‘Dungeon Masters’ doc is frought with perilous pathos

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“Pretty much anyone who plays Dungeons & Dragons also plays World of Warcraft,” declares a twentysomething woman covered in pitch-black makeup to give her the appearance of a drow, or dark elf.

The Dungeon MastersNot only is the dread lady dead wrong about that, but in a stroke of delicious irony the next scene shows us the same woman (still in blackface) stretched across her bed on her stomach with a laptop, playing WoW as she is telling us about her most recent boyfriend — whom she had to dump because, she says, all he wanted to do was play WoW.

Wow is right.

That’s just a taste of the desolation you’ll find in The Dungeon Masters, a documentary from Keven McAlester that premiered at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival and tells the story of three people obsessed with aspects of the granddaddy of all RPGs. It recently became available in Amazon.com’s Video on Demand section, and the online retailer is taking pre-orders for a DVD release.

You can find a trailer and full synopsis for The Dungeon Masters on the jump. The doc starts with an overview of what D&D is and how it’s played, but very quickly McAlester transitions to a more personal tale of those who play the game.

It’s not without its cringeworthy moments.

The filmmaker shines an unflinching light on a hobby known for its extremes of social awkwardness and cult fervor, and does little to paint any other kind of picture in the space between. There’s an apartment manager struggling to make it as a fantasy novelist and make a movie about a supervillain who ventures into the world of cable access cooking shows, while his befuddled young son obviously just wants his dad to play with him. A veteran DM who hates his players (the feeling’s mutual) and is also a nudist. And a Hurricane Katrina refugee, the aforementioned lady LARPer, who seems to float from one abusive relationship to another. All the while, they’re dealing with everyday folks’ everyday problems, and not very well.

It’s a study in raw humanity, which stands in stark contrast to the idea of anybody finding enjoyment in what is supposed to be a game.

The Dungeon Masters is from Saving Throw Productions. It runs about an hour and a half and is unrated, but languge and some very unfortunate nudity means it’s not one for the kids. Experimental indie rockers Blonde Redhead provided an impressive original score of 15 tracks, which are due to be released this year on a soundtrack album.

An evil drow elf is displaced by Hurricane Katrina. A sanitation worker lures friends into a “Sphere of Annihilation.” A failed super-villain starts a cable-access show involving ninjas, puppets and a cooking segment.

These are the characters, real and imagined, of Keven McAlester’s documentary THE DUNGEON MASTERS. Against the backdrop of crumbling middle-class America, two men and one woman devote their lives to Dungeons and Dragons, the storied role- playing game, and its various descendants. As their baroque fantasies clash with mundane real lives, the characters find it increasingly difficult to allay their fear, loneliness, and disappointment with the game’s imaginary triumphs. Soon the true heroic act of each character’s real life emerges, and the film follows each as he or she summons the courage to face it. Along the way, THE DUNGEON MASTERS re-imagines the tropes of classic heroic cinema, creating an intimate portrait of minor struggles and triumphs writ large.

Keven McAlester was born in New Haven, Connecticut; grew up in Dallas, Texas; and graduated from Harvard University. THE DUNGEON MASTERS is his second feature. His first film, YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME, won the jury prize at AFI’s Silverdocs festival, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards. His other recent work includes “Seven Plus or Minus Two,” a short film installation now showing at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin; and music videos for Spoon, the New Year, and Caroline Polachek of Chairlift. He’s also currently producing a documentary by director Rory Kennedy for HBO. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.

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Jayson Peters

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