For the shorts I’ve written about before, I’ve usually chosen things I really like. I’m a little ambivalent about The Politics of Competitive Board Gaming Amongst Friends, but I felt like I had to write about it because I have a somewhat twisted love-hate relationship with board gaming and the movie illustrates some of my like-mild-dislike issues with documentaries, and I figured I could air all of it in one go.
Before you read on, you should probably just go ahead an watch it:
Whatever the problems I’m going to mention in a second, I think the short does impart some of the flavor of what it’s like to board game with a group, inasmuch as it can in 10 minutes. A cousin of mine once said she likes board games because they let her observe the people playing, and since then I’ve seen the gaming table as a theater for the players, where you can see how your friends react to situations you normally wouldn’t be privy to: They have to bargain, deal with failure, deal with success, problem-solve, and do math, all in real time, before they can put a spin on it.
Then there’s also the uniquely stark judgments of the gaming scenario, which is unusually final and binary — tough if you’re already self-conscious about your skills in any of the above areas. When P of CBGAF talks about Gerry’s inferiority complex, I understand. It’s hard to feel, if you lose frequently at something, that it’s not a matter of intelligence, even if you can rationalize that it’s only one kind of intelligence. (It’s much harder to measure the “win” of being creative or simply happy.) And yet, I continue to plug away, gaming week after week, wondering if I’m really getting any better. It’s a bit of addiction, if low-grade.
So that’s the love-hate part of board gaming. I also picked this particular short film because it illustrates some of the things that make me queasy in documentaries.
I’m sort of attracted to the form in general and docs like P of CBGAF in particular insofar as it holds out the promise that it will make a slice of life seem a little bit lyrical and offbeat. For a radio version of this, just about any of the funnier This American Life episodes achieve this; in documentary, the example that springs to mind is King of Kong, which uncovers a full-on treasure trove of inanity and eccentricity hiding in plain sight in the guise of a classic arcade game competition.
You can’t demand that the raw material you get as a documentarian is going to be that good, but some of the creative choices made by director Jay Cheel let me down here. First, I’m actually uneasy about the tight shots of the Coke being poured and the late-game Settlers board. It’s hard to say why, but I think my problem is about how these shots offer an almost subjective, tactile feeling for the gaming area, whereas I think of documentary as being a bit distanced from its characters’ experience.
There’s that, but I think there’s also something going on here that’s just about my age. I didn’t see many documentaries before college other than the occasional Ken Burns joint, and as I remember them, they rarely, if ever, had these close-ups of the local minutiae, for whatever reason. Maybe it was technological or style-ogical, I don’t know. But whichever it was, now insert shots and close-ups feel almost too invasive for the medium. I’m turning 33 this week and I suspect this is a generational thing, so I’m trying not to give too much credence to what is, in effect, a bias.
My second peeve here is the music. The jazzy choice does seem almost perfect for that light-hearted, quirky tone I think Cheel’s trying for, though maybe it’s a bit dark. But it’s played over everything, and that detaches us from the action and narration, like we’re watching a montage that is supposed to give a generic feeling instead of relate story to us. Also, the addition of music lends more of that subjective feeling that I don’t think I like in documentaries — as if it’s setting the tone for us and telling us what the feeling is, rather than providing evidence to us and letting us figure out the feeling.
Finally, there’s the reenactment. I know it’s a reenactment because Cheel mentions this on his blog post, but before I read that I was genuinely curious whether I was even supposed to be accepting the in-game footage as just an exceptionally lucky capture on Cheel’s part or, indeed, a restaging of the events being narrated. I think it’s legitimate to want to know which I’m watching and to prefer the spontaneous and unplanned to the recreated, since one is more closely aligned with objective evidence and the other is more aligned with interpretation. “Objective evidence,” to my mind, leaves a greater range open for new, free readings of the movie.
Maybe what gets under my skin about reenactments is that they are in effect creating fresh stimuli for the characters/subjects to react to, even though the reenactment itself is just supposed to report on what already happened. The reporting, in effect, becomes its own event. Watching Gerry’s face in close-up as he tenses and yells — apparently acting? — I just want to know, What is he thinking while he replays a humiliating moment? Is this really all okay, or is this group going to fall apart post-documentary, now that they have all been forced to recount and mutually acknowledge Gerry’s minor crack-up? A somewhat opaque note on the director’s website gives some follow-up that only makes which makes me want even more follow-up: “It’s also worth noting that Gerry has consistently blown up at every single game since this one.”
I mean, this raises other pressing questions, none of which, however, are quite as interesting to me as the question of when I’m going to play my next game of Seven Wonders.