 2002
Spellbound follows eight teenagers as they vie for one of the most hotly contested academic awards in the United States: the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship. Representing a wide spectrum of backgrounds, educations, incomes, and nationalities, these youngsters—all engaging and talented—spell their way to the ultimate contest in Washington, D.C., sharing their thoughts on study, competition, victory, and defeat as they go. Spellbound won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2003 South By Southwest Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2003 Academy Awards.

 

Scrabylon

Dir. Scott M. Petersen, 2003
You've heard of tournament chess, so why not tournament Scrabble? Scrabylon reveals the cutthroat world of competitive Scrabble, delving into the wacky subculture of word lovers around the globe who gather annually for the World Scrabble Championships in Las Vegas. John D. Williams, Executive Director of the National Scrabble Association, takes viewers through a detailed analysis of the game and some of the quirky participants in the 2001 tournament, including professional gamblers, a stand-up comic, an options trader, a psychologist (who is the highest-rated woman on the Scrabble scene), a forklift salesman, and one man who actually makes a living playing Scrabble. Made a year later, Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo's Word Wars followed four competitors to the National Scrabble Tournament in San Diego.

 

Darkon

Dir. Andrew Neel, Luke Meyer, 2006
Just beyond the borders of downtown Baltimore where the gritty inner city gives way to rolling forested hills, medieval knights, wizards, maiden warriors, and highland heroes prepare for battle. They are members of the Darkon Wargaming Club, a group of fantasy live-action role-players (LARPers), men and women who gather on weekends to live out their wildest fantasies on suburban battlefields. Winner of the Best Documentary Audience Award at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival, Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer's documentary moves fluidly between the gamers' nine-to-five existences and the internecine rivalries of their invented kingdom, offering a portrait of a group of inspired dreamers that is at once humorous and poignant.

 

Über Goober

Dir. Steve Metze, 2004
For those mystified by what enthusiasts of role-playing games even do, Über Goober offers an excellent overview. The film splits the RPG world into three segments: wargamers, table-top role-playing gamers (the Dungeons and Dragons crowd), and LARPers (like the Darkon faction). The film includes interviews with demigods of the RPG world like Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, and those who think RPGs are the devil's work, like televangelist Bob Larson, while nicely portraying gamers' camaraderie and self-deprecating attitude about their chosen obsessions.

Air Guitar Nation

Dir. Alexandra Lipsitz, 2006
For years, thousands of contestants have been gathering in Finland every August for the Air Guitar World Championships, where the world's best air guitarists battle it out for 60 seconds onstage for the highest prize in mock stardom. Until 2003, the US had been conspicuously absent from the tournament, but suddenly air guitar mania swept the nation, from New York to Los Angeles. What begins as a friendly air guitar contest above a New York strip club swiftly grows into a battle of ambition and showmanship on an international stage. Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Lipsitz chronicles the birth of competitive air guitar in the US through jam sessions and interviews with American contestants, capturing an eccentric world that has its own groupies, media, rivalries, and idols. The film premiered in the 2006 AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Film Festival before making the rounds at other international fests, including the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.

Karaoke Fever

Dir. Arthur Borman and Steve Danielson, 2001
Most of us need a drink or six and a special occasion to sing karaoke, but believe it or not, there is a competitive singalong circuit, in which contestants vie for a cash purse and a chance at a professional recording contract. Karaoke Fever (which, it should be noted, predates American Idol) goes inside this world, tracking a motley crew of contestants that includes a Phantom of the Opera enthusiast, a Mariah Carey wannabe, and a smarmy lounge crooner. As with many of the other titles on the list, the characters' back stories are as compelling as the competitions themselves.

Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating

Dir. Danielle Franco and Christopher Kenneally, 2004
To most people, "sports" denotes activities like baseball, soccer, football, and basketball. But after breaking the world oyster-eating record in New Orleans, Jason Conti—better known as Crazy Legs—decides to devote himself, in mind and body, to the sport of competitive eating. He supports himself as a window-washer, art-class model, and sperm donor, while traveling across the country in pursuit of his lifelong dream of becoming a professional eater, training his body and conditioning his mind to attain the Zen-like focus and capacity of his idol, Japanese eating master Takeru Kobayashi. With good-natured Crazy Legs leading the way, Franco and Kenneally's documentary offers a humorous look at the quirky world of competitive gastronomy.


Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine

Dir. Vikram Jayanti, 2003
Though considerably less well-known than the Matrix or Terminator franchises, Game Over is nonetheless an archetypal man-versus-machine story, and it's one that actually happened. In 1997, computer company IBM invited Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who more than a decade before had become the youngest-ever World Chess Champion and still holds the record as the longest top-rated player, to play its chess computer Deep Blue. Kasparov lost the match in six games, and what started out as an amicable exercise degenerated into a hostile showdown between the famous chess genius and the computer programmers. Kasparov, who retired from chess in 2005, has been in the news for other reasons recently; last fall, he ran a quixotic, short-lived Presidential campaign against the Kremlin-backed candidate Dmitry Medvedev.


Tetris: From Russia with Love

Dir. Magnus Temple, 2004
This BBC4 documentary is about the startling success of one of the world's most popular video games: Tetris. Created by Russian professional game designer Alexey Pajitnov more than 20 years ago and popularized in the US by the handheld version for Game Boy, the classic puzzle game has an unexpected history: It wouldn't have been invented had Russia not hit on certain technologies at just the right moment, and wouldn't have made it to the West if not for the political openings provided by the thawing of the Cold War. Filmmaker Magnus Temple also examines the rivalry between Nintendo and Atari over purchasing copyrights from Russia before the country's property restrictions were relaxed. The doc includes interviews with Pajitnov, Atari publisher Robert Stein, and game designer Henk Rogers, who discovered Tetris at a game show in Vegas in 1988, and subsequently secured exclusive rights for Nintendo.

Wild Wheels

Dir. Harrod Blank, 1992
Ever seen one of those hippie Volkswagens, the ones painted every shade of the rainbow and encrusted with all manner of trinkets and toys, and wondered, "What is up with those people?" With Wild Wheels, Harrod Blank, son of the legendary documentarian Les Blank and an art car enthusiast, provides insight into the eccentric passions behind hardcore car personalization. Driving around America in his own elaborately adorned Beetle, "Oh My God," he discovered such remarkable creations as the "Hippomobile," a Mustang covered with a brass-plated hippo; the "Cowaski," a motorcycle made to look like a cow; and the "Grass Car," which is entirely covered with living, growing turf. He followed in 1998 with Driving the Dream, a closer look at the artists behind the cars.

Hands on a Hard Body

Dir. S.R. Bindler, 1997
Though it sounds like the name of a porno, S.R. Bindler's documentary is a hilarious real-life Texas fable. Since 1992, Joe Mallard Nissan in Longview, Texas, about midway between Dallas and Shreveport, has held an annual endurance competition, pitting 24 contestants against one another to see who can keep their hand on the body of a hard-body pickup the longest. The winner gets the truck. The film documents the epic 1995 contest, which ran 77 hours and featured a fantastic set of characters, including a bicyclist, a Bible-thumper, and an ex-Marine. Though the tone is light-hearted, the rigors of the battle become evident as the film moves along, and in fact, the competition took a tragic turn years after the film was released when one entrant committed suicide during one of the contest's hourly five-minute breaks. Reportedly, legendary Robert Altman was planning to adapt the story before his death in 2006.

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