A new genre has developed in documentary filmmaking that you could call “humblecore”. These films take the lives of socially marginal people living out minor tragedies and show how they escape the drudgery of daily life through their inner fantasies and obsessions. They are small, quiet, officially unpretentious and their stories leave you feeling a little bit sad and a little bit voyeuristic.
The best of these is Jay Delaney’s Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie, a story of two aging Sasquatch hunters. Then there are the examinations of the lives of uber-fans like Trekkies or Ringers (the latter looks at the fanaticism for Middle Earth). Many of them deal with the world of fantasy role-playing with films like Darkon, Role Model and Monster Camp forming almost a subgenre. A forthcoming documentary from Morgan Spurlock about fans going to Comic-Con promises a similar approach.
The theme is always this: “My life may suck but I have this (fill in blank with genre, role-playing game or paranormal obsession) that makes my otherwise horrific existence bearable. Aren’t I weird?” This approach makes these films sometimes empathetic, sometimes hilarious, and often exploitative of their subjects.
The Dungeon Masters from director Keven McAlester is an important entry into this genre. When examining role-playing subcultures, filmmakers have previously followed the lives of LARPers (Live Action Role Players) in several projects and its hard not to see why. LARPing is a kind of costumed improvisational theatre in which payers spend entire weekends acting out the adventures of their fantasy characters. Its Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons lived out on a life-size scale and there’s a lot of strange and awkward action to film. Humblecore directors love strange and awkward.
The Dungeon Mastershas attempted something more difficult. This film explores the quieter world of tabletop gaming, specifically through the experiences of three GM’s or “Game Masters”. Its an ideal trope to examine. The Game Master is bard, special effects supervisor and narrative voice in tabletop games like D&D. They create scenarios for groups of players and guide them through fantastic worlds, introducing monsters, extra characters (known as NPCs or non-player characters) and various trials to be borne and overcome.
McAlester knows how to look for characters living in the shadows. His wonderfully realized 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me followed former frontman of the ‘60s band 13th Floor Elevators on his descent into bad acid trips, mental illness and fascination with aliens. In that project, McAlester showed himself a master of filming the cluttered, dirty, depressing apartment with his subject shuffling around in his own private world of suffering. He visits some of the same psychological places in Dungeon Masters and introduces us to Scott, Elizabeth and Richard, three game masters in disparate, though similar, circumstances.
Scott and Elizabeth are both living below the poverty level but also fashioning fantastic worlds. In fact, one of the strengths of McAlester’s work is that he shows his subject’s involvement in gaming and fantasy as outlets for their expansive and deeply creative imaginations. We watch Scott plugging away on a gigantic fantasy novel that gets no traction. We also see him producing a cable access television show about a failed super-villain, clips of which are hilarious. Elizabeth crafts her own body into a piece of art, using make-up to become a dark elf for both table top and live action gaming sessions. These are both deeply intelligent and creative people and the film makes you want to know them.
Richard, on the hand, is presented to us as the Ricky Gervais of game masters. Passive aggressive, obsessively writing “break-up letters to players he feels don’t show him enough respect, Richard embodies enormous self-regard. He sees himself himself as a kill master who can send his players into oblivion, destroying characters they have worked on for years. Interestingly, he is the only one of the GM’s followed by the film who could qualify as middle class.
This presentation is an example of this otherwise strong film’s limitations. The Dungeon Masters quickly slips into an excessive focus on the weirdness of its subjects for weirdness sake. We don’t learn much about tabletop gaming, including the fact that the second edition of D&D rules creates a competitive situation between game master and players. This fact explains some, if not all, of Richard’s seeming hostility to his game-mates.
We also learn, in a 30-second exposition, that Richard is an active nudist, though that theme is quickly dropped and the film never returns to it. Does it have anything to do with the experiences the film tries to document? What about the awkward descriptions of Richard’s conversion to Judaism at the end of the film? It’s never clear to what end McAlester includes this material.
Humblecore films are getting boring. The idea of “lets look at a subculture we don’t belong to and feel sorry/make fun of the poor slubs who have to use it for fulfillment” is a well-worn and morally problematic path. We need good films about American subcultures of all kinds, films that ask questions about politics, gender identities, and religion in relation to our obsessions.
McAlester’s film, while sometimes a deeply humane portrayal of life on America’s social and economic margins, never gets around to wondering why its gifted and interesting subjects are forced to live on those margins. I think he owed them more.