Bring It, Shortz!
Wordplay / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | June 23, 2006 | Comments ()
Full disclosure: I’m good at crossword puzzles. Or anyway, I used to think I was good. Sure, I’m a smart enough guy, and I’ve got a decent vocabulary, and I’m definitely OCD enough to love puzzles and grids and logic and filling things in and a whole host of other activities for which I probably should have received medication as a child. But after watching the new documentary Wordplay, I realize I am nowhere near the level of the people who do this professionally. It doesn’t matter how often you sit around your living room and noodle with the guitar; eventually, you have to realize you will never open for Bruce Springsteen. In all honesty, you’d be lucky to open for a Springsteen impersonator. That’s the kind of humbling experience it was to watch a group of fiercely bright people wrap their minds around puzzles utilizing words I never knew existed, and most of which I promptly forgot by the time I got home. Anyone who thinks there’s anything remotely democratizing about the New York Times crossword puzzle is crazy. The nationally known hobby does anything but create a level playing field; on the contrary, in the words of the paper’s former public editor, Daniel Okrent, the Times puzzle is the “gold standard” of the format, an often challenging and frustrating collection of clues and boxes that gives you a true sense of accomplishment just for completing the thing. Since the early 1990s, Will Shortz has been in charge of keeping the Times puzzle fresh and demanding, and he’s been the puzzle master on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition since 1987. But Shortz is also the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a bizarre but endearing competition that’s been around since 1978. Patrick Creadon’s documentary examines the lives of Shortz and other puzzle freaks (I don’t mean that negatively) and presents a thoughtful, light-hearted look at a select group of likable characters that gather each year ostensibly to compete for the national title, but really it’s just to hang out with like-minded peers. The film vividly portrays the lives and emotions of the competitors while also delving into the mystery of just what makes crosswords so addictive, specifically the one in the hallowed pages of the Gray Lady.
The film kicks off with Cake’s “Shadow Stabbing,” and the lyrics “Adjectives on the typewriter / He moves his words like a prizefighter” take on a whole new meaning as Creadon sets the stage for the kind of linguistic acrobatics that are second-nature to puzzle solvers. Shortz has been making puzzles his whole life, and in addition to being one of the few men out there who can actually pull off the mustache look, he’s also an earnest guy who just wants to play word games for a living. Most of the puzzles Shortz publishes in the Times are actually submitted by puzzle constructors, and Merl Reagle is one of the best and most frequent contributors to the paper. A burly man with a beard, Reagle’s wit and intellect come through as he keeps mentally rearranging letters on signs and phrases that come across his path: “Move the D in Dunkin’ Donuts to the end and it becomes ‘Unkind Donuts.’ … In ‘Noah’s Ark,’ switch the S and the H around and you get ‘No, a shark!’” The guy’s mind lives in overdrive, a point that’s made even clearer when he sits down to create a crossword. He comes up with a theme, places the longer, anchoring answers, bubbles in some black squares, and just starts unlocking the thing one letter at a time. Creadon also focuses on celebrities who enjoy banging their heads against the often impenetrable Times crossword, including New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, former President Clinton, and Jon Stewart, all of whom shed a little light on just why the puzzle appeals to them. Mussina’s been doing it for a while, and the puzzle often becomes a team effort for the ball club, whereas Clinton talks about how he approaches the puzzle the same way comes at problems in life: find an answer you know and build on it. Stewart, interviewed at the offices of “The Daily Show,” attacks the puzzle with a verve that’s only partly a put-on for the camera. He’s one of the more literate humorists working today, and it’s oddly comforting to watch him tackle the Times. If Stewart can do it, anybody can, right?
Yes and no. Yes, anyone can give the puzzle a crack and get better at solving it over time, but the number of people who can compete at the national level documented in the film is extremely small. Performing at such an expert level means occupying an entirely different plane of existence. These people aren’t just solving, they’re going for record-setting times while they do it. In Fort Collins, Colo., Al Sanders sits down at a puzzle and announces his attempt to finish it in under 2 minutes 30 seconds. As he starts to work the grid, Creadon breaks out what could be the film’s best storytelling tool: graphics that cordon off part of the screen and track Al’s progress, showing the master grid as it slowly gets filled in, highlighting certain boxes and clues, and letting the viewer try to solve the puzzle along with the film. Al manages to finish this puzzle in a little more than 2 minutes, and though the sequence unspools in real time, it’s anything but boring, and actually creates a sense of urgency, a desire to beat the imaginary clock. Once the film begins to showcase the competitors, it becomes more than just a biography of an interesting guy or a look at a popular hobby. The characters are just that, a lively group of people with a weird passion for puzzles, and the minor details of their lives add up to an often heartbreaking portrait.
Creadon follows five of the hundreds of entrants in the 28th annual tournament, held in March 2005. There’s Al, who works in research and development for Hewlett Packard and has come in third place for several years now; Ellen, an editor and former statistician who won the tournament in 2001; Trip, a puzzle maker from South Florida, who first won the tournament in 1993 at the record age of 24; Jon, a pianist from New York who’s won the tournament a staggering seven times; and Tyler, a 20-year-old hotshot college student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who can blaze through the Sunday edition of the Times puzzle faster than should be possible. They’re all nice, reasonable people, who treat victories with grace and losses with sportsmanlike disappointment. When everyone finally arrives for the contest, there’s a heightened sense of anticipation that only builds as the drama unfolds over the tournament’s 48 hours. But there’s also a resolutely human angle to the proceedings, as if the kids from Spellbound grew up and got into puzzles. The hotel in Stamford, Conn., that hosts the contest is overrun with geeks at tournament time, but the thing about geeks is that they’re generally a forgiving, protective bunch. Competition aside, the most revealing moment of the documentary is the contestants’ talent show, in which one man plays guitar while singing an original song that goes in part, “If you don’t come across, I’m gonna be down.” Ellen even twirls a baton, which is somehow sad and earnest and wholehearted all at once. Everyone’s here for the puzzles, but it’s the camaraderie that keeps them coming back.
The documentary keeps pace for its 94 minutes, ably cutting between interviews and the contestants’ narratives without dragging. The interactive graphics keep the puzzle-solving sections lively, as does the pop-heavy soundtrack, featuring a few new compositions from Gary Louris, of the Jayhawks and Golden Smog (and if you don’t know those bands, you need to check them out). The film manages to be lighthearted without wandering into inconsequentiality; it straddles the line between superficiality and inflated depth to create a balanced but energetic feature that stands out in its field. The edits and segues are natural and easy, with the images sliding gracefully on and off the screen, while the story often jumps tangentially from topic to topic the way your mind works when solving a crossword.
Wordplay is an emotionally uplifting tale, full of humor, character , heart and nail-biting suspense. I had no idea I would get so wrapped up watching the finalists solve giant puzzles on dry-erase boards, but before I knew it, I was anxiously tapping my feet and fully rooting for the underdog. For better or worse, this collection of puzzle enthusiasts is wired differently from the rest of us. More than just pursuing a passion, they’re fulfilling a deep desire when they write or complete various puzzles. As Jon puts it, “Give me spaces that need to be filled in, and I want to fill them in.”
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.