Sunday, January 14, 2007

Darkon: Review

I rather suspect film ick asked me to review Darkon because I have been known to lace myself into a leather corset on summer weekends (19 inches around—Keira Knightly still has me beat) and speak Elizabethan English. Is this true, dear editor?

[EDIT: Yep!]

Regardless, I’m one of those people who can recognize just a little bit of themselves in Darkon. This documentary follows a Baltimore-based LARP (Live Action Role Playing) group who spend weekends battling for the fate of Darkon, a fantasy world populated by imperious warlords, dark elves, mages and Spartan knights. The battles take place in football fields and parks, are fought with foam swords and maces, and punctuated with faux-Tolkien speeches. Darkon even possesses a real map, where “hexes” of land won and lost are carefully detailed. It is actually divided up into realms and when our story begins, this imaginary land is plunged into war. The largest and strongest realm, Mordom, is apparently ruthlessly marching over the smaller kingdoms and purging the land. The smaller realms are feeling oppressed and one Lord Bannor of Laconia rallies an Alliance to defeat them. I say all this because Darkon follows this storyline to its end, while showing the daily lives and personal confessions of those participating in it.

Though the subject matter and people could lend themselves to a lot of mockery, the directors have filmed this with a great deal of sensitivity and respect. That’s not to say there are not a few conscious jabs—we are deliberately introduced to one woman who lives in her parents’ basement and a young man who repeatedly tells us he’s never been in a romantic relationship. Of the 200+ members (I’ve checked their website) who reside in this world, I know there have to be many who work good jobs and are romantically attached. As someone who’s been involved with the Renaissance Faire, and known a few LARP players, I can assure you most don’t fit a “loser geek” stereotype, as it is a fairly expensive hobby.

In addition to detailing the intrigues and bloodshed of Darkon, the documentary also seeks to examine why grown men and women engage in this elaborate role-playing. The answer never varies. Darkon is a place where one can be the person they want to be and where their actions matter. It’s their way to bring honor and duty back into the modern world, many feel they are souls born in the wrong time. Several confess that it also provides a safe outlet for the rage they’re forced to suppress in daily life. (For Lord Bannor, I think this proves especially true, pay close attention to his sad family saga.) It quickly becomes apparent that this hobby is not limited to weekend battles. Their daily lives are consumed with shield repair, weapon practice and laying out the battle strategy. As one of the players points out at the final battle, the fate of their game itself is about to be decided. Though all of them insist that Darkon is merely an escape, I think the documentary leaves little doubt that fantasy IS reality for them.

But what this documentary doesn’t do, thankfully, is to judge them. After all, what’s wrong with it? Compare a LARP player with a dedicated sports fan and tell me the difference. It is only a degree of social acceptance. That’s not to say I didn’t raise an eyebrow at some of the Darkon drama, but my leather corset does render me sympathetic. We all like to dress up and we all like to live vicariously—some of us just do it in chain mail and others do it in football jerseys.

The cinematography and score in Darkon are remarkable. I have little doubt the filmmakers themselves are medieval enthusiasts from the shots of misty forests and the wail of bagpipes. The final battle is shown with all the seriousness and tragedy of Braveheart or Spartacus and if they weren’t studying their Peter Jackson beforehand, I would be very surprised...Darkon is not without its flaws. They fall prey to one of documentary’s cardinal sins and fall too in love with their subject and camerawork—do we really need almost 15 minutes of Skip Lipman’s son sword-fighting in the air on Halloween? How many times did we need to see Lipman packing his car or repairing his shield? I would have much preferred knowing, for example, if the hate between Mordom and Laconia carries through to real life, or do these guys meet up for pizza and beer? What about the uglier side of realm rivalries? The filmmakers seem so loyal to Darkon that any disillusion is quickly dispensed with—we never again see the young man complaining that no one takes his orders seriously, nor do we ever find out what really drove one Laconian to apparently dump his friends and join the other side. There was some intriguing conflict that was shoved aside in favor of more pontificating on the importance of Darkon in the participants daily lives. Interestingly, the participants never admit to borrowing from Tolkien or Sparta, a lot of stress is put on how original they are. Clearly, they wanted to focus on the “everybody wants to be a hero” aspect of LARP and not the warts, but then did they show us geek stereotypes so prominently?

Darkon is definitely worth a look and should be doubly fascinating for anyone outside the U.S., as Renaissance faires and medieval LARP clubs seem to be unique [EDIT: not quite - Brendon] to America. We keenly miss castles and kings, as none of these groups are based around the Wild West—but there are some that are, I am told, in Germany. But that’s a documentary subject all on its own.

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