Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Top 10 Geekumentaries

In the last decade, making documentaries about the many niches of geek culture has become all the rage. This is due to the fact that geek culture itself is all the rage (or teh rage). The subject matter is varied and detailed, and its practitioners are generally quite passionate about their off-beat hobbies. Fruitful territory for documenting.

I'm not sure how it all went down, but one day somebody flipped over the rock where all the geeks and nerds were congregating (LAN party), and now we're all exposed, our pale flesh wriggling in the sunlight. It turned out we were actually kind of fascinating in a squirmy sort of way and... BAM! The geekumentary was born.

There are a multitude of geekumentaries out there you may or may not have heard of, so I whipped up my own Top 10 list (Top 10 lists are all teh rage).

10. Avatars Offline (2002)

This one came out quite some time ago and was all about people who meet online, and then in real life. It came out before World of Warcraft, however, so the online landscape was quite different from what it is now. That in itself makes Avatars Offline interesting to watch, though it is fairly difficult to find now. See it if you are interested in MMO history and online relationships, and can locate a copy.

The good news is, a new treatment of this subject matter is in the works in the form of Second Skin, due in theaters any day now, and DVD early 2009 (more info on that below).

9. Darkon (2006)

Darkon documents a group of weekend warriors in Maryland...literally, weekend warriors, as these guys are taking part in an honored geek tradition (oft considered geeky even among geeks), the LARP (Live-Action Roleplay).

The style of LARP featured in Darkon is very focused on land ownership and battles between kingdoms. It's more realistic than the style of LARP featured in Monster Camp, and the mere fact that there are enough sub-genres of LARP to result in two very different geekumentaries on the same subject is in itself impressive. Available on Netflix.

8. Wordplay (2006)

Wordplay explores the secret world of crossword puzzles, through the crafty eyes and at the newsprint-stained hands of those devoted to them. ("His thumb and forefinger are blackened, just as Brother William foretold!") Several celebrities talk about their love of crossword puzzles, including Ken Burns (the czar of documentaries). Available on Netflix.

7. Nerdcore Rising (2008)

Nerdcore Rising tells the tale of nerd rapper MC Frontalot and his first big tour, leading up to an appearance at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. Full of geeks and geek topics, and sporting interviews with Weird Al Yankovic, it's a worthy addition to the geekumentary family and will make you feel proud to be nerdcore (unless you played Hassle: The Dorkening once). Full review.

6. Spellbound (2002)

Spellbound is "the story of eight American children who set out to win the National Spelling Bee." Whenever children are involved in something highly competitive, you can't help but think about the pressures involved, and wonder if the parents are the ones who want the win, and are just living vicariously through their kids. Spellbound doesn't give me that impression. The parents of these competitors seem loving and encouraging, and the children appear to be growing in a healthy manner through the experience, win or lose. You also get to hear from some adults who were child spelling bee competitors. Available on Netflix.

5. Word Wars (2004)

Word Wars is all about Scrabble. Competitive Scrabble. If you didn't know there was such a thing, that's what geekumentaries are here for! In Word Wars, you'll meet a stable of satisfyingly quirky Scrabble players, including those that religiously travel the tournament circuit, as well as the "parkies" who play in Washington Square Park, New York, but are just as serious as the tournament players. One question to ponder; do mood enhancers and brain boosters count as steroids in a competition of the mind? Word Wars, also, is available on Netflix (heads-up: though 4-letter words don't make for great Scrabble scores, this movie contains some profanity).

4. Monster Camp (2007)

Like Darkon, Monster Camp is about a group of LARPers, this time it's the Seattle chapter of NERO (New England Roleplaying Organization). NERO is more monster-focused than the kingdom politics and factional warring flavor featured in Darkon, but both are rich with in-fighting and great geeky utterances. As geeks go, the ones featured in Monster Camp prove rather endearing, especially when their chapter is in danger of being shut down. Available on Netflix. Full review.

