Back In Reality: DARKON (2006).

Posted: July 27, 2011 in Documentaries, Movies (D)

Darkon is a 2006 documentary about The Darkon Wargaming Club, a group based in Baltimore which numbers, on average, 200 active members.   The group’s website notes they’ve been in operation since 1985, and are clearly still as popular as ever.  They meet every other Sunday, in local parks or on high school sports fields, to do this…

That’s right. They’re live-action role-players, or LARPers, for those who prefer acronyms.  The players of Darkon create detailed characters for themselves, which they then enact in Shakespeare-In-The-Park style dialogue scenes which ultimately end on the fields of battle.  No one gets hurt, no one loses an eye.  Occasionally, feelings are hurt.  Darkon, for the record, is the name of the imaginary kingdom over which the participants fight and [pretend to] die.

Darkon the movie focuses primarily on the two appointed leaders of the opposing factions. Skip Lipman is a burly ex-football player and young father, and Kenyon Wells is a verbose single man who seems to be around the same age.  The plot of the movie, such as it is, deals with Skip and Kenyon balancing their personal lives and personal histories with the upcoming battle over domination of the realm of Darkon.  It’s somewhere between the Super Bowl and the Battle Of Helm’s Deep.

Movies as well-known as Role Models and TV shows like Community have mined LARP-ing for laughs, and movies as obscure as The Wild Hunt have even found room for horror in the subject, but Darkon doesn’t take any such approach.  The directors of the documentary, Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel, fix their cameras on these subjects, and everyone else in the movie, with a clear-eyed and consistent objectivity.  Skip and Kenyon and every other participant in the movie lay out their personalities and insecurites, hopes and regrets, with an honesty that can fairly be called brave, and if anything, the film shoots them as such, with swooping camera shots and occasional moodily-lit and dramatically-composed “hero” shots mixed in with the standard hand-held and talking-head documentary techniques.

The cool thing about Darkon is that when you watch it or read about it, it tells you more about yourself, or whoever is describing it to you, than it passes any kind of judgment on its subjects.  Do you look at the documentary’s style and appreciate the ways in which it is well-made?  You’re probably geared towards more technical interests.  Do you wonder what a surprisingly-popular hobby like this says about American culture?  Do you notice the irony (or the tellingness) of the fact that these people are staging medieval battles during an era of several real wars?  Do you notice that there are only two black people in the entire movie (one of whom talks about his time in the armed services), even though we all know from The Wire that Baltimore is hardly lily-white?  You may be more of a big-picture, psych-minded, analytical thinker.

Do you decide it’s nice that these people find refuge from their sometimes-frustrating lives in a genuinely-social community that encourages imagination?  You’re an optimist.  We need more of you.  Do you jokingly dismiss these folks as “nerds” and “geeks”?  You’re not wrong, but you’re also kind of a dick.  We’ve got enough of your type already.

Personally, I guess I’m all of the above.  I have a conflicted thought process when I watch Darkon, or any of the other movies or documentaries which have sprung up as the activity seems to grow in cultural awareness, if not popularity.  I grew up loving dragons and damsels-in-distress and swords and horses and ogres and all that medieval-fiction kind of stuff, but never enough to make it a habit, the way these people do.  In a way, I guess overall I envy those who love their hobbies so much that they dive headlong into them, regardless of what the cool kids think.  I never loved any one thing that much.  I’m probably the victim of too many interests, can never settle on committing to just one.  Maybe my attention span is too short.  Maybe there are other problems.

The one time I ever played Dungeons & Dragons, it did not go well.  I ran in a few different social circles in high school, and while I was surely never one of the cool kids, I could never quite fit in on the other side either.  When I was asked by a friend to join his D&D group, I was the odd man out from the start.  For one thing, the Dungeon Master (the kid who makes up all the rules and presides over the game) and I were not friends.  For another, I had very immediate, very basic, very anti-authoritarian objections to the game itself.  The game of Dungeons & Dragons, like the LARP-ing in Darkon, has intricate and specific rules.  In D&D, when you make the decision to do anything in the story, you have to roll several varieties of dice to determine the outcome.  I could never understand why a game based in storytelling needed to add casino rules.  Why willingly impose limits upon your imagination?

This really isn’t a question you should ask folks who are serious about their D&D.

Depending on your group, joking around is also not recommended.  I got that memo a little too late, and probably wouldn’t have heeded it anyway.  I mean, the word “orc” is just too funny, right?  I survived a little bit more than an hour, not counting all the exasperated breaks.  My moment of truth came when an army of orcs were stampeding towards the forest where our group was resting.  I immediately decided I wanted to climb up a tree.  This took some arguing.  Finally, the Dungeon Master relented and let me climb the tree.  Then, he told me, my character, who was a ranger and really should have been more wilderness-savvy, slipped on a branch and fell to the ground, instantly breaking his neck.  I didn’t even have to roll the dice on that one.

I hopped up and headed home, and from then on I was free to pursue girls and sports (both of which I was truly terrible at), and drawing and wise-cracking (for which I was better equipped).

As for the Dungeon Master, well, we never ended up with our Hollywood bonding moment.  There was a dark rumor senior year that he paid a sophomore to accompany him to the prom, and a little extra to give him a kiss.  (That probably wasn’t true.)  Think I heard he’s an investment banker now.  I honestly couldn’t say.

The point is, this stuff isn’t for everyone.  Darkon gives the men and women who love role-playing all the dignity, and occasionally even the valorization, for which they could ever hope.  If you want to judge them, that’s your right.  If you’re inspired to join them, more power to you.  If you’re an armchair sociologist, there’s plenty here to digest, that’s for damn sure.

Darkon is playing tonight at the 92Y Tribeca.  Directors Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel will be on hand provide a Q&A session.  This movie raises a whole lot of questions, in my mind at least, so they’ve got their work cut out for them.

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