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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wordplay (2006)

Written by Patrick Creadon and Christine O'Malley
Directed by Patrick Creadon

Will Shortz:  Himself
Merl Reagle:  Himself

Ken Burns:  Himself
Bill Clinton:  Himself
Bob Dole:  Himself
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (the Indigo Girls):  Themselves
Jon Stewart:  Himself

It's cheaper to make movies now than it used to be--films aren't necessarily shot on film any more (Fuji and Kodak are the two companies that manufactured motion-picture film, and Fuji stopped making it in 2013). It's cheaper to shoot on video or digitally than it would be to use 35mm film and bytes don't weigh any heavier when they're ones or zeroes, so smaller camera rigs are possible when working without film. And since movies are horrifically expensive to make and there's very little margin for error when trying to capture images on film there's more leeway when working with video than it would be with a film camera. High-definition video production is cheaper to the point that movies that wouldn't be economically viable on film could be produced on the cheaper, easier format (Spike Lee's satiric opus Bamboozled, for example, was only greenlit when he decided to shoot on video instead of film and the budget was reduced to a fraction of what it would have cost to use film). This is great news for B movie producers--the lower the cost of a film, the more likely one is to make the money back. According to no less an authority than Roger Corman, there's a sophisticated accounting algorithm that the SyFy network used to determine how much they had to spend on a movie and how much it was likely to make in ad revenue when it was shown on cable. There were lots of variables to plug in (which is undoubtedly why many of their movies have actors that were famous for a sitcom a decade or two back). By way of example, this is why there's a DinoCroc but not DinoCroc 2. Corman being Corman, he just renamed the DinoCroc 2 script and now there's a SuperGator as well as Dinocroc Vs. SuperGator. All because films don't need to be on film to look professional any more.

This has also been great news for documentarians. Wordplay is pretty obviously made without a ton of money (though it's extremely well made; the filmmakers make the subject enjoyable, the movie looks extremely good and the interview clips with various people are interesting and don't overstay their welcome at any point). There's been a mini-boom in documentaries about hobbies or games (this film, The King of Kong and Brooklyn Castle are all small stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things in the realm of competitive gameplaying; that's a microgenre that is largely possible because of cheaper filmmaking options). There would never be a large enough audience interested in a documentary about the national crossword puzzle championship to justify camera crews and enough film stock to make this movie. But technology makes it possible to get a true story on record for less money. And thank goodness, because this is a charming movie, well worth watching. Suspense, drama, humor, cleverness, whimsy, emotional truth and good sportsmanship abound.

The film doesn't start with crossword puzzles; instead, the viewer gets to see NYT crossword editor Will Shortz at his second job on NPR giving a puzzle quiz on the air intercut with Shortz telling an anecdote about taking a test to determine career prospects back in grade school and hoping to find "puzzle maker" on the back of the test sheet. It wasn't there, but he made it happen anyway. He gives a thumbnail sketch of his biography, including a stint at Indiana University (where students are able to design their own course of study; he is the only human being with a degree in "enigmatology", the study of puzzle history and construction). One universe over he's robbing jewelry stores and taunting Batman but here he's just a constant erudite and playful voice in print and on the radio. I get the feeling that he doesn't make puzzles that people can't figure out; he has much more fun getting people to realize they have deeper knowledge on disparate subjects than they might have thought.

After introducing Shortz to the audience, the filmmakers take a moment to show Jon Stewart working on that day's NYT crossword; apparently they spent a lot of time with him for the movie but almost all of his comments had to be edited out in order to prevent the film from getting an R rating ("urine" is mentioned as a really useful word with lots of vowels in it, as is "enema"; apparently just hearing those two words divorced of context made the MPAA decide that a movie about the history and culture of crossword puzzles wasn't suitable for children). The last thing that Stewart says in his segment is that he wonders what kind of person would make crossword puzzles for a living. And that's the movie's cue to segue over to Merl Reagle, considered by NYT puzzle fans to be the best crossword puzzle constructor in the business.

Merl's a tubby bearded guy with glasses whose brain continually rearranges words and phrases in his field of vision ("Noah's Ark. If you switch the S and the H around you get 'No, a shark!', for example). He's found a way to monetize his mental tics by constructing crossword puzzles; Will Shortz, as the crossword editor for the New York Times, sees several dozen puzzles a week submitted by various constructors (the film's a bit vague on how long it takes to generate one but it appears to be several hours for a single puzzle at a minimum). He recognizes Reagle as a kindred spirit, another person who fell in love with puzzling at a very young age and never quite fell out of it. Reagle appears to fully accept that he's a quirky dude with a career path that requires him to be constantly thinking about wordplay and oblique hints meant to construct a daily pastime for forty million people ("And hopefully, there's part of the day available for me to do normal things with the people I love").

