Sunday, May 18, 2008

"Wordplay" More than a Crossword Cult Film

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Introducing the film Wordplay — a documentary with the unlikely subject of crossword puzzles and the people who make, publish and solve them — at a preview screening at Landmark Hillcrest June 21, 2006, Martha Barnette, co-host of the KPBS radio show A Way with Words, said, among other call-outs, “Clap if you think Will Shortz is hot!” It was an ironic thing to say because, by conventional standards of male attractiveness, Will Shortz, crossword editor of the New York Times since 1993, is decidedly not hot. He’s decent-looking, personable, witty and blessed with the faculty of not taking himself too seriously, and even if one weren’t a crossword puzzle aficionado one would probably enjoy having dinner with him, but no one is ever going to mistake him for some kind of male sex god.

Wordplay is the product of director Patrick Creadon and his wife and producing partner, Christine O’Malley. It has two focuses: one on Shortz and the fanatical following the New York Times crossword puzzles have attracted, and one on the annual crossword-solving contest — yes, you read that right — held in Stamford, Connecticut in mid-February. Mid-February might seem like the last time of year even a group so seemingly nerdy as fans of a crossword puzzle would want to vacation in New England, but the event, which has been held every year since 1978, attracts over 500 participants.

When they’re not solving crossword puzzles — the contest is structured so you do seven puzzles, one a day, inside cubicles in a large room, then the three highest scorers each have to do one final puzzle on a white board with a dry-erase marker with everyone else watching — the participants are regaling each other with crossword-themed entertainment and crossword-inspired clothing, ranging from crossword ties to a weird headdress sported by one man that looks like bits of crossword puzzles have just burst out of his brain and through his scalp. When he says that one puzzle in the contest “exploded my brain,” you believe him.

The film features a wide variety of guest stars, from former President Clinton and Bob Dole (his major-party opponent in 1996) to Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central; PBS filmmaker Ken Burns; Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, better known jointly as the Indigo Girls; New York Yankees starting pitcher Mike Mussina (who’s shown striking out Barry Bonds in what Creadon and O’Malley present as a brains-over-brawn comeuppance); and former New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent, all of whom are linked by their love of the New York Times crossword puzzles.

But by far the most compelling people in the movie are the “regulars,” those whose lives revolve around crosswording: Shortz, crossword puzzle designer (and Stamford contest co-sponsor) Merl Reagle, and the leading contestants at Stamford in 2005. Among these are Tyler Hinman, 20-year-old information-technology student who, in a concession to the times, does the Times crosswords via the Internet; Trip Payne, a Gay man (the film doesn’t shove his sexual orientation in our face but doesn’t shy away from it either) who relocated from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and met his current partner, “crossword widow” Brian Dominy, there; and Ellen Ripstein, who staged a dramatic come-from-behind victory at a previous contest.

The peculiar genius of Wordplay is in its clear sympathy for its subjects. Not only does it make crossword fandom seem like a totally sensible and normal pastime, its devotees come across as quite charming people, likable and winning, rather than the terminally depressed and withdrawn nerds one might expect. The Stamford contest is depicted much the way the climactic spelling bee was in Spellbound, whose success was clearly an inspiration for this film, and such is the power of Creadon’s direction that he generates real suspense over the outcome and a feeling that you want to applaud along with the on-screen crowd once the contest is over and someone has won.

The film contains plenty of winning anecdotes as well. Shortz is shown as a kid, wanting nothing in the world except a chance to make his living at puzzles and responding to his parents’ insistence that he get a college education by going to Indiana University because he’d heard they would let students major in whatever they wanted. Accordingly, Shortz told his professors and deans he wanted to major in “enigmatology” — the study of puzzles — and did. Also, at the end of the 1996 election campaign he published a trick puzzle in which the second word of a two-word answer was “ELECTED” — but the clues for the first word could fit either “CLINTON” or “BOBDOLE” so the puzzle would be accurate no matter who won.

Wordplay has a few faults. It’s surprisingly sketchy on the history of crosswording, dating the first crossword in a major U.S. newspaper to 1913 but then leaping ahead to 1942, when a new editor at the New York Times rehabilitated its daily crossword and set new standards for writing them. The film totally ignores the very first crossword boom, in 1924, when the first book-length compilation of puzzles became a surprise best-seller and added crosswords to the list of 1920’s fads. It would also have been nice to see more on how crossword puzzles are made. The short sequence in which Merl Reagle is shown creating (“constructing”) a crossword is fascinating, especially in that he first establishes the long words that express the themes of the puzzle and then fills in the black spaces — which, according to the rules, have to be symmetrical so that the puzzle looks the same upside down — and the shorter words that have to interlock with the big ones. Creadon savvily follows this up with some comments from Clinton, Stewart and others as they try to solve the puzzle we’ve seen being made — but some more footage on the art of puzzle construction would have broadened this movie’s interest quite a bit.

Wordplay is a genuinely charming movie and a true celebration of a particularly detailed, only slightly demented kind of intelligence. Clearly, if a recherché hangover from the 19th century like spelling bees could be the subject of a successful 21st century documentary film, so could crossword puzzles, which for all the devotion of the people in this film sometimes seem like a recherché hangover from the 20th century, not only as newspapers themselves fade in popularity but as crosswords seem to be yielding to the number puzzle sudoku as the hot item on the puzzle page. A recent New York magazine article described how Will Shortz got dragged, kicking and screaming, into the sudoku age when his long-time publisher, St. Martin’s Press (which published a crossword book called Wordplay to tie in with the film), commissioned three sudoku books from him and found themselves selling a million copies a month — compared to 150,000 of his crossword books every four years. Nonetheless, the New York Times remains the only major paper in the U.S. that still doesn’t publish sudoku.

Still, crossword puzzles are so much a part of American life that the soundtrack to Wordplay contains a surprising number of songs that use them as a metaphor, usually for the confusion of a dysfunctional relationship. (The closing credits don’t mention a soundtrack CD, but if one comes out it would be well worth buying.) It wouldn’t be surprising if Wordplay not only draws big audiences to theatres but, in an age in which poker has become a major TV attraction on ESPN and the success of Spellbound landed the National Spelling Bee an ABC-TV contract, it helps get the Stamford crossword contest similar attention from a major telecaster.

EPILOGUE, 2008: Alas, "Wordplay" wasn't the blockbuster hit "Spellbound" was and the crossword puzzle tournament hasn't found its place on ESPN yet along with the poker games. Also, KPBS-FM staged a p[urge of virtually all its locally produced public-affairs programming a year ago that included canceling "A Way with Words." But I recently re-saw "Wordplay" on DVD and it remains a charming, low-key film about people with a particularly endearing (at least to me!) obsession — and it's still well worth seeking out and watching … and Tyler Hinman IS hot.