Documentaries are a tricky art, no less so than our more highly venerated films. I find it incurious, then, that most of the documentaries I watch (save for the ones produced by PBS and actually produced with great care and skill) are mostly slapdash jobs that briefly cover a passably interesting topic without any context, actual insights, or mind for the narrative gold within any story. Surely documentaries seem easier to produce: the facts, they're right there on the surface and it's only a matter of pointing a camera and filming the fireworks. This doesn't account for how a great documentary can be made about yak herding (Taiga from 1992) or why a mediocre documentary was fashioned out of a quest to beat the 1983 1,000,000,000+ point score in an arcade game called Nibbler.
Way back in 2007 or 2008, whenever I first saw The King of Kong, I was privileged enough to either have seen too many mediocre movies on Donkey Kong or too many mediocre 2007/2008 releases: it ended up in my top 10 of that year, whichever year I saw it. Let's say 2008. In any event, the film was a real saga of a strange man named Billy Mitchell and his battle against everyman Steve Wiebe to capture the world record in Donkey Kong. It hit all of the right notes and then some: a movie about something that I consider extremely low stakes took on a real tenor of suspense and, as if by magic, stakes didn't seem so low by the 90-minute mark. It was a well-crafted documentary and did what documentaries should do but seldom seem to do well: make the subject, whatever the subject, feel vital.
The subject matter of Man Vs. Snake is, to me, every bit as irrelevant with a slight tip toward exciting: in order to beat the record, the players involved must continuously play the game for some 40+ hours straight. The marathon angle, which the subjects (including Billy Mitchell and another King of Kong bizarro-maladroit, Walter Day) liken to an athletic competition between skilled athletes in peak physical condition (to say nothing of the psychology of athletics), is something that I'd never bothered to consider when considering video games. In my world, as a non-gaming person, I assumed disaffected maladroits played their games for 40+ hours because they were disaffected maladroits. It turns out that it can, of course, be related to the pursuit of a high score as recorded by King Maladroit Walter Day, he of the Twin Galaxies arcade.
I'll admit I have a little unearned contempt for the kind of people that this particular movie documents. I thought I'd developed a soft spot because of my warm reception of The King of Kong and Steve Wiebe's inherent likability. He didn't seem so bad, at least not compared to creepy Billy Mitchell. And that video game documentary also made the battle between two people something larger than two nerds fighting it out for the cup. Again: stakes? They were higher. This time, thanks in large part to the filmmakers belief that there's just something interesting about a man who's a good 18 months from a massive coronary and/or a diabetes-related amputation playing a glorified Snake game for 40 hours, there's no context. And because there's no larger puzzle in which these pieces fit I ask myself: why bother at all? If the filmmakers had actually sold the marathon aspects (mental turmoil, the actual breaking down of one's umwelt as they perfectly integrate with the activity in which they're engaged, physical symptoms other than blisters and a painful case of Video Gamers Ass) there would have been something to love. Instead, it's like a survey course in Man Vs. Snake: weird and uninteresting people doing something weird and uninteresting. The focus of the documentary is all wrong. Where are the yak herders when you need them?
Naturally, I found this on Netflix. The sentence "Yeah, I found it on Netflix," is starting to take on an edge of shame right on par with "They say it's got to be lanced". Nobody can be blamed for having 90 minutes (or, in the case of the more seasoned consumers, 6-10 90-minute periods of Netflix exposure a week) just as they can't be blamed for developing that boil. Netflix, boils: it happens. And while I can't imagine anyone has actually seen this (you know, besides the people who cheered it on right from the poster) I take no comfort in that: this was probably one of the better offerings available.