No cross words for this documentary film
July 26, 2006
Bill Clinton is certain to remember the date: Nov. 6, 1996. Not so much because it was the day that Clinton, the incumbent, thumped Bob Dole and became a two-term president of the United States; that was a foregone conclusion by Election Day.
What is sure to remain in Clinton’s capacious brain from 11/6/96 is The New York Times crossword puzzle. Two of the across clues for the puzzle both read, audaciously, “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper.” Was the Times actually calling the winner on the morning of Election Day, and in the crossword? Sure enough, the words fit: “Clinton Elected.”Clinton, however, a redoubtable crossword enthusiast, saw the game the Times, and its crossword editor, were up to. Fitting just as comfortably into those 14 white spaces were the words: “Bob Dole Elected.” Most cleverly, each of the seven down clues that ran into “Clinton Elected” could yield an answer that would jive with “Bob Dole Elected.” The clue “Provider of support, perhaps,” for example, could be “IRA” – or “Bra.” The gimmick was ingenious, humorous, spectacularly executed – and even subversive, in that it ignored a cardinal rule of crosswords, that only one solution should be correct.Much the same can be said for “Wordplay.” Like “Spellbound,” the 2002 documentary of the 1999 National Spelling Bee and its participants, Patrick Creadon’s film covers the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by introducing the leading contenders, then following their fortunes at the tournament, which has been held since its inception in 1978 at the Stamford Marriott in Connecticut. But crossword puzzles are far more intricate things than spelling bees (nobody gets addicted to spelling out words, do they?), and the adult competitors of “Wordplay” make for more interesting characters than their counterparts in “Spellbound.””Wordplay” uses its characters – including Clinton, comedian Jon Stewart, and New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina – to riff on different aspects of crossword puzzles. Indigo Girls Emily Saliers and Amy Ray compare solving a crossword to writing a song, fitting pieces together and balancing specificity with vagueness. (The Girls also relate what a thrill it was to be an answer to a Times crossword clue.) Stewart humorously takes difficult clues as personal affronts.
Filmmaker Ken Burns pinpoints why New Yorkers are especially taken with crosswords. (It’s not just the supremacy of The New York Times puzzle, which is a given in the film.) “We live in boxes, we travel in boxes and we work in boxes,” he says, as images of New York apartments, subway cars and office cubicles cross the screen. No wonder, then, a pastime that deals with boxes.Better yet are the crossword insiders, the word-obsessed who reflexively notice that a slight adjustment turns “Noah’s Ark” into “No, a shark.” At the center of the film is Will Shortz, who turned a college major in enigmatology into a career as the crossword editor at the Times. Shortz reads comments from puzzle-doers that reveal just how passionate people are about their crosswords. Merl Reagle – a crossword “constructor,” in the parlance – demonstrates the mental dexterity that goes into making a good puzzle. On the flip side are the tournament contestants who, in another celebration of the coolness of nerds, come off as funny and well-adjusted, rather than sadly obsessed. (The film notes that it is not English and history professors who make the best puzzle-solvers, but people in math and music.) This is the ultimate key to a snappy, well-constructed and visually dynamic movie: Crossword puzzle enthusiasts are not narrowly fixated on fitting letters into spaces. They are effective with language, which includes humor, insight and storytelling, which makes for an engrossing film.Then there are the co-existing human needs to challenge ourselves with puzzles, and to meet those challenges. “Give me spaces that need to be filled in, and I want to fill them in,” says Jon Delfin, a pianist and top crossword competitor.
“Wordplay” shows Sunday and Monday, July 30-31, at Paepcke Auditorium in the SummerFilms series.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org