A bit of an explanation before we get started. At the end of last week’s post, I said that I would be covering The Lower Depths and Wings of Desire this week. However, I was short on time this week, and my air conditioning went out during the last time I had to watch movies. With the heat, I just didn’t have the concentration to really do justice to these deep artistic films. So I called an audible and decided to something a bit lighter this week. A really interesting phenomenon over the past 15 years or so is the emergence of pop documentaries. Documentaries used to cover serious social issues or explore a completely unknown character. A film like The Thin Blue Line(which I will definitely cover here eventually) even led to the release of a wrongfully accused prisoner.
But at some point, documentaries started to become more focused on popular topics. I’m not sure when it began, but films like King of Kong, about people attempting to get the highest score on Donkey Kong certainly contributed. Docs still cover incredibly important topics. But even a film like 20 Feet From Stardom, which won the Oscar for best doc a few years ago was essentially a pop documentary. So this week, I took a look at two lighter documentaries focused on popular topics:
Marty Langford – Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four
Adam Cornelius – Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
Both of these films cover topics of interest to specific audiences, and cover purely pop culture topics. Let’s dig in.
Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four
In the current era of film, it’s hard to imagine a time when superhero films didn’t dominate the box office every year. But before the turn of the century, they were pretty rare, and frequently low quality. The main problem was they weren’t taken particularly seriously as films. Eventually, Richard Donner’s Superman had some success, both artistically and financially, and a decade later, Tim Burton’s Batman showed that these films could be successful.
It would be another decade before X-Men would usher in the era of the comic book superhero movie, but after Batman, comic book licensing rights suddenly became a hot property. DC comics, the makers of Superman and Batman, were owned by Warner Bros, which meant that their rights were already covered. But Marvel was an independent company, not attached to a particular studio. In addition, they faced financial trouble, and this era was a good time to make money by selling the film rights to some of their characters. A lot of these characters are still owned by other studios. The film rights to The X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four are owned by other companies.
Doomed is the story of the first attempt to make a Fantastic Four film, in the era before big budget comic book movies, by a studio known for making films as cheaply as possible. The film was made by Roger Corman’s production company. For his entire career, Corman has been known for making films quickly and cheaply. However, he also has a reputation for finding young talent and giving them a start. Filmmakers like Ron Howard among many others started with Corman. But he’s certainly not synonymous with big budget films with stunning special effects.
This Fantastic Four film is something of a legend for comic book fans. The kind of Did you Know? trivia that gets passed around at comic book conventions. Production stills and clips were passed around, and people generally agreed the film looked typical of a Roger Corman production. Cheap costumes, cheap sets, and young, lesser known actors. But it had never been officially released, so it was a bit of a mystery.
But as the film explains, when the film was announced, there was a lot of interest from comic book fans. Previous Marvel comic adaptations had been television shows like The Hulk, which while they were something, didn’t seem to pay much attention to the comic books past the names of the characters. And up to this point, comic book fans had really only seen two serious adaptations of comic books up to that point, so any film version of their favorite characters would generate some interest.
And while we might make an assumption that actors, producers and directors involved in the film would see the low budget, the cheap costumes, and decide that the film wouldn’t be very good and they could phone in their work. But on the contrary, everyone involved in making the film was very engaged in trying to make the best movie they possibly could.
This is something I love about these kind of documentaries: seeing these actors and directors who are so enthusiastic about this project that everyone else sees as a fool’s errand. In some ways, that’s the saddest part of the story. The film was announced, and was made, and these actors poured themselves into it. The director and editor worked on it after the money ran out, just to ensure they had a finished product, but in the end, it was never released.
The film largely centers on why it wasn’t released. Standard film licensing contracts for things like books and characters are limited. Normally, once the deal is made, the film producer has a certain amount of time to make a film in order to keep the rights, otherwise, the original company gets ownership back. The producer that owned the rights to the Fantastic Four characters needed to begin filming by the end of 1992 in order to keep the rights. So he turned to Roger Corman, who put the production together.
There is some confusion over whether the film was ever intended to be released. Two things are clear. 1) The actors and director were certain the movie was going to be released and 2) they believe the film was made only to satisfy the contract, and the owners of the film rights never intended it to be released.
