Friday, January 21, 2011
Keven McAlester - The Dungeon Masters (2008)
Whoever thought a movie about RPG Dungeon Masters could be so funny, tragic, touching, and controversial?
Scott Corum is a struggling writer, husband, and father. Richard Meeks is an Air Force Reservist, municipal waste employee, nudist, and doting husband. Elizabeth Reesman is an unemployed, divorced, LARPing Katrina survivor. All have one thing in common: they're all D&D Dungeon Masters.
Keven McAlester's Dungeon Masters investigates how the real lives these characters have overlapped with their fantasy life. Audiences be warned: this isn't a freak-show comedy at the expense of socially withdrawn nerds, but a thoughtful, endearing look at how hobbies can shape lives built around them.
Make no mistake—the characters of Dungeon Masters aren't a bunch of role playing whackjobs hustling their days away for their next level up. While the film explains the rules and appeal of the game for those of us late to the party (myself included), the documentary's real focus is on the personal lives of each of these characters.
We follow Scott as he struggles to pull his family out of their cramped housing development by selling his epic fantasy novel. Richard attempts to reconcile a group of Dungeons and Dragons players, as well as a family membe he abandoned over a decade ago. Elizabeth spends half of the documentary in 'dark elf' make-up before bringing us into the reality of her life as a recovering spousal abuse and sexual harassment victim using RPGs as an escape valve.
McAlester and his crew skirt around the game itself, realigning instead on the paralleled stories of three creative people whose social struggles complicate their real and fantasy lives equally. Those who have ever based relationships on common obsessions will sympathize with the frustrations of The Dungeon Masters. If Richard, Elizabeth, and Scott aren't alienated by friends and loved ones obsessed by the game, they're given equal amounts of apathy from those who aren't. The trio is driven by life philosophies rooted in their gaming experiences and The Dungeon Masters depicts the positive and negative side effects of these convictions with a delicate hand. They're flawed, egotistical, and equally sympathetic characters that maintain audience investment through all of their documented trials and tribulations.
Most interesting is the film's constant twisting of audience expectations. Beginning as a film about the self-destructive addictiveness of RPG games, the narrative is twisted into a character study of three Game Masters whose social and personal lives are crushed by their gaming immersion. Finally, McAlester subverts it all to reveal a group of relatively normal people whose reality is changed, for better or worse, by the outcome of their lives in a fantasy world.
The film is ambitiously stylish in its camera work and editing. Especially inventive is the chapter structure of the narrative, told in RPG character sheets complete with purposely overwrought titles like "Expedition to the Outlands" and "Into the Maelstrom." The soundtrack, featuring tunes by misfit groups Blonde/Redhead and Guided By Voices fits the movie perfectly.
Said gushing aside, the film is not without its flaws. It's prone to short tangents and unrestrained "character moments" that could've been left on the cutting room floor (such as Richard's nudism).
It has also been accused of exploiting both the D&D community as well as subject Reesman. Elizabeth goes on record saying the film manipulated its depiction of her personal life and pressed her to speak about 'off topic' subjects on camera despite her opposing wishes. Similarly, some Dungeons and Dragons fans are taking the film to task (as evidenced by its Amazon reviews) for focusing on "extreme" D&D cases and playing fast-and-loose with the details of the game they cherish.
On the flip side of this viewpoint, one can argue that the nature of populist documentaries (or movies in general) is rooted in manipulation for the sake of entertainment. It's a genre reveling in reality re-written for the convenience of deft storytelling. Dungeon Masters hides its seams well, but is clearly guilty of fudging the truth on many occasions. Depending on what side of the argument you fall on, the film's good intentions and meticulous construction might not counterbalance these valid criticisms. It's best to check it out and decide for yourself.