Monday, June 6, 2011
Blogorium Review: The Dungeon Masters
The Dungeon Masters is a confusing film: in many ways, it feels like Trekkies, if less invested in the subject, or Ringers: The Lord of the Fans, if less championing. I get the impression that the film is trying to help audiences understand the world of gamers, particularly Dungeons and Dragons, but I'm not sure what the end result is supposed to be: inspiring or humiliating.
I really don't want to approach this in a mean-spirited way, but as the social awkwardness compounds on each of the film's subjects, one must wonder what Keven McAlester was hoping to accomplish in spotlighting the game masters. The film was initially supposed to be a history of D&D, and the opening of the film certainly reflects that, covering a convention of fans with short interviews, but quickly hones in on three subjects (who I'm not going to identify by name; the film does, and it isn't hard to find them, so I don't see much point in adding to that).
Each is a Dungeon Master (or, as they prefer, "Game Master"), who manage a campaign (or game) for multiple players. The GM sets the rules, creates the story, and guides their players through a campaign (which can last from a few hours to several years). After the convention the cameras follow them home to focus on their lives when they aren't leading campaigns.
What struck me isn't so much that they reinforce particular stereotypes about "fantasy" fans / gamers / D&D players, but the construction of the film almost seems to revel in slowly unfolding how much like the outside world's assumptions about what "D&D Nerds" must be like. The editing deliberately withholds information in order to increase the discomfort for viewers trying to sympathize with the film's subjects.
The first GM left a religious puppet show over "differences of opinion" and works as an apartment manager, although he hopes to jump-start his writing career and has met with a literary agent. At least, that's what we see at first. During a moment in his disheveled apartment, the door opens and his wife and son walk in, initially dispelling the implication he lives alone. Through conversation, it eventually becomes clear that he doesn't manage the apartment complex - his wife does - and that instead of "working full time," she argues that he "maybe works part-time" although he protests that he helps when she's not around. During a montage He explains how to "punish" your dice if they misbehave (complete with demonstration), delivers his epic sci-fi / fantasy novel (which he seems to be unable to cut down, per request), and shows disdain while doing sit ups. What exactly am I supposed to take away from this?
The second GM is in the Army Reserves, a nudist, and likes to kill off every group he plays with. He openly admits that he doesn't always have an ending for his campaigns and prefers to punish his players for doing foolish things like deciding to (and this is a direct quote) "run through a door." During back and forth interviews with one of the campaign members and the DM, it's clear his expectations are really unreasonable. The player explains that he spent time trying to discover which door was the exit, only to realize none of them were, but the GM scolds the players (to the camera) for not "testing" the doors to his liking, so the door they choose leads to a "Sphere of Annihilation." Earlier in the film, he tries to kill off another party and fails to after being unable to defeat them by rolling the dice.
The third GM is introduced in full make-up, explaining that she feels more comfortable as a dark elf. Living in Gulf Coast, Mississippi, the youngest of the dungeon masters alternates between Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) while searching for work. Her desire to avoid large corporations was thwarted after a small business owner behaved inappropriately with her, and before the film she left her boyfriend because he played WoW "too much." She finally takes her makeup off halfway into the film, and moves in with a guy who seems cagey about their relationship status. Her ex-husband was violently abusive, leaving her emotionally distant and unwilling to "rely on anybody" moving forward.
Their interview audio is often juxtaposed with drab, unappealing shots of parking lots, strip malls, and images of urban decay, which helps underline the desire to escape, but also lends a dispassionate, detached tone to the film. This American Life is sometimes criticized for being too "distant" from its subjects, but the construction of The Dungeon Masters often feels bored and condescending to its subjects. I felt like I should be laughing at their misfortunes (particularly the first and second GM's) but instead felt uncomfortable.
Maybe the film hits too close to home: my father played D&D in college, and remains a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. I know a number of well adjusted adults who play D&D, LARP, and also engage in related activities that don't at all embody the stereotypes reinforced in The Dungeon Masters. I don't play D&D - I did once when I was 8 or 9 at a friend's house - but I don't look down on people who do. I know people who LARP and do CosPlay; do I think it's kind of silly? Maybe, but I've also seen the work they put into the costumes, and the sense of community they feel.
In the interest of fairness, I hated the Dungeons and Dragons movie, but mostly because it was a really bad movie.
It's fair to say that horror fans are engaging in a more socially acceptable version of "geek" fandom, one that doesn't meet the kind of derision that Trekkies, D&D players, Star Wars or Comic Book fanatics do. The film community turns its nose up to horror and its fans, but the "heroes" emblazoned on horror t-shirts are covered in blood - they kill people in evil ways. People don't sneer at a Freddy Krueger the same way they do an Elf, but the fans aren't any less passionate or devoted to their geeky subculture. It doesn't escape me that I write a blog about movies under the moniker Cap'n Howdy, and that I too embody a number of characteristics and ideals lampooned in the film.
I don't mean to push people away from The Dungeon Masters - it's a compelling documentary, to be sure. It's entertaining, and does shine a light on a somewhat unrepresented branch of gamers, albeit in a less than favorable way. Rather than empathize with its subjects, instead we're left with an emotionally distant young woman, a unrepentant jackass, and a man with delusions of grandeur, caught on camera by a director that dwells on their inability to function as members of the real world. Entertaining? In an uncomfortable way - crueler audiences will howl with laughter - but yes, watchable by all means.