Documentaries of the Week – Extraordinary Achievement

This week: three documentaries telling three very different stories of extraordinary human achievement.


Watch Man on Wire trailer (YouTube). Image by Wall to Wall

Man on Wire (2008)

On 7 August, 1974, just after 7:15 in the morning, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit performed a high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, over 1,300 feet above the streets of Manhattan. For 45 minutes, Petit made eight crossings from one tower to the other, occasionally sitting or lying on the wire, or dancing his way across. This was all done without the knowledge or permission of the Port Authority (owner of the buildings). He was arrested by police as soon as he stepped off the wire. Following positive news coverage of the walk, charges against Petit were dropped.

James Marsh‘s documentary tells the story of the careful planning and execution of this daring ‘heist’. Marsh does a good job of recreating this extraordinary achievement with re-enactments, photographs from the walk itself, interviews with Petit and his co-conspirators, along with footage of their preparations for the walk. Well worth checking out.

Billy Mitchell (left) & Steve Wiebe (right) playing Donkey Kong. Mitchell image by Florence Ivy, Wiebe image by Adam Hirsh

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

With his mullet and his Stars-and-Stripes neck tie, Billy Mitchell (pictured above left) doesn’t come across as a winner. But his appearance belies the fact that Mitchell is a world champion, having achieved the highest-recorded score in the arcade game Donkey Kong. In the world of competitive arcade gaming, Mitchell is the shit. And he knows it. In his interviews with The King of Kong director Seth Gordon, Mitchell’s smug self-confidence is irritating, and slightly nasty. This sets him up as the villain of Gordon’s story.

The hero is Steve Wiebe (pictured above right), an unemployed engineer who turns to playing Donkey Kong as a pastime. Wiebe is described by his wife and friends as a man with great ability who always just falls short of achieving his potential. But when he finds out about Mitchell’s world record Donkey Kong score, Wiebe sets out to beat it. After multiple attempts, he achieves a score of 1,006,600 points, beating Mitchell’s score of 874,300.

But Wiebe’s achievement is snatched away from him as this genial chap confronts the politics of arcade gaming. Doubt is cast by Mitchell and his allies on the authenticity of Wiebe’s score, and he must travel across the United States to prove himself.

While Wiebe comes across as an honest guy trying to be the best at something for once in his life, Mitchell becomes a more and more unpleasant character as the documentary progresses. Any story of a hero versus a villain is only as good as its villain, and Mitchell plays the part perfectly.

Troll 2 still. Image by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Best Worst Movie (2009)

When Claudio Fragasso (under the pseudonym Drake Floyd) co-wrote and directed Troll 2 in 1989, whatever extraordinary achievements he hoped for the film probably didn’t include it attaining a cult status as one of the worst films ever made.

Troll 2 was marketed as a sequel to the 1986 film Troll despite having no connection to the earlier film (and no trolls). It instead featured vegetarian goblins (see picture above) trying to turn a family into plants so that they can eat them. Fragasso and his wife (both with less-than-fluent English) wrote the script, employed a cast of American actors with little or no acting experience and hired an all-Italian crew. It should be obvious from this why the film was crap.

But as I said, this crapness has gained Troll 2 a cult following, and the star of the film, Michael Stephenson, produced and directed Best Worst Movie; a look at the creation of the film and its recent popularity. The interviews with the cast and current fans (who are drawn to the badness of the film) are interesting, the clips of Troll 2 are hilarious and farcical, and I recommend watching the entire film. But the best part of the documentary is the interaction between Fragasso and Troll 2‘s new group of fans. The director insists that the film is a genuine piece of art, and he seems torn between happiness for the attention it’s now getting, and irritation at the reasons for that attention.

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