By C.J. Hirschfield
Longtime word nerds like myself have been delighted by recent documentaries that celebrate letters and the wondrous ways they can be arranged. Films include Obit, about New York Times obituary writers, Wordplay, which covered a major crossword puzzle tournament, as well as Spellbound and Spelling the Dream, which welcomes us into the stressful world of spelling bees.
Clearly, it was only a matter of time before the “magic little puzzle” of palindromes—words, phrases, and sentences that read the same backward and forward—were thrust into the spotlight. The new documentary The Palindromists turns out to be much more of a “wow” than a “huh?”, palindromic words used to judge contestants in the World Palindrome Championship, around which the film is centered.
Directed by Vince Clemente and featuring New York Times Puzzle Editor and NPR Puzzlemaster Will Shortz, the film refreshingly celebrates nice, smart people who are obsessed with words, instead of money. “Some people think you’re a genius, some people think you’re just weird,” is how one of the featured palindromists explains it. Speaking of weird, prominently featured in the film is “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose palindromic parody of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues is worth the price of admission.
Playing with the art of letter reversal is not new, and the film illustrates its rich history, which began before Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, and has been practiced all around the globe ever since. A lovely section of the film informs us that the Enigma codebreakers in WWII delighted in palindrome competitions in their spare time, with British mathematician Peter Hilton as its acknowledged rock star. How talented was he? “Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.” Yes, he was that good.
Another major palindromist was Howard Bergerson, whose definitive book on the subject, Palindromes and Anagrams, is still in print 45 years after its publication. His daughter is featured in the film discussing his particular fascination.
Like so many films that build to an important sports event (Think Rocky), so too does The Palindromists build to The Big Event, held at a hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. We are privy to the contestants’ doubts, fears, and practice techniques.
Contenders include a professional bassoonist, a tech writer, a book author/illustrator, a photographer, and a comedian. Some have been engaged in this particular form of wordplay for decades.
Many documentaries now include animation to help tell their subjects’ story—here, animation is absolutely critical. Being able to read the palindromes and visually “get” them is key, and the art adds a whimsical touch to the often nonsensical word combinations.
The World Palindrome Championship rules are tough.
The seven rivals can choose from a list of constraints, and they’re doozies. Included are these: Start or end with a Spanish or French word; summarize the plot of a famous movie; describe Trump or the Trump administration. I won’t give away the ending, but the two finalists were only .3 points apart…The tension!
Why should we care about a film that celebrates creative wordplay? For one thing, as a contestant says, “It’s important to do what you like.”
It’s also nice to know that in a world filled with so much uncertainty, palindromes are orderly, answering to the harshest of rules. But in the midst of the order; absurdity. How can you not love a film that, at its end, runs the title “You have now reached the middle of the film”?
All I can say is, wow.
The Palindromists is screening from now through September 20 at the Virtual SF DocFest. Link here for a complete schedule of films and details on how to watch them.
Go here to rent The Palindromists. It will be followed by The Palindromists live Q&A with filmmakers Vince Clemente, Adam Cornelius, Jon Agee, and Mark Saltveit.
The feature production of The Palindromists began with a short about 2012 World Palindrome Champion Mark Saltveit entitled, A Man, A Plan, A Palindrome
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
Learn more about Palindromes:
“Madam, I’m Adam’: Meet a World Palindrome Champion” by Katy Steinmetz
A list of Books about Palindromes
Here are a few we especially recommend. Though these links go to a giant bookseller site we urge you to order them from your local bookseller or one of the independents selling on the site.
Zo’s Palindromes: P.A.L.I.N.D.R.O.M.E by Derek Jozeph Chin (Author), Diana Chin (Author)
Too Hot to Hoot: Funny Palindrome Riddles by Marvin Terban
Christopher Nolan’s newest film is Tenet, a palindromic title but fans in California and New York have to wait to see if the film itself is structured like a palindrome as his film Momento was, running from the ends to the center.
Alissa Wilkinson tackles the question and discusses Sator squares.
Todd Solondz’s semi-sequel to Welcome To The Dollhouse, Palindromes, has little to do with them except the main character’s name is “Aviva” and some have interpreted her life’s journey as a palindrome.
If you’d like to see a series of short films that are palindromes visit Eat My Shorts.