The film covers the production, and does a great job of setting the scene, and explaining the contemporary comic book films that audiences were used to at the time, and how fans reacted to the early press of the film. It also covered the early production, including how the costumes were made, how the cast was put together, etc.
Throughout the film, it hints at problems surrounding the production. There was very little money, the cast and crew were rushed, the sets were recycled from other films, the warehouse where they were filming was condemned, and on and on.
But unfailingly, the cast was upbeat about the film, and proud of their work. Their complaints were not about the working conditions, or the nature of the film, or the money they made. Their complaints were entirely around being misled about the nature of the project. They were completely convinced that they were going to make a serious film that would be a big boost to their career. But they got caught up in the business side of film.
What exactly happened isn’t totally clear, but the film does discuss that Fox acquired the rights to The Fantastic Four before the film could be released and canned it. There is also a quote from Avi Arad, who is the head of Marvel’s film and television divisions, where he claims to have bought exclusive rights to the film and ‘burned it’.
Whether he did or not remains to be seen, but the film is out in the world. Bootleg copies appear at comic conventions, and lots of people have seen it. The film makes the point that because of the mysterious quality of the film, it’s likely that a lot more people have seen it than ever would have if it had just been released.
The main question of a pop documentary like this for me is: does it make an obscure topic interesting? For this film, I think the answer is yes. The Roger Corman Fantastic Four film has been this bit of underground pop culture for years and understanding how it came about and what happened to it is an interesting story. It’s also an interesting lesson about how the movie business works, and who gets caught up in it.
This film is really interesting for anyone who is interested in obscure film history, and particularly for those of us that pay attention to comic book films.
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
This film is about the first Classic Tetris World Championships, a tournament to crown the best Tetris player in the world. Tetris is a classic game that is playable on almost every electronic system ever invented, but this film focuses particularly on Tetris on the Nintendo Entertainment System. For many players, this is the definitive version of Tetris.
The film focuses on the organizer of the tournament, Robin Mihara, as he looks for the best Tetris players in the world, many of who have only the barest idea that there is any competition involved in their hobby. The film also gives us a window in the competitive video game scene.
We get to know the characters here as well, and the final subplot of the film comes into focus. Robin Mihara was involved in a nationwide video game tournament, the Nintendo World Championships. At the time, the tournament was something that every kid knew about. There was a movie made about the tournament called The Wizard, starring Fred Savage.
Robin came in 3rd place in the tournament, and the man who came in first is someone Robin has always thought of as the best Tetris player he ever say: Thor Aackerlund. Thor is set up as a mythical figure in the film. Several other people who were involved in the Nintendo World championships appear in the film, and all they talk about is Thor. He was the best at every game they played, but he was distant, and they didn’t get to know him well. They also haven’t heard much from him in the years since. However, he’s the only person they’ve ever heard claim to get to level 30 in Tetris.
The film does a great job of explaining the nuances of the game of Tetris. High-level players of this game have several goals they can shoot for. One is simply the high score. In NES Tetris, the score can only get to 999999, because it only has 6 digits. The next possible achievement is the number of lines. Going into the film, the current record is 294. The final achievement is the level reached. Every level achieved by the player increases the difficulty. Players consider level 29 to be the ‘kill screen’, or essentially the end of the game. However, Thor claims to have played well enough to see level 30 in the game, which many people think is unattainable.
So with this information, we meet the people that have attained the top achievements in the game. Ben and Jesse, the two people who have hit the most lines, Harry and Jonas, who have managed to max out the score, and others who have appeared on the leaderboards. Robin visits each of these players in turn, and plays Tetris with them, talking about their style and skill level. As he sees what they’re capable of, we also begin to understand their personalities and begin to root for these players.
One thing the film doesn’t do that a lot of films about competitions to is to set up an antagonist. All of these people are really excited to play Tetris and genuinely enthusiastic about the chance to see what the other great players can do. It would have been easy for the producers to get footage to set up a rivalry, and then cut the film so it seemed intense, but they didn’t. I really appreciated that aspect of the film. Of course, it’s possible all of the players hated each other and the producers cut it to make it seem like they all liked each other, but I choose to believe the other way.
