When I was a freshman in college, several older girls lived in my dorm building who wore velvet Ren Fair costumes, braided their hair like Princess Leia, and periodically went out to the otherwise unused soccer field next to the parking lot to hit each other with foam swords. Unlike most of the other students at my college, these girls were not drunk, on drugs, having a nervous breakdown, or attempting to make "performance art." They were LARPers, which I quickly learned meant "Live Action Role Players." I have never LARPed myself, but over the next four years I learned to diagnose the tendency, in the same way that a soldier in World War I would learn the signs of shell-shock. At my school, LARPers tended to have a certain nasal pitch to their voices, a certain Middle Earth quality to their style. The men wore shirts with lacy cuffs, the women corsets and hooded capes. For some reason unknown to me, their fingernails tended to be unusually long, but unpainted, talony. One LARPer wrote a purportedly nonfiction essay for class about a young girl discovering she was a werewolf, in the same coming-of-age way that another young woman might discover she was a lesbian ("'Why am I different?' the girl would ask herself, roaming beneath the light of the harvest moon"); the essay concluded with the line, "And that little girl was me." Another LARPer wrote and performed in a full-length theatrical production about Eleanor of the Aquitaine, which involved a fully articulated Pope puppet and musical compositions by several students who opted to keep their names out of the program.
Like the Rastas, New Agers, vegans, and nihilists I knew throughout my college years, some of the LARPers were nice, some were insane, and some were nice and insane. Though I couldn't bring myself to feign interest in any activities involving their magic staffs or pendulous owl-shaped medallions, I considered them harmless, even charming in their imaginative enthusiasm, and it didn't seem outside the realm of possibility that, at some point in the future, they might write a poem, put on a play, or design a costume that I would unironically love. I don't doubt that if I were to get back in touch with them, this would likely be the case.
So when I say the film Monster Camp was one of the most horrifically depressing documentaries I have ever seen, beating out by a long shot films like American Movie and even the Thin Blue Line (after all, in that one at least they CATCH THE GUY), I want to preface this remark by saying that, as truly weird as the behavior of LARPers can be, I do not find that behavior in and of itself depressing, or even unfamiliar.
Monster Camp is a film about the Seattle-area chapter of NERO, a role-playing organization that arranges LARPing weekends in what appears to be some sort of nature preserve. (A scene where two hikers are interviewed about the foam-sword melee they just glimpsed amid the trees provides one of the film's few breaths of reality.) Although we are repeatedly assured that the rules of the game are dictated by a handbook that outweighs most debut story collections, what is captured on video more closely resembles a horde of frizzy-haired nine year olds pretending to be pirates. The filmmaker follows the game-players home from NERO weekends to their everyday lives, where fluorescent-lit programming jobs or big box stockboy positions give the lie to their alternate lives as warriors or the undead.
I mentioned the film American Movie earlier. I loved that picture, and felt strongly that, despite the presence of Christopher Guest hovering over scenes of stunts gone wrong and repeated mispronounciations of "coven," the filmmaker managed to locate something very real and very meaningful in his central character's attempts to make art. Perhaps one reason that movie succeeded was because Chris Smith, the maker of the documentary, couldn't help but see something of himself reflected in another filmmaker. But, for whatever reason, real emotion did creep into the final cut. In his relationships with friends and family, with his community, with his art, our protagonist didn't become heroic, exactly, but he was revealed as a whole person whose interior life couldn't easily be summed up or dismissed out of hand.
But, although Cullen Hoback, the auteur behind Monster Camp, is clearly reaching for some similar revelations, I for the life of me couldn't find them here. Yes, these characters long to escape, and they sometimes acknowledge that (one of the most powerful moments is when a disabled player points out that, in a fantasy world, she doesn't have to have a wheelchair). But you don't have to see a movie to know that people who put on face paint and pretend to be monsters are trying to escape.
For me, the big surprise of Monster Camp is how little these folks surprised me. It's as though they read a handbook on how to behave exactly how we'd expect: if in-game they act and dress like characters we've seen from a dozen lame fantasy flicks, out-of-game they could be extracts from a flatfooted high school movie about nerds. Where are the details here? Besides an ice cream cone-shaped model rocket and an underexplained Coke can collection, they're MIA. There's nothing bizarre, nothing twisted, lurking here, nothing to love or hate -- nothing glimmering in those eyes except for the reflected images of a World of Warcraft screen. In the sections focusing on their real lives, these characters appear almost interchangable, their steering switched to cruise control. We see no passion, no anger, no grief. We see only gamers. Have the souls of these people crept out of their bodies, into a realm of utter fantasy? Are their lives simply empty houses with the lights still on?
I found this obliteratingly sad, worse than a movie shot outside a methadone clinic at the end of the world. But as I continue to think about it, I also seriously doubt it's true. I think Hoback simply failed to capture the footage that would lift this story from pathetic (in the modern, derogatory sense of the term) to "full of pathos." Maybe the problem was his strategy. After all, in American Movie, Chris Smith didn't set out to make a movie about the phenomenon of loser Midwestern filmmakers. He set out to make a movie about Mark Borchardt, director of "Coven." Instead of trying to capture the phenomenon of LARPing and what it means to LARPers in general, maybe Hoback should have tried to capture what LARPing means within the context of a particular life. Or, even better, just captured the images of that life, without trying to explain them. I think again of the werewolf I once knew, how she would emerge from her dorm building topless during fire drills, the way she stood up once and howled during philosophy class, the Harry Potter sorting hat she wore to our graduation and how she moved the tassel across the brim after she received her diploma. She didn't symbolize a subculture: she was simply, unavoidably, herself. And as such, she never failed to surprise.