Adventures in nerdsville
- Scott R. Garceau () - July 22, 2009 - 12:00am

My sisters-in-law were watching this documentary the other night, The King of Kong. It’s about these dudes who compete for the highest score in Donkey Kong and other “old school” video games. Like, that’s their whole life. My siblings-in-law were smirking and giggling over the nerds and dweebs interviewed in the movie — the types of guys who stand around in glasses and pocket protectors, or wear Total Recall T-shirts and suck on Slurpees, while watching other guys rack up huge scores. It’s a lifestyle that’s largely American, and kind of sad: basing your whole life around topping somebody’s high score enshrined on a flickering video screen, or wishing you could be that person.

They laughed about this, my sisters-in-law. Then they went out to a midnight IMAX showing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the second time they’ve seen it in one week. Talk about nerdsville.

Strangely, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the only J.K. Rowling book I’ve managed to read (someone sent it to me to review). And I barely remembered the plot until I watched the movie. I think the book moved along a lot quicker than the movie.

David Yates directs this outing, the sixth in the Harry Potter cinematic saga. To say he brings little lifeblood to the franchise is an understatement. He may well have dialed in his direction on a cell phone. There’s a (literally) dark quality to the movie’s look that makes one sleepy. I can only pretend to understand the complexity of the Harry Potter oeuvre; I’ve seen a couple of the movies, read one book. But I know Harry, Ron and Hermione are all still stuck in Hogwarts, still trying to unmask and defeat Voldemort (there, I said his name, nerds; take that), still aging, still experiencing adolescence and puberty and now uncomfortably settling into adult skins onscreen.

Growing up in public is okay. What’s lacking in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a sense of humor, and a clear mission in mind. Fans claim this is a “between” book in the series, tying up some loose ends while setting the stage for the finale, the seventh chapter, which everyone knows the end of now, but will take another year to hit the screen, reportedly as a two-parter. (Talk about anti-climactic.)

But that’s not what the nerds care about. They care about the attention to detail and the faint stirrings of romantic relationships for their beloved characters. Cries of “Uuuy!” are commonplace in Manila cinemas whenever a Harry Potter chapter comes onscreen, and either Harry, Ron or Hermione get a bit closer to getting some action.

Now, Harry Potter is an odd piece of nerd iconography himself because he’s not really much of a nerd. He’s a middling student at best, a fact dramatized in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when “The Chosen One” accidentally gets hold of a textbook called Advanced Potion Making that is filled with new and improved hand-scrawled annotations from some student of the past calling himself “The Half Blood Prince.” Harry takes the credit and glory for perfecting these potions in class, the better to get closer to wobbly professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) whom Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore suspects of knowing all about Voldemort’s location and intentions.

Hermione’s the real nerd, of course: always the first one with her hand up in class, always going for the extra credit, always suffering on the sidelines as her object of interest (the doltish, mutating Ron Weasley) pays no attention whatsoever to her. If there were an instrument to measure nerd pain and empathy, it would rate off the charts during showings of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Harry, in contrast, is the typical reluctant hero, the “Chosen One” who doesn’t really have all the answers, but gains courage and information along the way about his nemesis, Voldemort, the man who killed his parents and plans to reign over an empire of evil and darkness. Or something bad like that.

One gets a similar feeling while watching The King of Kong, wherein top Donkey Kong player Billy Mitchell — a slick, bearded, longhaired, smooth-talking salesman dude who resembles Nick Cave on a good day — lords it over the video game-playing community from his cell phone in Hollywood, Florida. His “minions” (really, there’s no other word to describe devoted video game nerd fans) resemble Voldemort’s lower dwellers, the would-be sycophants like Draco Malfoy, who bask in the light of the dark one and hope to reap the rewards of utter and slavish devotion. Mitchell’s chief challenger is one Steve Wiebe (pronounced “Wee-Bee”), a schoolteacher who has, in his garage, mastered Donkey Kong and videotapes himself beating Mitchell’s record-setting score of 874,000. This score is, in turn, challenged by Mitchell’s minions who go to Wiebe’s garage and dismantle his Donkey Kong machine, claiming it’s got a compromised computer board.

So Wiebe is forced to repeat his stunt on an “authorized” Donkey Kong machine in New Hampshire, in public, and this rivalry, sorry to say, is far more exciting than anything in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. At least we know who the heroes and villains are in The King of Kong. Even as Wiebe sits, patiently surpassing the old score, Mitchell is coordinating the unveiling of a videotape through his cell phone: it will show the assembled nerds a Donkey Kong screen with points going through the stratosphere, hitting the million-plus mark; Mitchell has stolen Wiebe’s thunder. 

In the latest Harry Potter outing, there’s no such drama, owing to the fact that there’s no clear villain in sight. Not even Voldemort — who, in the shape of Ralph Fiennes, finally made his appearance in the last cinematic outing — deigns to turn up and make things interesting. It’s left to Helena Bonham Carter (as Bellatrix Lestrange) to bring the heat, and she just isn’t nasty enough.

So instead the burden falls, once again, on Alan Rickman (as Professor Severus Snape) to deliver his lines with expert serpentine timing and make us question which team he’s playing for. (And even the fact that all nerds know the answer to this question by now does not diminish the pleasure of watching Rickman do his thing.)

But it’s just not enough of a showdown, not like the real-life battle between Mitchell and Wiebe in The King of Kong (subtitled A Fistful of Quarters) with its questions about altered video tapes and compromised chip boards adding extra dimension to a story that initially makes us all ask ourselves: Why should we care who the best Donkey Kong player in the world is anyway? By the end, we totally get that it’s not the game but the character of the player that really matters. Seth Gordon’s documentary makes it clear which side of the Star Wars-type struggle he falls on: he’s a fan of The Force, and an enemy of the Dark Side. Just as any true-blue nerd would be.

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