Word Wars (2004)
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The four players we meet - "G.I." Joel (gets his nickname because his gastrointestinal system's a mess and he isn't shy about it), Matt, Marlon and Joe - have turned winning Scrabble tournaments into their lives' mission. Joel's preferred beverage is Maalox; Marlon plays the angry black man, but uses his skills to help an inner-city school's Scrabble Club; Matt's more often broke than not; and three-time national champ Joe uses meditation and tai chi to psyche out his opponents, but often is so full of himself, he doesn't realize how dull his lecture on winning strategies is.
Watching "Word Wars," I was reminded of "Spellbound," the Oscar-nominated documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee, and wondered if this is what happens to those obsessive, driven kids who fail to win the Spelling Bee.
Filmmakers Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo worry less about the game than getting into the heads of these four chaps, none of whom is easily likable. They know and tolerate each other, but aren't really friends. But they enjoy a pleasant camaraderie. We even see one shave the neck hairs off another in a hotel room.
Chaikin and Petrillo also have fun with the graphics, using titles as anagrams and allowing the letter tiles to float about as the players contemplate their next words.
What's far more interesting than tournament play are the late-night Scrabble games in hotel rooms, Scrabble-player culture, bets placed on the side ($5 per game and a nickel per point), and Scrabble games at New York's Washington Square Park, where a local restaurateur reigns supreme, even beating Joe, who, of course, returns later for a rematch. There's also an amusing discussion about the controversy surrounding the creation of an inoffensive Scrabble dictionary.
We see these four players cramming as many words as possible, rarely, if ever, bothering to learn the definitions. But there's definite skill in what they do during games and it's impressive. (We're told Matt won a game in 96 seconds!) Somehow we wind up caring about these people. When one of them gets a lousy set of tiles and walks away in frustration, we empathize. All of us who've played Scrabble have been there.
"Word Wars" is at times humorous, thrilling and even occasionally touchingly sad. It's not on par with, say, "Control Room," "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "Super Size Me," but there's something curiously absorbing about its peculiar people. And you really have to admire a film that expands the vocabulary of its audience. How many films can you say that about?
If you are in the category of "Scrabble enjoyers", you will also like the book "Word Freak" by Stefan Fatsis (the book, in fact, is the genesis for the idea of the film).
As far as documentaries go, it's clearly a second-tier documentary film. (It's not a "Capturing the Friedmans", a "Fog of War", a "Startup.com".) However, if you have an interest in seeing mad geniuses at work or the game of Scrabble taken to an extreme, I recommend this film highly. (8+ out of 10)
By focusing on the people and not history of the game, Word Wars shows the tournament Scrabble® scene at its most human.
If you like documentaries at all, this comes highly recommended, it is very well edited and maintains interest the whole time.
The Scrabble enthusiasts turn out to be largely unemployed, geeky, and with limited social skills. The game has consumed their lives, and they spend almost every waking minute memorizing anagrams for given sets of letters. (Did you know that Narcoleptic is an anagram for Eric Clapton?) Making matters worse, the top prize in the national Scrabble competition is $25,000; smaller competitions pay far less. Not a lot of money is at stake, so most of the "pros" scrape by on a meager existence (usually living off their families.) One of the film's subjects explained that his brain was now conditioned for one purpose, and that he had no other skills or abilities, and thus could not contribute to society in any meaningful way. Rather than making me more interested in the game, it somewhat horrified me; it seemed more like crystal meth or crack cocaine in its debilitating drug-like effects on those smitten with it.
I actually would recommend the film; I did find it fascinating to watch, but at the same time I was depressed by it.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film occurs when one of the film's subjects (the one who previously explained that he was no longer capable of any socially or economically redeeming activity, someone racked with medical ills brought on by the anxiety of his condition) sits at a piano, and in a perfectly beautiful voice accompanies himself as he sings the Lennon/McCartney song:
Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup, They slither while they pass, They slip away across the universe. Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting thorough my open mind, Possessing and caressing me.
Jai guru deva om, Nothing's gonna change my world...