A history lesson follows:  the first crossword puzzle appeared in 1913 and the New York Times starting running its own daily puzzle in 1942. The NYT's first puzzle editor standardized the rules for that paper's crossword puzzles and had enough journalistic influence to set up the standard method for making a crossword puzzle; other papers and magazines followed suit. Among the rules established by the Times:  About 1/6 of a given diagram will be black squares (which, depending on how they're placed, will set the lengths of every answer in the puzzle). All the words in any given puzzle are three letters or longer. The puzzle is one continuous block; there's no separate section of unconnected words. There's also a neat moment where a blank puzzle square is superimposed over itself and rotate upside down; every single NYT crossword puzzle is symmetrical left-to-right and top-to-bottom. There's a considerable amount of discipline that goes into making each individual puzzle. Shortz chimes in for a moment and mentions the weekly schedule; Monday puzzles are the easiest and Saturday the most difficult to solve. Shortz also mentions here the levels of collaboration between the individual constructors and him as editor (among other things, the editor sets the difficulty level of the puzzles and has to check each clue for accuracy, which probably takes a long time). Reagle's first segment is also the one that earned the movie its PG rating, where he points out that people doing the crossword as part of their morning ritual don't want to see "rectal" show up as an answer while they're having breakfast.

Vintage footage of New York City newsstands brings us to documentary superstar Ken Burns, who looks about twenty years younger than I thought he would. He's a long-time aficionado of the NYT puzzle; as a visual artist, he points out that the streets in New York City are a grid, people living in the city are in boxy apartments in rectangular buildings, and the newspaper itself is black and white and boxy shaped. All of that leads to his admiration for the puzzle as a cultural artifact. He's also a writer, and admires the elegance and construction of the clues and how they lead the puzzle-solver to play with the English language, which is extremely idiomatic and lends itself to the various things that need to go together to make a crossword puzzle. I wonder if Burns found it interesting or amusing to be the subject matter in a documentary rather than the director.

Next we see hideous washed-out video from 1978 of the first national crossword puzzle tournament (started by Shortz at least partially as a way to get all his puzzler friends together for a weekend), and a profile of one of the highly-ranked competitors from around the country. A little time is spent with Al Sanders, a Hewlett-Packard development manager, married with three kids in Colorado; a pretty typical upper middle class career minded white guy, but also someone who can go through the entire daily crossword and have it filled out--correctly--in two minutes and two seconds. I'm stunned (and there's some nice split screen work here showing the entire puzzle, the answers that Al Sanders is working on at the time, and him looking down at the puzzle in concentration with a timer running in the corner to show how long it's taking him). Sanders is miffed because he can never quite break the two minute barrier, but he's obviously at the top of his game and at the top tier of anyone working on puzzles as competition. Sanders isn't the only person who keeps track of his completion times, incidentally; the public editor of the New York Times has a log book of his puzzle completion times going back eight solid years.

Merl gets started on a puzzle for the Times; the theme for this one is that he wants to use words that have the words "word" and "play" in them but not in the context of language or amusement. It's a neat idea and I admire anyone willing to do a project on a restrictive theme. As an obsessive I salute these efforts.*

The Indigo Girls are up next, talking about how they use the NYT puzzle as one way to help with songwriting (" want to make it general enough so that people can relate to it, but also specific enough that it's interesting. So there are like all those things that you can play with--obscurity, clarity, generalization, specificity. And those are things that you sort of grapple with as you're writing a song.")  and fight writer's block; it's also a way to keep grounded on the road when you don't know what city you're heading towards on the bus. It's also endearing that both performers are introduced talking about how happy they were to be a clue in one of the Times puzzles ("Closer to Fine" singers).

Ellen Ripstein is the next national-level contestant; she's a former champion and had attended the first competition in 1978. She's also one of the people who's had a stipple portrait of herself on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in a human interest feature on the contest in 2001. We don't learn a heck of a lot about her other than her puzzling skills but it's great that she had a phenomenal comeback to an ex-boyfriend who used to put her down:  "Well, what are you the best in the country at?" There's also a brief clip of her practicing baton twirling in Central Park (there is a talent show at each competition, as it turns out).

