Monday, October 01, 2007

Monday Movie Review: Documentaries About Words

In the past year, I’ve seen three different documentaries about competitive language games: Spellbound, Wordplay, and most recently, Word Wars. Each is good in its own right. Word Wars was the least satisfying for me, but I am left to wonder if it’s in the nature of competitive Scrabble® to be a less pleasurable experience.

Spellbound is the most famous of these films. This Oscar-nominated film is about the word contests most in the public eye: spelling bees. It obliquely manages to address a lot of social issues. In my original review of it I wrote: “The film functions beautifully as a tour of the U.S. and of Americans. With so many children of immigrants competing, it says something about the process of becoming American. But this is never a lecture; we are watching a competition and meeting competitors. They are charming, annoying, funny, and abrasive by turn, and we are thoroughly captivated. Still, most of what we’re seeing has a lot to do with race and class. It was hard not to root for the poor kids against those with access to private tutors and computers.” What was going on in Spellbound was what the competition meant to the kids and their families, and how their circumstances in life enabled or hindered their ability to study.

Wordplay, although also centered around a competition, was not really about competition so much as about the love of the subject. Everyone in this documentary loves crossword puzzles. Some people simply do them alone, daily or on Sundays. Some compete. Some attend competitions with no hope of hitting the highest levels, simply for the joy of interacting with other cruciverbalists. Wordplay is aptly named; the competitors are, at heart, playing.

Word Wars, too, is aptly named, because the competitors in this game are at war. There seems to be no inherent love of the game, or indeed, of the words. In fact, we are briefly introduced to some foreign competitors who don’t speak English very well; the game is purely memorization to them. As a player, I know both crosswords and Scrabble have an elegance to the way words intersect. The language is beautiful, and the way the words lay over one another is beautiful. While Wordplay is very much about that beauty, Word Wars couldn’t care less. In fact, competitor Marlon Hill specifically and pointedly rejects learning what the words mean. The competitors argue and trash talk about one another, they treat competing as a game of machismo—there are almost no women. While the movie is good for what it is, it’s not nearly as much fun as I’d hoped, and in fact, has turned me off from the notion of ever attending such an event.