Friday, March 23, 2012

"wordplay" documentary review

last night i watched "wordplay," a 2006 documentary on crossword puzzles and the people devoted to them. i a word - the pun may be intended - it was great.  i say this with obvious bias since i'm a crossword puzzle enthusiast.  on a train, or anywhere waiting, if i'm not reading a book, i'll be trying to work out a crossword.  it's funny that "wordplay" should have aired on thursday night, because the friday ny times crossword puzzle is typically bailing out point on with the times.  i'm solid monday and tuesday.  wednesday it's tough - and by thursday it's gotten to be a stretch with the clues.

so as i write this morning, i'm staring at a ny times puzzle that 90% incomplete - and i can only marvel at the contestants profiled in "wordplay" who manage to dispatch the weekend puzzles in mere minutes.  it's was amazing to watch these people at work.  the film itself centered on will shortz, the ny times crossword editor, and the american crossword puzzle tournament that he originated in 1979.  the second part of the documentary focused exclusively on the 2005 tournament held in stamford, connecticut.

it's may be difficult for the non-crossword puzzle junkie to believe, but the two day contest was exciting - from the pre-race socializing straight through to the amazing finish (it even included a saturday night "talent show").  the film profiled five participants, each of whom was a serious contender to take the championship.  what made this all the more fascinating were the excellent use of graphics - which literally brought the crosswords to life as the participants filled in the boxes.

the first half was equally as interesting - especially getting to see crossword "constructor" merl reagle at work putting together a puzzle.  it's essentially a reverse process - he comes up with a theme and then selects the main answers before working them into the grid.  once the major words have been placed, it's a matter of filling in the remaining boxes with the secondary answers.  the puzzle's difficulty is measured relative to how  tough (or tricky) the clues given are made.  the same puzzle (i.e. words) could be reworked with more difficult clues and the entire character would change.

one eye-opening example was the post-1996 election puzzle that incorporated the following alternatives: "clinton elected" or "bob dole elected" - with the 7 letter clinton or bobdole used when the election outcome was determined.  the filmmakers use of graphics to visualize the process - and interviews both with clinton amd dole - made this a great look behind the scenes (so to speak).  also surprising, interviews with assorted puzzle enthusiasts - including the (then) yankee, mike mussina, the indigo girls (both), and a very animated jon stewart - to name a few.

if you like crosswords - put this on your netflix queue!


Lia said...

Nice review, I love this documentary! I had no idea crossword puzzle competitions existed before seeing this.

DebbieJRT said...

I haven't seen this, yet. I had it in my Netflix queue, but then I dropped dvd subscription and I don't think they have it streaming..
There was a tournament this past weekend. Been wanting to go for the last couple of years, but something always seems to get in the way