3. Trekkies (1997)

Trekkies documents the Star Trek phenomenon, and its devotees. Meet fully decked-out Klingon fans who actually speak Klingon as this film boldly goes into the trek convention space, and other places. Like Trek, this documentary's been around for a while, but is well-done, and even though the Trek scene is no longer at the level it was in 1997, Trek is such a core segment of geekdom that it would be highly illogical not to include it here. Available on Netflix.

1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

I know people who couldn't care less about arcade games, yet were literally glued to The King of Kong for the duration of this movie. It's entertaining and weaves a classically accessible tale. You'll notice a slant to the way things are presented, but that's exactly what makes it an entertaining story and is, ultimately, a director's perrogative.

New Line's also got plans in the works to do a fictional comedy remake of the film. The King of Kong is a great gateway geekumentary, and one in which the saga continues beyond the film. Available on Netflix. Full review.

1. TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball (2007)

TILT tells the story of a last-ditch effort to reinvent pinball when one of the biggest manufacturers, Williams, had their pinball division on the chopping block in favor of the slot machine business.

TILT and The King of Kong get #1 here for different areas of strength. TILT does a great job of relating the early history of pinball, and telling the compelling story of the Pinball 2000 project in a visually beautiful manner. It's an insightful look at the external business factors that affect all creative projects. TILT also blows away any and all competition as far as extras; it's the only geekumentary I've seen with a bonus disc, and the quality of the nearly seven hours of bonus material is excellent. With any luck, you'll see it on Netflix soon, but it's one you should own anyway. Full review.

Honorable Mention
  • The Planet of the Doctor. This one's a multi-part documentary you can view online for free. Doctor Who is certainly a solid geek genre, and this documentary is a great primer for anybody not well-versed with the series (like ME, OK? I admit it!).
  • The Making of Army of Darkness. OK, this one's not strictly a standalone documentary, it's a bonus feature in the "Boomstick Edition" of Army of Darkness. But it deserves mention, because it was just so much FUN to watch them puppeting skeletons all over the place, doing crazy effects and stunts, and goofing off in typical Sam Raimi style. And...Bruce Campbell. Enough said.

Still on my "to see" list:
These are some films that my web crawling has unearthed, but are not redily available for rent.
On the TILT director's commentary, Greg Maletic also mentions another pinball documentary (Ball Saved correction, The Histsory of Pinball) and a pizza documentary that I'm now on the hunt for.

Some Promising Geekumentaries In Development
The following films are still in the works, but have the potential to break into the Top 10 list without too much trouble when they're released.
  • Chasing Ghosts, another serving of the classic arcade gaming scene.
  • Second Skin, a film covering MMOs and the people who play them, including a look into the life of a gold farmer.
  • Get Lamp, a documentary about early 80's text adventures (the Infocom-style games like Zork). Plus it features a theme song from MC Frontalot!

Know of a geekumentary I've missed? I'd love to hear about it!


Greg Maletic said...

Actually, the pinball documentary I was referring to was not "Ball Saved" (though it seems like a worthy film; I've only seen parts of it). What I was referring to was "The History of Pinball." It's pretty good, but unfortunately, to my knowledge it's only available on VHS.

Jacinta said...

Awesome list! For those interested in monster camp you can purchase it here for under 20 bucks: http://www.indiefilmkiosk.com/documentary/monster-camp/prod_3.html

"Vell, he's just zis guy, you know?" -- Gag Halfrunt said...

Check out Gamers! I don't know if it falls into your "geekumentary" genre, but if you're a RPGer (current or rehabing) that can laugh at yourself, it's great.

Rabscuttle said...

Thanks, guys! I'm finding out there are a TON of geekumentaries I didn't know about before (Uber Goober, among others) and I've barely scratched the surface!

Expect to see many more to come, and I'm sure this Top 10 list is going to see some shake-ups! (like, maybe it will have to become a Top 20 list ;)

Rabscuttle said...

I totally need to re-do my Top 10 list. 10 MPH needs to be added. I also got to see Pizza! The Movie, or a lot of it, on the Documentary Channel's website.

Lorien Green said...

News: FYI, The History of Pinball is now available on DVD: http://www.historyofpinballdvd.com/