Wordplay   April 21st, 2010

Originally Written 07/10/06

On Thursday I saw a quirky art film with some friends down in Boston. They’re an academic bunch, so one of them suggested seeing Wordplay, a documentary about both the New York Time crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz, and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It’s not a film I might have seen on my own, but I’m glad they suggested it, as I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

First off, Shotz, and one the paper’s biggest puzzle contributors, were both interesting characters, as were the other puzzle enthusiasts they interviewed. The film also had a very clever sense of humor and some visual-styling touches to reference a boxy crossword grid motif wherever possible, framing people against windows, etc.

They showed a news clip of how on the eve of the 1996 presidential elections, the New York Times had created a puzzle with the center clues working out to allow two possible answers: “CLINTON ELECTED” or “BOBDOLE ELECTED.” The fact that they made all the adjoining words work for both sets of letters, which they showed, was impressive, and you had to admire their cleverness. They interviewed both Clinton and Dole about it, which was also fun.

John Stuart was another celebrity interviewed for his devotion and abilities at solving the puzzles, and as would be expected, he injected a lot of humor into the film. The Indigo Girls were also featured as puzzle heads, which was cool, but they weren’t as entertaining off stage.

The film introduced several of the contestants to the most-recent puzzle tournament, and then spent the last act following the action of the games. It used the same formula as for a sports documentary, following the progress of each contestant along the way. They included graphics of showing the clues and answers as the puzzles were filled in, to get you into the game, and that worked to draw you in.

It was also fun to see the convention atmosphere of the hotel where the tournament is held each year. There were the friends who only saw each other at the tournament, and touching stories about people from past years. I was again reminded that no matter the fandom or interest, fans are pretty similar, from the deliberately-tacky crossword-patterned pantsuit one woman was wearing, to the goofy acts for the talent show.

One guy was doing a themed filk song which I chuckled at. “Our love is a puzzle, with the clues scattered all around, but if you don’t come across, I’m gonna be down…” Heh. So yeah, it was a delightful and sweet little film and I enjoyed it much more than I’d expected.

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