Darkon makes very weird people seem normal

By Peter Valelly

In the last couple of years, a rash of critically praised and modestly commercially successful films have established a particular new face for the documentary genre. These films—including the celebrated features “Murderball,” “Wordplay,” and “Spellbound”—seek to document cultural phenomena both mainstream and obscure. They adopt a curiously earnest and objective stance towards their subjects, as if the filmmakers hope to legitimize, or, in the case of more obscure topics, merely publicize, the fairly strange people that they are documenting. While something like this documentary mode has been around for a while—see, for example, Errol Morris’ excellent 1979 movie “Gates of Heaven”, about the owners and patrons of pet cemeteries—the new batch seems somehow more hopeful and humanistic, perhaps explaining their popularity among audiences, critics, and filmmakers.
Because this style has yielded a glut of features, it threatens to become redundant and dull, but the plain fact is that these movies are often very interesting and very well made. This is why it is both good and bad that “Darkon,” which I saw February 13 at the Bell Auditorium in Minneapolis, fits this mold exactly.

“Darkon,” honored throughout 2006 at festivals including the Los Angeles Film Festival and South by Southwest, documents a LARPing organization called the Darkon Wargaming Club. What is LARPing, you might ask? Live Action Role Playing is when people act out role-playing games, usually fantasy-based à la Dungeons and Dragons, in real life, complete with costumes, fake weapons, fake spells, and more. Essentially, Darkon and the many other events like it are bizarro Civil War reenactments. If it sounds weird, it may be because it is. The film, however, brushes aside any sort of introduction for the uninitiated, and throughout its 90-minute running time it probes more pressing issues than just what LARPing is and why people do it.
The film begins abruptly with a staged sequence involving elves and human sacrifice, complete with titles explaining the scene’s significance in the Darkon storyline. The film then nonchalantly segues to the real world, introducing LARPing stay-at-home father Skip, better known by his Darkon alter ego “Banner.” It is here that “Darkon” establishes its dual storylines. On one hand, it documents a brief altercation between fictional kingdoms within the unending and perpetually expanding storyline that governs Darkon gameplay. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to a number of real, normal people from various walks of life that choose to participate in Darkon. Throughout the film, these individuals explain their attraction to Darkon and interact with each other both on and off the battlefield. However, the film is also privy to important developments in their own stories, as when a Darkon-obsessed 28-year-old former stripper moves into her own apartment for the first time in her life.

We also witness bizarre, blurry moments of intersection between the fantasy and real worlds. Skip confronts a former teammate who has betrayed his kingdom to ally himself with the evil forces of Mordom, but instead of doing so on the playing field, he does it in the quite unfantastical setting of Denny’s. Only when the traitor accuses Skip of trying to force him out of character, do we receive any hint as to whether they were in character to begin with. Yet Skip promptly dismisses the entire debate between Darkon and reality, insisting that Darkon’s “little world” is “just as real as the big world.” One young participant, meanwhile, describes how Darkon gives him a sense of belonging and accomplishment that he sees as preparation for his meek real-world identity to tackle life’s problems. He has even established a romantic relationship within Darkon that, he explains, is all he’s ready for at the moment.
Scenes like these hint tantalizingly at how real the Darkon universe is to its participants despite being based on the decidedly unreal type of fantasy narratives that populate film, TV, and fiction. A fighter for the fictitious country of Mordom notes that he and his comrades “didn’t base Mordom on any actual historical event.” Meanwhile, we see Skip silently and perhaps reverently contemplating a TV adaptation of the story of King Arthur, but he is entirely unfazed by news coverage of deaths in Iraq as he draws up strategic plans for his kingdom’s climactic battle against Mordom. The film even briefly profiles a soldier recently returned from Iraq. His horror at the realities of the war make it clear that Darkon is his preferred site of battle, a place in which he and others can feel the pride and honor of heroism without confronting the cold realities which, in the “real” world, seem inseparable from it.
Nonetheless, a sense of genuine pathos accompanies the film’s climactic foam-sword faux-bloodbath. “Everybody wants to be a hero,” intones Skip early in the film, and given the fervor with which some people have committed themselves to Darkon, it’s hard to watch some succeed and others fail. It’s refreshing and almost inspiring, then, to visit the Darkon Wargaming Club’s official website to find that the activity continues every other Sunday in a remote field near Baltimore. And unlike much of its company in this new school of documentaries, “Darkon” documents a subculture open to everyone. This is not to say that I’ll be heading to any of Minnesota’s many regular LARP events, listed on the website larplist.com. Yet I exited the Bell Auditorium Tuesday night with a fleeting desire to be a part of something that I had hardly known existed beforehand, which I may not be able to say when the next tiresomely endearing subculture documentary comes along.