The characters all meet up at the home base of the tournament and Thor finally arrives. Up until now, Thor has only been talked about, only seen in archival footage. There’s even been a question of whether or not he would even attend the tournament. When he arrives, everyone is in awe. They’re either interacting with Thor, or talking to Thor. While he is initially avoiding the camera, Robin takes him aside, and gets an interview from him.
He reveals the dark side of fame as a teenager, wherein his family faced a lot of hardships, leaving his income from promoting games as the main support for the family for several years. Once he was able to choose for himself, he exited the spotlight. It’s heartbreaking, and we begin to understand him. In addition, while he claims to be capable of all the things that other players are capable of and more, he’s never recorded himself doing it, which is a requirement for record keeping. Some of the players are dubious.
While prepping for the tournament, a representative of Twin Galaxies, the organization that keeps the official scores for Tetris, is present. While he is there, Robin decides to attempt a world record on a different version of Tetris. After achieving it, Thor decides to give it a try. Up until this point, we’ve only heard how good Thor is at this game, but in this moment, we see what he’s capable of. He smashes the score record that Robin has just set, and smashes the record for number of lines that Ben, another player present has also set.
The editing here is excellent. We can follow the story exactly. The film is about the tournament, but it’s also about the far reaching effects of this Nintendo tournament on the players who excelled at it.
Editing is incredibly important in a documentary. When you begin making a doc, you have a story you’re trying to tell, but a good documentary filmmaker will try to follow the story presented, rather than trying to force the story they’ve already planned on. Once they have all their footage, the editor has the task of finding these hidden stories. This film does something that is really difficult for a doc: it creates suspense around Thor.
As we move into the tournament, we learn the format. Several of the players we have already met are given entries into the tournament due to their high scores and other accomplishments. But there are three other spots that are up for grabs to anyone who can qualify. Here we get some more suspense as Dana, a character we’ve followed through the entire film attempts to make it into the finals. We also meet her competition, including Alex, a younger player who has major achievements in various arcade versions of Tetris.
In the end, Dana edges out Alex at the last possible moment and ensures her spot in the tournament. We then follow the characters as they go through the ups and downs of the matches.
I first saw this film at a film festival a few years ago. I was immediately enamored with it. I’ve never been that interested in Tetris. I’ve definitely played it, but it was always an idle past time. I never really thought about people playing it seriously. But when I saw how much these people cared, and how dedicated they were, and how much Tetris had affected their lives, I couldn’t help but be engaged.
Combine that with the heartbreaking story of Thor, and the excellent editing of the film, giving the audience every bit of information they need at the exact moment they need it, and you have a really good documentary.
The Double Feature
These two films worked pretty well together. They’re very different styles. Doomed is mostly talking head interviews, intercut with production images and videos, while Ecstasy of Order follows their characters around, with a much smaller number of talking head interviews. The style difference gives Ecstasy of Order an immediacy that Doomed doesn’t have. This isn’t a problem. In fact, you couldn’t tell the story of Doomed any other way. But it’s an interesting difference to note.
It was a nice night for two light and engaging movies telling interesting stories about engaged people.
I feel a little weird about this post. I’ve definitely covered more popular films before, in addition to foreign and art films that I normally cover, but I just kind of gave up while watching The Lower Depths. I have plenty of excuses, but I should have planned my time better so that I could have watched the films I’d planned on watching initially. I’ve let myself go until Friday without watching since I moved to a weekly post, which has worked ok. But this Friday, I had several errands and appointments during the day, and then with my AC going out, I ran out of time. Totally my fault. I could watch the films on Monday or Tuesday and have plenty of time when things go wrong.
However, I think films like these are definitely worth talking about, even if they’re not at the same level as all-time classics. As documentaries move more and more towards popular topics, we get to learn more about our shared histories, and uncover some of these hidden stories, even if they are somewhat inconsequential. There’s plenty of room for these lighter films, and I find myself watching more and more of them.
So, I could go right back to the other set of films that I already picked out from last week, but I discovered something interesting when prepping to watch The Lower Depths I realized there are two versions. One from Jean Renoir, and one from Akira Kurosawa. So one story, told by two of the greatest filmmakers of all time, one of which is my all-time favorite director? Is it my birthday?
So while I will eventually cover Wings of Desire, next week we will cover:
Jean Renoir – The Lower Depths (1936)
Akira Kurosawa – The Lower Depths (1957)
Should be a good time. See you then.