Of friends and jaguars: a movie review

I have not posted any movie reviews yet, even though I have long thought to do so. Ironically, my first one is pretty relevant for this blog’s nature. I have watched Zero Charisma (2013). I did not know much about it, except that it was presented by many as a satire “from within” the gaming world. Is it such a thing? Well, in Italy there is an idiom which literally translates as “a friend of the jaguar’s” (un amico del giaguaro). It must have been invented by a stand up comedian in the Fifties. A guy wants to go hunting a certain jaguar, but his friend overwhelms him with objections and skepticism. “Are you a friend of the jaguar’s?” means “Whose side are you on?”. While watching the movie, I could not help thinking that to gamers, this is going to be the jaguar’s BFF.

I must premise something: my fellow players and I were always comparatively isolated in the larger RPG community, and I had left RPGs almost entirely by the last year in high school. So I cannot reasonably be assumed to be personally offended by this movie. So, nothing very personal, but yeah, this movie is problematic. It is problematic first, because it is unfair, and second, because it reinforces the age-old stereotypes about RPGs.

The unfairness lies in at least two aspects. First, the depiction of Scott is grotesque beyond any justification. Even the closest real world models for this character should rightfully feel wronged by this movie. In my personal experience, I can think of only one guy who very remotely could be likened to Scott: a huge guy, a passionate DM who had a fairly bullying attitude (at the table and elsewhere) and dealt with some personal frustrations not in the most fruitful way. Still, he was fairly liked by his players and friends, who by the way were not the sort of submissive slaves shown in the movie. Most of what Scott does is well beyond what any RPG fanatic would do. I could not think of anybody who besides painting miniatures also played with them like a 6 year old, especially if not under the influence of some heavy shit. Second, and most important, this movie never shows, or even suggest, the fun and pleasure of RPGs: the only time we see the players having a good time, it is because the ‘cool’ new player cracks a good joke. So in what way is this movie sympathetic to the hobby? Compare it the hundreds of movies about sport: they may show scenes of personal sacrifice, mental cruelty and whatnot, but on the background there is always the magic of the game itself. Not here.

Even the entirely sensible message (which I earnestly espouse) that a hobby should not be taken too far, be pursued obsessively or be overly time consuming, in my real life experience seems to be applied consistently only to RPGs or similar nerdy hobbies. In Europe, most males from the early childhood to their oldest age are interested in football with a degree of enthusiasm that at times borders on the psychosis. Is this ever laughed at, ridiculed or stigmatized? Occasionally perhaps, but hey: boys will be boys, right? Again, take music. People who play in a band are often absorbed to an incredible degree in their hobby, and are prone to personality clashes not unlike those seen in the movie. Would anybody judge their tribulations as “pathetic” as Scott’s? Not really. Yes, people in amateur indie bands might be labeled as “losers” (stupid word I only ever hear in American movies), but they are still cooler than you. Do you see the pattern? There must be something sad and morbid specifically about RPGs! In fact, [SPOILER warning, for those who care] the ending was supremely irritating. Scott is shown to be employed (in some capacity) as an entertainer at a nursing home, and to play RPGs with the elderly patients. It was meant to show that Scott has learned something, and still he does not give up on the game entirely, but in the context of the movie it is all the more insulting: we had already been reinforced in the prejudice that RPGs are for maladjusted eternal children, now we find out that they also befit quite nicely semi-demented old folks. Good publicity, indeed.

To conclude, this movie really is the Thinking Man’s Dark Dangeons or Mazes and Monsters. Be serious for a second: intelligent, well read people would never really think that D&D can bring people to go insane and get lost in a cave, or to learn black magic to kill their own father. But everybody is ready to accept RPGs as an embarrassing, grotesque pastime for people who have lost at life, and this movie is exactly what they need to be convinced.

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