Note: after having put this up last night, to get it into the world, I decided that I wanted to re-think portions of the review. So it's been re-written and, towards the end, substantially changed.
I have never quite understood Dungeons and Dragons, or any other form of "role playing" - in the SCA, S&M, or what-have-you. There's some base level of discomfort with the idea of "lets-pretend" that I cannot wholly explain, which may reveal more about me than about D&D (which is surely no weirder than, say, Zombiewalks, which I have participated in most gleefully). As a child, I role-played often; I can remember "leading" a group of kids at the Glenwood Elementary jungle gym during recess through a make-it-up-as-you-go storyline called Dinosaurs on Mars, where we were the crew of a Star Trek-like spaceship evading prehistoric beasts while completing missions. I cannot remember any of the narratives we created - or even if there were any really "developed" stories - but I do remember being the captain of the ship, sitting atop wooden structures in the playground and shouting out to my crew to "Look out for that allosaurus!", for instance. This all seems like normal, healthy, and creative behaviour for five year old children to indulge in, but somehow, for adults in their 20's - or 30's or 40's - to invest significant amounts of their time in variants of such behaviours now seems to me to be suspect and wrong. Perhaps I fear that if I embrace such returns to childhood, some schoolyard bully will come along and beat me up? ...Whatever it is, it hits me at a gut level, which I then try to rationalize in any number of ways, usually by reference to perceived flaws on the part of the role-players: "These are social failures who have not been able to realize their perceived identities in the real world, and are resorting to make-believe as a way of making themselves feel better about themselves," and so forth; I'm sure you've heard this sort of thing before. But the fact may be that I simply don't have the courage or creativity to participate in such activities; I would be too embarrassed, too inhibited to even know where to begin, and if I actually found myself enjoying it, I would probably freak out and quit...
The Dungeon Masters, it turns out - playing at DOXA on the 26th - is the perfect D&D film for an ambivalent but curious outsider. It's directed by Keven McAlester, director of the very interesting doc on Roky Erickson, You're Gonna Miss Me, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in music, mental illness, psychotherapy, or dysfunctional family dynamics. Like that film, it manages to be quite fond of its subjects, while occasionally squinting quizzically at them, and sometimes openly chuckling. (Indeed, there are moments in The Dungeon Masters that are laugh-out-loud funny - like footage of a perfectly costumed Star Wars Stormtrooper exiting a bathroom stall at Gen Con, the role playing games convention that the film begins with, where McAlester met two of the three gamers he focuses on). The film isn't a history of D&D, and doesn't even do much to explain how the game is played; it mostly shows three different Dungeon Masters doing what they do, while sketching out their personal lives away from the world of gaming.
Like me, McAlester is an outsider to D&D, which has made some people within the gaming community skeptical about the movie; one gamer who reviewed the film found McAlester particularly unkind to two of the three gamers he focuses on, Richard Meeks and Elizabeth Reesman. There is probably some truth to this, insofar as I found both of them, as depicted by the film, quite unsettlingly strange, initially. Meeks, who - well-groomed and neat and possessed of a melodious, slightly femme speaking style - initially presents as gay, is gradually revealed to be a rather perversely sadistic Dungeon Master and a nudist (he's also an Army reservist and a convert to Judaism). The child of a broken home, he talks about the abruptness with which he walked out of his first marriage, and we are left to wonder just how happy his second marriage may be. (His current wife, Karen, says she finds gaming "a little strange" and rather boring). He appears to end games or kill off gamers with the same abruptness with which he left his first wife, chuckling at the thought of setting impossible challenges for his players, flat-out wasting them in a Sphere of Annihilation, or petulantly withdrawing as a Game Master when he tires of his players' quarrelling. Reesman, too, also seems to have difficulty in relationships, describing herself as a "drama attractor" who doesn't date well; she lives out the majority of her social life online, and her attraction to the matriarchal Drow Elf character she plays (and dresses as, when acting as a Dungeon Master at Gen Con or attending LARPs) seems tied to her men issues. Her decision to get into full-body Drow makeup - while definitely visually striking and even, in a very disturbing way, quite sexy - certainly crosses my threshold between "normal" and "weird," both compelling and repelling me at the same time (though as the film progresses one comes to accept it as simply an aspect of her life). Gamers who bristle at the cliche that they are "socially maladapted" types will probably not relish being represented by Reesman and Meeks in this film (and indeed, Reesman and Meeks may have their own issues with the way they are depicted).
(Elizabeth Reesman in costume, courtesy of DOXA; note that she even colours the part in her hair)
McAlester is kinder to his third subject, and the one, we gather, he got to know best, Scott Corum (who does not appear to have a website). Scott openly confesses to a level of social awkwardness as a youth that fuelled his interest in role-playing, which he admits to having gotten into "a little too deeply" at some points. Now a middle-aged father, Scott is shown trying to keep his creativity alive and to pay the bills and look after his family; his various career choices not having panned out - he's a trained hypnotherapist, for one, but couldn't find any work in the field - we see him working on a fantasy novel and plotting a self-promotional venture in the role of Uncle Drac, whose "repeated failures as a supervillain" have led him to a gig hosting a cable access talk show. There's heartbreakingly sweet footage of Scott playing with his son; he remains sympathetic during the odd bickering session with his wife (who must surely just want him to "get a real job"); and he tells many enjoyable and engaging stories (here's hoping that the tale of his experiences getting a vasectomy, left out of the film, makes it as an extra on the DVD). While hardly a prototype for success or maturity, he's a reasonably attractive and likable character, and makes it safe to be curious about D&D and role playing, insofar as he seems more-or-less normal.
Scott Corum in The Dungeon Masters, still provided by DOXA
Aside from any issues of whether it is entirely fair to Meeks, Reesman or Corum - because like Erroll Morris' Gates of Heaven or Chris Smith's American Movie, it does seem willing to laugh at its subjects a little - what The Dungeon Masters does really well is to use the stories of these three gamers to paint a portrait of an America where people's inner experience of ourselves - fuelled by fantasy and desire and delusion and the subjective experience of our own importance - diverges considerably from and competes with a far more mundane reality: the reality of the social roles that we all must play, of our jobs, business dealings, of our marriages and families and our responsibilities to others, who often don't care in the slightest how we "really" experience ourselves, as long as we fulfill our roles. As we watch yet another of Reesman's relationships fail, or watch Meeks reject yet another surrogate family, or see Scott find yet another failure waiting at the end of years of labour, the film becomes quite poignant, and by the end, whether we've judged them as weirdos or not, we wish all three well in their ongoing "quests" to fully bring their precious, unique selves into the world, by whatever means necessary. "I think, anybody that you dig into their lives, it becomes atypical," McAlester observed when his film screened at the 2008 TIFF, and one senses that he's right; our ability to identify with these gamers by the end of the film suggests that on some level we must be no less strange, no less human...
I think anyone interested in role playing and D&D (or who enjoyed You're Gonna Miss Me, which is tonally quite similar to The Dungeon Masters) would find much to think about with this film, and much to enjoy. Go with friends; you'll want to talk about it afterwards. (If you're a gamer, you may wish to strap on some armour before making it to the theatre, since there will be a few barbs thrown in your direction...).
The Dungeon Masters plays Tuesday at 9PM at the Vancity Theatre