Wednesday, September 10, 2008


(USA 2008)
Directed by: Keven McAlester
Cast: Scott Corum, Richard Meeks, Elizabeth Reesman

In the fall of 1982, my friends and I were dealt our own Night That Panicked America that shook our god-fearing, Ottawa Valley hamlet. CBS premiered an otherwise unremarkable TV movie entitled Mazes and Monsters that paired Meatballs star Chris Makepeace opposite a then-largely-unknown Tom Hanks. Based on a novel by Rona Joffe (and shot in Canada, with a musical score by Hagood Hardy!), it was a dramatization of the events surrounding the disappearance of Michigan university student James Dallas Egbert III, whose mind was apparently destroyed by his obsession with the insidious social menace of the day: role-playing games--specifically, Dungeons and Dragons.

While overwrought and heavily fictionalized (the case's investigator disproved most of Joffe's account, blaming the youth's problems on drug addiction and homosexual intolerance), it didn't matter: the sentiment drove home with the usual reactionary parental and religious groups looking for an easy blame for society's ills. All role-playing games were immediately banned in my high school, (even my favorite, Car Wars!) and "D&D" became a perjorative only slightly less prestigious than "slasher flick" and "heavy metal". Of course, typical of such media circuses, the controversy didn't hamper TSR's sales in the least--D&D sales reportedly quadrupled within a year of the film's broadcast!

While I was a serious sci-fi and comics buff, I was never a disciple of role-playing games...their slow pace bored me silly, their concepts smacked of a third-rate Terry Brooks novel, and I couldn't stick within the rules--why couldn't my cleric just pull out a sword and decapitate everyone? If this was indeed "role playing", then why couldn't I do what I wanted? Besides, I was too hooked on Robotron and Defender...

...which brings me to this age of Jack Thompson's specious, reactionary crusades against Rockstar Games (echoed, unfortunately, by persons who-should-know-better like Hilary Clinton) and the surfeit of "studies" linking videogames with everything to childhood obesity to youth crime . Compared to the outcry over "Hot Coffee", preaching the evils of role playing games, which usually involves bunch of aging geeks tossing six-side die and scribbling over character sheets while hopped up on Diet Coke and Pizza Pockets, seems about as absurd as the Frederic Wertham trials.

Filmmaker Keven McAlester's engaging documentary The Dungeon Masters (the film's title echoes the name of the book by the investigator of Egbert III's tragedy) explores the current state of role-playing games--yes, people actually still play them--by following three devotees who are well into adulthood and whose mundane lives are both enlivened and arrested by their committed fandom.

The subjects, at first glance, embody the stereotypical image of an aging sci-fi geek who's spent a little too much time under convention hall flourescents getting acquainted with spirit gum and Joe Louis cakes, but beneath their respective defensive bravado are more complex individuals. There's more than a little bit of The Simpson's smug "Comic Book Guy" in slovenly Scott, an unemployed hypnotherapist who lives in a rat's nest apartment in California where his wife toils as the building's custodian and mother to their infant son while he plods away on a fantasy novel and assorted filmmaking efforts. His cable access series Uncle Drac’s Magical Clubhouse (check out a clip here) has won him local cult status but his treatment for an epic fantasy novel has him courted by a major fantasy publisher until his meddlesome agent costs him the deal.

In Louisiana, computer programmer Elizabeth has endured a series of bad jobs and an abusive marriage, retreats into her alter ego as a "Drow elf", right down to ash-hued makeup and pointed ears. In the elfin society, women wield the power and can have men executed. Surviving Hurricane Katrina, she begins a new relationship with a fellow male "Drow" (love means never having to hide the greasepaint) and aspires to steady employment in a "corporate" job until circumstances find her single again.

Middle-aged Richard freefalls through life in Florida as a motivational speaker, nudist, U.S. army reservist, and dungeon master-for-hire as he seeks to reconnect with an adult stepson in the military whom he abandoned as a child, and ultimately, renounces the fantasy realm to re-embrace his Jewish faith.

It's Richard's story that is the most bittersweet, but I suppose if I related to any one character more than another, it would be Scott, who clearly has talent but whose impatience and fractured work habits have cost him the creative path he'd prefer to emulate than simply follow as a dutiful fan (although I am thinner and have managed to forge a profitable, if not exactly illustrious, living as an artist). By virtue of Elizabeth's comparative youth (she's only 23), she has time to mature and develop (I hope!) a better taste in partners.

Documentaries about obscure subcultures, esp. those with boomer/Gen-X cache, are nothing new these days--witness the recent sensation King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters and the glut of reality TV that sets up its vain, washed-up subjects for ridicule. But rather than do the obvious and chide the subjects for their extended adolescence and self-denial (and kudos to Scott, Richard, and Elizabeth for placing so much trust in the filmmakers), McAlester structures each of their tales as something of a personal, heroic journey, with dramatic pay-offs that shrewdly suggest that their fervid imaginations and obvious (if misguided) intellects are as empowering as they could be deemed imprisoning.

A former music video director and video artist, McAlester has an eye for composition that's complemented by the work of Richard Linklater's DOP Lee Daniel (whose distinctive work on Slacker and Dazed And Confused was good prep for these subjects and locales), and a playful, evocative score by Blond Redhead.

If I found the film lacking in one aspect, it's that I wouldn't have minded some screen time with D&D creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who likely could have never foreseen the phenomena they created as a series of fanzines back in 1974, or perhaps author Steven Johnson, whose book Everything Bad Is Good For You dares to take the contrarian view and praises marginalized media (like role-playing games) for their unique, even beneficial, developmental and cognitative strengths.

©2008 Robert J. Lewis