Saturday, July 5, 2008

#9: Darkon


Written and Directed by Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel
Produced 2006

Take the nerdiest thing you've ever seen, then multiply it by 1,000.

When I was in high school, there was a small group of students that, seemingly out of nowhere, began to meet up in city parks or even outside school grounds and stage pseudo-epic battles with homemade foam swords, axes and shields.

They were not who you'd call "the cool kids."

Darkon is a documentary about the kind of fantasy roleplaying I witnessed in high school run completely amok. The world of Darkon (located in Baltimore, MD) is a surprisingly large community of people who have created maps, languages, characters and histories in a sort of walking and breathing version Dungeons & Dragons. They meet on weekends to act out these fantasies and progress their fictional story.

There's a general sense among the interviewed subjects of Darkon that their disturbingly deep involvement in this "game" is a response to their perceived lack of control in their real lives. They describe the soul crushing nature of their jobs, or the pressures of bills and work, and create these fictional selves to sublimate those feelings and become -- at least in the fictional sense -- powerful.

If that sounds kind of sad, you don't know the half of it. It's like if Hoop Dreams crash landed on a Star Trek convention.

I believe Danny, a side character who seems to not even be able to make friends in this alternative land of nerds, says it best:

"I like Danny but sometimes Danny doesn't have the balls to do what Danny needs to," says Danny. "You can see why. I'm more or less a nerd."

Almost everyone in the movie, when discussing their real self and their fictional "character," refers to themself in the third person. Dylan thinks this is creepy.

While managing to maintain objectivity throughout the film, directors Meyer and Neel seem to almost become too immersed in the fictional world of Darkon, focusing a large part of their story on a fictional power struggle. What is truly fascinating, and somewhat unsettling, are the moments where the subjects are outside of their game and yet seemingly still entrenched in the thing they claim is an escape. I'm thinking most of a particular scene in a Denny's where two friends argue loyalty while blurring the line between game and life. "I don't think there is an 'out of character' when it comes to this," says one of the men as you witness the crumbling of their friendship.

Obviously, making fun of nerds is like shooting fish in a barrel. I like nerds. I consider myself a nerd. Darkon comes from a whole other place. It exists on the level of the people playing the game, not judging them or mocking them (which, as I just said, would be too easy). The battle scenes are shot like actual Hollywood combat productions. The tension is presented in a dramatic way.

Don't get me wrong: I found myself shaking my head so much that I had to take Advil to stop the pain afterwards. It's just a credit to the directors that they let the action speak for itself. As lame this role playing sillyness might seem to me, I couldn't help but feel that a lot of the time, their hearts were in the right place. "Everything that was once noble and good in this world is gone," says "protagonist" Skip Lipman. "And it's been replaced with Wal-Mart."

Overall, I was impressed with the craft put into Darkon, and was generally amused. It made me think of one of my favorite movies, American Movie the story of independent filmmaker -- in the loosest sense of the term -- Mark Borchardt and the friends and family who help him make his dreams as a writer/director come true. The twist of American Movie is that while you might laugh at Borchardt and the insanely silly things he says and does, he still, in the end, has made a movie, essentially saying, "Laugh at me all you want. I made a movie. What have you done?"

Darkon does not inspire that same sense of missed opportunity.

For more on Darkon:
- More information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- The official site, which includes the official trailer and a link to buy the DVD.

A segment on both the movie and the game of Darkon from a Baltimore news station:

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