Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Scrabylon

Posted By on Wed, Nov 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Meet G.I. Joe — Gastrointestinal, that is. He’s a world champion Scrabble player who urps, burbs and hiccups his way through a laundry list of ailments, sweating away in the battle to anagrammatize with the best of the best. Gastrointestinal is one of a handful of colorful characters to make his film debut on Scrabylon, a documentary that bills itself as a real life Best in Show (Christopher Guest’s brilliant 2000 spoof of dog-show culture), and does indeed make the best of the wacky real life oddballs who dedicate their lives to Scrabble. Gastro Joe is probably the most poignant, as he tells the camera that Scrabble is his raison d’etre, for because of his intestinal/eating/stress issues, he can’t keep a job, and has to play Scrabble to keep from being a luftmensch.

“Everyone should play more Scrabble,” says Gastrointestinal, who dreams of making a living at the word game. With more Scrabble, the world would be a “happier” place, says the real-life Joel Sherman.

Then there’s a guy who drinks red vinegar to help his game, a comedian, a gambler, a Zen Scrabble master and Paul Epstein, an Ann Arbor Scrabble expert and cab driver.

The documentary delivers all kinds of interesting Scrabble trivia, such as the U-less Q-words that every serious Scrabble player knows by heart (qat, qaid, qats, qoph, faqir, qaids, qanat, qophs, tranq, qanat, qindar, qintar, qwerty, sheqel, tranqs, qindarka, sheqalim). And the tidbit that a growing number of Scrabble competitors are foreigners who memorize long word lists in order to beat the English-speaking Americans.

With all the weird things that humans do to pass the time, it’s not surprising that Scrabble-a-holics would be kooky. As someone who’s obsessed with words and a pretty fair hand at Scrabble, if I do say so myself, I wanted the film to tell me more, to help define the game. What are some of the wild plays made in the high-stakes games that can carry $10,000 prizes? What are some of the most outrageous words used?

The film focuses on the characters involved. After a while, it drags, heading toward repetitive strangeness from Scrabble’s heroes, without enough meaty subject matter. But the filmmaker, Scott Peterson of Los Angeles (not Lacy’s hubby), did create a digestible soufflé out of processed cheese, and for that, I commend him.

Peterson, who spent his childhood years in Birmingham, will attend the festival, and Epstein, the Ann Arbor cabbie and Scrabble whiz, will be on hand before the screening to discuss the nuances of the game.

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail lcollins@metrotimes.com.

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