From the Margins Archives – Madness and Social Withdrawal

Bananagrams, the anarchist take on speed scrabble, oftentimes ends with thematic verbal crisscrossing. I won’t argue that every letter combination expresses some form of unconscious desire, but post-mortems can render interesting stories if you “think, really think.” I’ve found that the random selection of films I’ve viewed over the last two weeks themselves crisscross with revealing thematic commonalities.

This week’s theme: madness and social withdrawal.

Not surprisingly, one of the films I watched is Word Wars (Erik Chaiken & Julian Petrillo – 2004), a documentary about the cloistered lives of hardcore Scrabble geeks. It’s not quite as compelling a look at game obsession as The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon – 2007), but that’s not to argue that one covers its subject matter with more success than the other. The dueling Kong kings in Gordon’s film couldn’t be fictionalized as better opponents. Steve Wiebe – the son of Boeing engineers, down-to-earth father, science teacher and killer toy-drum-kit percussionist – represents Goodness. He’s the endearing counterpart to the Evil Billy, a God fearing patriotic sonofabitch who would stab his own grandmother for a shot at the title. For all the nerdiness of being renowned Kong contenders, the fact that both opponents have lives outside of Kong fills in the documentary with something most of audience can find familiar.

Not so for Word Wars. In this case, we’re talking a group of Maalox-chugging, Brain-booster popping, unemployed Scrabble geniuses that eat, breath and sleep anagrams. Where I left feeling amped about Wiebe’s ultimate victory over the mustachioed douche, the Scrabble guys made me feel, well… depressed (all Q without U hints notwithstanding). Chaiken and Petrillo leave us with a sense that they’ve lost touch with reality, having withdrawn into days and days of 60+ consecutive game challenges in preparation for the annual National Championship. The comparison is a stretch for many reasons, but watching the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975), you’ll likely get the same impression. Here, though, the Maysles may have documented case of serious mental disorder in the Beale sisters (especially the younger one).

New York debutantes and immediate relatives of the Jackie Onassis, the Beales are captured here reminiscing on the days of their youth and beauty. Reality doesn’t go far beyond scrap books of past social successes. The mother still sings beautifully, though she, like her daughter, has lost all interest (or perhaps even sense of) social engagement. They sit together in side-by-side beds, listening to Catholic radio or making their way through vinyl recordings of Beale the elder. The film can be touching at times, marked with the Maysles’ brilliant ability to record unique, accidental moments in the women’s lives. (A stark counterpoint ancestor to today’s reality television, where everyone knows they’re on the tube.) In short: documents of eccentricity at their finest.

The question of madness is of course central to my favorite of this week’s viewing, The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957). It deserves more than a quick comparison to Grey Gardens (if one is to be found beside mental health), but suffice it so say here that Lean’s epic account of Japanese POWs in Burma, though fictionalized, has no less of a place as a document of madness in society than the documentaries covered here. (To be “marginalized” shortly.)

[Originally posted on the now-defunct Film Margins tumblr, Winter 2010]

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