Geeks have a lot of reasons to be excited about this year's Starz Denver Film Festival. There's the sweet Stanley Nights program of horror (one of my picks for the top geek events this month). Among the "normal" films, you'll find a sweet-looking Alan Turing biopic that should be of interest to geeks both for its subject matter (the father of computing!) and its star (Benedict Cumberbatch!). And then there's Mile High Magic, a brand-new documentary about my very favorite geek activity in all the world: Magic: The Gathering.
See also: Local filmmakers tackle Magic: The Gathering documentary
I've been following the development of this doc since I stumbled across it on reddit almost a year ago. I tracked the director and producers down and as they shared their vision for the film, I went from intrigued to excited. I did have one major reservation, though -- would this movie be able to serve two very different audiences? Could they make something that would appeal to the kind of hardcore Magic fans who were to be its subjects, while also appealing to a wider audience that might know very little, or even nothing, about the game when they sit down to watch it?
The thing is, Magic is an incredibly complex game. Even trying to explain it conceptually to someone can be tough -- and it's difficult to follow along as someone else plays a game, much less learn it well enough to play yourself. Perhaps as a result, the game has developed a thriving, but quite insular, subculture. People who play Magic tend to really fucking play it, often to the exclusion of everything else. To appeal to them, it takes a deep knowledge of the game, and they're going to jump on any perceived inaccuracy, no matter how slight.
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Compounding that, the Magic community is really a lot of overlapping subcommunities, broken up by the type of Magic you play -- limited or constructed, Commander or Standard, competitive "grinders" or casuals, just to name a few. (See, I told you it was complex, and that's not even getting into the actual gameplay, which obviously varies quite a bit from format to format.) Any one of those formats or play styles could easily provide enough fodder for a feature-length doc, but focus on one to the exclusion of all others and you risk alienating a significant portion of the audience. Add in the fact that it's a game with more than twenty years of history, including heroes, villains, scandals and feel-good stories, and it's obvious that even finding the right angle to take is an enormous task.
On the other hand, the typical documentary fan just wants to have a peek into a unique, hopefully entertaining, world they know little or nothing about. To understand what they're seeing, they need some explanation, but not too much and not too high-level. They aren't likely to get hung up on minor inconsistencies or points of contention within the community. They want ninety minutes of edification and entertainment, and maybe a few memorable characters along the way.
So how does Mile High Magic fare? Pretty damn well, all things considered. Overall, they erred on the side of the non-Magic fan side of the equation, which is understandable. Yes, there are about fifteen million Magic players worldwide, which is an insane number, but there are still many, many more people who have never touched a card in their lives and probably never will. The focus of the film is the people who play, from shop owners to FNM diehards and a couple of very fringe aspiring pros. The film looks at the game from a wide angle, touching on the variety of reasons and ways people play it without ever really drilling down into any one area -- but it does a solid job showing the passion and commitment that even casual players have for the game.
The Magic audience will find things to complain about -- questionable pronouncements about this store or that, for example. I suspect that some will be uncomfortable with the folks the filmmakers chose to represent the game, since they're pretty typical geeks of the awkward variety. That said, every Magic player knows that the scene is full of awkward geeks and questionable, self-aggrandizing pronouncements -- it might not be the picture of the game some of us want to see portrayed, but that doesn't make inaccurate. To the contrary, everyone who's ever played a game of Magic will recognize the strip-mall shops, goofball personalities and underlying sense of camaraderie on display.
Non-Magic people won't notice any of these "issues," of course. They will find an entertaining, lightweight doc about a peculiar subculture that exists right under their noses. They may take issue with the over-reliance on text to convey information or the loose editing, but apart from a few rough edges here and there, this is the kind of pop-culture doc that's easy to enjoy whatever your connection, or lack of connection, to the actual subject matter.
With the film's focus on a tiny slice of the Denver Magic scene and rough edges, it's unlikely that Mile High Magic will become the definitive Magic documentary. That said, it doesn't have to be. For now -- to the best of my knowledge -- it's the only real documentary on the subject available, and it's a worthwhile one. If you love peering into weird corners of geeky pop culture, you should see it. If you're interested in Denver filmmaking, you definitely should see it. And, of course, if you love Magic, you must see it -- even if you don't recognize someone you know, you're all but guaranteed to recognize someone you could know.
See Mile High Magic at the Starz Denver Film Festival at 9 p.m. Sunday, November 16 or 11:30 a.m. Sunday, November 23 at the Sie FilmCenter. Tickets are $14 or $11 for DFS members. For tickets and more info, visit the Mile High Magic page of the SDFF website.
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Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.