And by the way: The Q without U words accepted in the U. S. Scrabble list are: QAT, QAID, QOPH, FAQIR, QANAT, TRANQ, QINDAR, QINTAR, QWERTY, SHEQEL, QINDARKA, and SHEQALIM (alternate plural of SHEQEL). The combined US/UK list (SOWPODS) adds (from Chambers Dictionary), with their plurals: BUQSHA, BURQA, INQILAB, MBAQANGA, MUQADDAM, QABALAH, QADI, QAIMAQAM, QALAMDAN, QASIDA, QI, QIBLA, QIGONG, QINGHAOSU, QIS, QIVIUT, QWERTIES, QWERTYS, SUQ, TALAQ, TRANQ, TSADDIQIM, TSADDIQ, TZADDIQIM, TZADDIQ, UMIAQ, WAQF, and YAQONA.
If you'd like to spend your waking hours memorizing useless crap like this, take up a Scrabble addiction.
Otherwise, watch "Word Wars".
WORD WARS follows the lives (but I use that term loosely as you will see) of 4 top Scrabble players as they head to the National Scrabble Championships in San Diego, CA. To become a top Scrabble player, you pretty much have to give up all semblance of a normal lifestyle. >From shots of players practicing while driving, to the rooms filled with piles of books, the film gives a detailed, but humourous, look into these player's Scrabble obsessions.
My favorite character was Marlon Hill - the dude from the rough part of Baltimore, who waxes poetic on the injustices heaved upon the African-American community, while smoking a ton of pot, ALL while destroying his competition.
From the tight editing, excellent cinematography, and great use of The Beatles "Across the Universe", WORD WARS will leave you scrambling for more. Even if you have never played a game of Scrabble in your life - and who hasn't - this film is thoroughly enjoyable!
The filmmakers had fun with anagramming throughout the movie, and did a very good job with letting the competitors speak for themselves. Like the book, the filmmakers visit the various sites the game is played, from living rooms to a park in New York to various competitions around the country.
If you enjoy playing Scrabble with friends, then you will definitely like this movie, which takes the game to a completely new level.
I would add this film to my Indie collection.
The interesting thing is that Scrabble is actually a game of math and not of words -- although it appears to be about vocabulary, to win you have to understand how to score. Sure, there is definitely an advantage to knowing how to rearrange letters in your head to make words, but you never actually have to know what any of the words mean -- just whether or not they are valid.
One of the players (Marlon) is the least like the others, and has some interesting comments about the English language (and language in general). To add to his mystique, one scene appears to show him being involved in prostitution (though it is somewhat ambiguous).
Another guy (Joe) is like a cross between Woody Allen, Larry David and a Buddhist monk... which is more neurotic and less entertaining than you might think.
Yes dude, you just got SLAYED at the international championships because you didn't get acupuncture first to balance your chi. Nothing to do with it being a game of chance or anything. Seriously, who dedicates their life to a game that's half logic and half chance.
Gotta love these lunatics. Great film
As a psychology teacher, I probably got a lot more out of this documentary than the average person. That's because instead of focusing on the games, I was fascinated by the personalities of the players, as the elite players were NOTHING like I'd expected. I had expected that they would all be great intellectuals--such as professors, Nobel Prize winners and brainiacs. However, the opposite was usually the case. Many were unemployed or worked dead-end jobs. None of them were successful in a traditional sense with jobs or family. Instead, the players were usually misfits--people lacking social graces, having severe personality disorders, filled with anger and in a few cases the players seemed on the edge of sanity. How this game dominates their lives and thinking is amazing and all-consuming--and it's truly an obsession. For the most part, I found the players to be very unlikable (especially, but certainly NOT excluding Marlon) and lacking a fully formed personality--and, interestingly enough, this didn't seem to bother these hyper-competitive players. I was also surprised to see that many didn't even seem to like the game--and one, in particular, was physically miserable during the tournaments! Yet they still played--day in and day out even though there was almost no financial compensation for doing this--even with the top players!! Fascinating, but also ultimately very sad.
By the way, the language is pretty rough in spots--parents might want to think about this before letting kids watch this documentary.
It's a fond, humorous look at a world that's much weirder than anyone, even aficionados, ever suspected. The people who rise to the top of this crowd are seriously disturbed people, and the movie, with its clever graphic commentary and often just letting the camera run on something, captures this beautifully. One of the most amusing scenes shows Hasbro executives as they recount the wars over dirty words in Scrabble. We were fascinated by this film, and we laughed a lot.