Reagle has his theme words picked out, and once those are in place it's time to figure out the other words that will fill in the rest of the squares. A great deal of time and effort get spent figuring out what can fit in a given space (and each word limits what other words can intersect with it, which can lead to difficulty). It turns out that "red top" is a type of grass grown for hay, pasture and lawns. Merl needed a dictionary to confirm it, but he points out that his lawn guy probably knew it off the top of his head--and, by implication, the crossword puzzles that he constructs are meant for people who like to do crossword puzzles, not for the hardcore obsessive crowd that goes to the hotel in Stamford every winter.

Jon Delfin is a piano player who accompanies singers auditioning on Broadway, and a former NYT employee considers him to be the best puzzle solver in the world. In a neat bit of synchronicity, one of the songs he plays for an auditioning singer is about the New York Times crossword puzzle itself. I don't know if that was set up ahead of time or if the filmmakers just made sure to get a release from that singer, but either way it's a reminder that the puzzle is itself an influence on the culture just as it's a reflection of it. Especially in New York City, the town that sees anything that ever happens there as more authentic and important than any other event that could have occurred anywhere else in the span of human history (and if we're talking Ramones, they're right). Jon sees sight-reading music and performing it with less than a minute's warning as a small puzzle to solve in the course of his normal work; it's nothing to do with words but everything to do with interpreting information and producing a result.

Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are interviewed about the puzzle next; it turns out that Will Shortz came up with an election-day clue in 1996 where the answer could have been "CLINTON ELECTED" or "BOBDOLE ELECTED"; each of the clues for the words intersecting the first half of that answer had two correct answers so either way the prediction would turn out to be right. Again, the effort expended for a brief moment where people doing the crossword over their breakfast is staggering. But both candidates--the Democrat and Republican alike--remember that specific clue and reminisce fondly. Clinton also shows off his charisma while talking about the daily crossword, pointing out that his governing style reflected his experiences trying to solve the puzzle. He almost never went through 1 across, 2 across, 4 across and onward solving every clue in order; instead, he found something he knew and filled that in and then worked from there, using that word as a hint for the intersecting clues and working his way through the entire solution. Similarly, almost none of the problems or issues that he faced as President had simple and direct solutions--instead, he found an aspect of the problem that he could understand and worked onward from it. Parenthetically, the filmmakers said that landing Bill Clinton as an interview subject meant that they could drop his name with anyone else they were asking to be in the film and they never got turned down.

Tyler Hinman is a college student studying the development of artificial intelligence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; he's a Phi Mu Delta fraternity brother. Like Shortz and Reagle, he liked puzzles from the time his age was in single digits. And he uses his own experiences with word play and inference from the puzzle clues as a way to inform his studies and his work in the field. We don't really get a scene of his frat brothers commenting on his atypical hobby but my guess is they're fine with it. One of the things I really enjoy about the film is the sheer niceness of everyone involved; there isn't even any real animosity between Dole and Clinton in their respective sections.

Major League Baseball pitcher Mike Mussina is the next celebrity puzzle enthusiast; his interview segment supplies the fantastic mental image of everyone on the New York Yankees huddled around that day's Times yelling answers at whoever is stuck scribbling things down. Another parallel is drawn between the career and the seemingly unrelated hobby--Mussina isn't a world-class solver but he's learned the value of persistence at least partly through trying to finish each day's crossword. Additionally, he drops the tidbit (that was news to me, at least) that pitchers don't finish games they started very often; another life lesson about collaboration and persistence as well as knowing when enough is enough.

Trip Payne lives in Fort Lauderdale, he's a former tournament champion who set an age record when he won at age 24. He moved from New York City to get away from a life that was suffocating under crossword puzzles--the film's a little vague, but apparently he worked in puzzle editing and construction in his day job as well as freelance puzzle writing jobs on the side. He's also gay and in a committed relationship (and he and his partner appear to also be pinball enthusiasts, so there's another nerdy interest in the film). For all the differences between age, gender, career path and sexuality among the various competitors, they all recognize their similarities and enjoy each others' company on that basis. It's obvious that they understand each other on a level that their families and other friends don't, and very sweet to see everyone just getting along with each other. Especially considering that it's a competition between people who write down their puzzle times for almost a decade. I could easily see that getting out of hand.

