Friday, March 27, 2009

The Dungeon Masters (Movie Review)

A glove fits tightly onto a hand. Buttons securely hold the vest together. A cloak is draped over broad shoulders, hanging all the way down to a pair of boots. A sword is tucked safely into a belt. A wide shot reveals not a superhero, not a ranger, but a middle-aged overweight man named Scott, standing in a hotel room. As he strides off screen, we realize that he is a hero of a very different kind of epic: documentary filmmaker Keven McAlester’s The Dungeon Masters.

As a tale of those engrossed in the subculture of roleplaying games, what The Dungeon Masters makes refreshingly clear is that games like Dungeons & Dragons aren’t about competition and winning; that’s not why these fans and fanatics are so enraptured. They’re not all just following the same, mass-printed storyline along with everyone else. The point of the game, and in some ways, the point of The Dungeon Masters, is that these D&D parties are made up of storytellers, forging their own adventures. That’s what’s so appealing, that’s what people can obsess over. So many people are infatuated with much less interesting things, yet the ones who exercise their creativity acting as storytellers are the ones who get the flack.

The film spotlights three Game Masters (or GMs) from three different walks of life. Scott, an apartment complex manager, hopes to translate his storytelling skills into a dream career as a fantasy novelist, though, in the meantime, he struggles to support his son and always-emasculating wife (who won’t even give her husband the benefit of the doubt even in front of the camera). Richard, a casual nudist and reserve in the armed forces, is a passionate GM, the kind that will really hams it up during game sessions. He wants you to be afraid, to hate him as a bearer of bad news, though he’s more entertaining than menacing. Problem is, he’s got a self-righteous knack for ticking his party-mates off during their monthly games. Elizabeth is a young, reputably inventive woman who spends half her time painted black and wearing a silver wig. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, she merely seeks a job she can stand and a boy to share her home and hobbies with who also realizes that she’s got a brain as well. Each one of these GMs has unique abilities in terms of storytelling (Scott’s novel-like stories, Richard’s showmanship, Elizabeth’s creativity).

The Dungeon Masters begins as you might expect, revealing this cult of geeks who dress up for conventions, lovingly paint miniatures, and engross themselves in a dice-throwing phenomenon. The film seems a bit skeptical at first, much like a non-D&D observer might be. It’s not difficult for an outsider to look at what some of these people do on a regular basis and find it quite silly and ridiculous. But once The Dungeon Masters sucks you in by saying, “Okay, yes, look, they’re freaks,” it begins to stay out of the way, letting each story tell itself, and by their very nature, let each character reveal their similarities between them and the audience member (and vice versa).

Scott has the ambitions of too many struggling artists. His day job is a temporary fix, but in his wife’s eyes, the writing is what’s temporary. He sits at his computer, writing page after page as his wife vacuums loudly. So dedicated is Scott to his goals that when his wife brings in old storage boxes that contained mold, making the apartment virtually unlivable, Scott still types away at his keyboard, wearing a gas mask. He weathers the rewrite process of his novel with his agent who isn’t sure what to think of his work. Hearing that, should his book be picked up, publishers would be looking for a self-marketer, Scott concocts an idea for a public access television show. The premise? A villain realizes he’s terrible at his job, and that his true calling lies in being the host of a public access homemaking show. It's not bad, actually. Gaining and losing support as the year goes on, Scott takes his lumps and keeps pushing forward.

For many years in Florida, Richard had on ongoing D&D game with a specific group of friends. The players built their first characters up from scratch together and played this game often. However, there was a fallout: Richard slaughtered every single one of their characters with no remorse. In a scenario he conjured up, the party was trapped in a room. Fed up with the situation, a player decided to jump through one of the room’s windows, and everyone follows. However, only after they made their decisions did Richard inform them that the window was a portal that led to a “Sphere of Annihilation.” Game over for everyone, hand in your character sheets. They haven’t really talked to Richard since. The story is quintessential for this man, as he is stubbornly unapologetic. Shortly after, he abruptly left Florida, his wife, his family, and moved away, never turning back. Now, he’s making a return trip to see his stepson and to have one more game with the old crew.

So many unpredictable things happen during The Dungeon Masters, which spans a year between two Gen Cons. McAlester expertly weaves the events together, lining up the story arches to form somewhat of a poor man’s epic (complete with enumerated chapters with names that could appear in a Tolkein novel). The documentary doesn’t mind taking a few jabs at the seemingly inherent silliness of these characters’ hobbies, but it’s also sure not to judge its subjects. After all, they’re just like you and me.