The next segment is a really neat crosscut montage; Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls (who don't let the other band members fill the puzzle out in ink because they don't trust them) and Bill Clinton all solve the same day's puzzle, which is of course the "Wordplay" one that Merl Reagle constructed for the camera earlier in the film. Everyone has an understated nice time working on their puzzles; the honest enjoyment behind Ken Burns' smile when he reflects that "cross swords" also looks like "crosswords" is a quiet triumph for all the work that went into making that puzzle.

The final half hour of the film or so is dedicated to the 2005 crossword puzzle tournament. The major players have been introduced and the stage is set--and after spending fifty minutes on the history and construction of puzzles, the viewer has a firm grasp on what everyone's going to be doing over the course of the weekend. The scoring's a bit arcane, but it depends on getting words correct and timing. If someone finishes a puzzle at :58 seconds into a minute they get more points than if it went over into the next minute by even a second--so there's an incentive to work fast, which leads to the potential for mistakes (and much lower scores because the penalties are brutal, with 195 points deducted for every empty or incorrect entry in a square).

The scene where everyone meets up at the Stamford, Connecticut hotel for the puzzle contest always makes me mist up a little bit, and when I saw this one in the theater it almost brought me to tears. More than one attendee mentions seeing their friends again as the snow falls and the hotel lobby seems more like home. Everyone is there because they're with friends who understand their obsessive hobby when their families, spouses, kids and coworkers don't. I'm not particularly good at crossword puzzles, but I understand where they're coming from to the deepest core of my soul. I went to the first B Fest for the movies, but the next fourteen to be with my friends. Also, if "people wear black and white checks" is your signal to do a shot, this is the montage that will pose the greatest risk to your liver.

There's no way to show the audience every clue in every puzzle over the weekend, but the puzzle contest section does a great job of showing everyone concentrating and a series of representative clues that everyone's trying to figure out as fast as they can. At one point the film needs to use subtitles in order to explain one of the words that Al Sanders filled out but had never heard of. And he's a guy who can finish an entire puzzle in two minutes. I don't think most of the avid-amateur types have much hope if he's stumbling over unfamiliar words.

There's also a little break from red-hot puzzling action; the talent show is on Friday night and the montage of everyone smiling and applauding is really nice, both as a palate cleanser and as a way to show that it's a big ungainly family supporting each other and clapping for each act.

In this section, that sportsmanship I mentioned earlier comes in to play--Trip Payne is one of the players in a three-way tie for first place before the final puzzle (which is played between the three highest-scoring competitors); he and Al Sanders found a scoring error from a judge and learn that Tyler Hinman should be in first place. I don't know how many people would do the right thing in this situation, but Trip decides that the only course of action is to make sure everything happens on the level and boosts someone else past him rather than win unfairly. And since Tyler's two years younger than him, a loss at this point means that Trip Payne won't have the record for being the youngest champion any more. True, the stakes are low (it's just bragging rights for winning the championship), but sometimes when the stakes are low they're still incredibly important.

At the end of the seven preliminary puzzles it comes down to Al Sanders, Trip Payne and Tyler Hinman for the championship--a perennial underdog a former champion and a rising star solving live on a giant whiteboard wearing noise-cancelling headphones in order to keep from hearing any of the live play by play from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle. And the suspense is incredible. I'd be happy with any of them winning, and there's reasons to root for any of them. But what it all comes down to is the ability to synthesize information quickly based on the clichés and tropes of puzzle construction and they're all world-class talents. The final quiz shows all three puzzles in progress, with errors highlighted in bright red so the audience knows more about the mistakes than the contestants would.

How does it end? With two people wishing they'd done better and one triumphant, all of them basking in the admiration of his peers (fair enough, the winner more than the others). And all of them ready to return the next year. The world keeps on turning, and there will always be another puzzle. Another chance to see their friends again. Another snowy weekend in the same hotel and another another chance to wear big checked clothing in a room full of people doing that. Really, if you're into anything that other people don't understand (and if you don't dig B movies, why are you reading this?), you should give this one a spin. It's well worth an hour and a half of your time and I imagine there's more suspense than you expected for such a low-key subject.

*Here's a playlist of songs where the singer spells out a word in the lyrics, or at least chants a bunch of letters. It's one of the 48 discs on my gigantic life-consuming project, the Timothology. It's disc 26 on the set because there are 26 letters in the alphabet. I wasn't kidding about being an obsessive.

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