I've mentioned before how one of the things I love about the internet is how easy it is to stumble onto gems you wouldn't otherwise hear about in daily conversation. One of the places I frequent is Aint-It-Cool-News and despite the regular idiocy on display, their star contributor puts out a DVD blog every so often and it's always chock full of great finds. One of those happened to be a documentary called Wordplay that just so happens to deal with crosswords.
I'll confess that the infamous New York Times crossword is a mark of intelligence I fail to surpass. The people who do that one in pen are far better versed in the art of crossword negotiation than I but Wordplay brings that world to the ordinary person in terrific fashion. To the film's credit, it never dumbs things down either but it makes the world of the daunting puzzles far more familiar than I would have thought possible.
It helps that the focus of the film is so engaging and personable that you can't help but like the guy right from the start. His name is Will Short and he's the section editor of The New York Times. His job is to oversee all the crosswords that make it into the paper and he also hosts a show on National Public Radio devoted to crosswords. He also emcees an annual national crossword puzzle challenge up in Stamford, Connecticut, every March and the documentary builds up to the event.
Along the way we also meet Merle Reagle who actually designs crosswords. Did you know that with the way crosswords are designed, if you turn it around so the top is the bottom and the bottom is at the top it looks identical? Me neither. But watching Merle crank out a puzzle is truly amazing, but what really blew me away was what came next.
Up to this point the documentary interviewed a number of famous people who love doing crosswords including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the pitcher for the Yankees, and the Indigo Girls. After we see Reagle make his puzzle and submit it to Short for publication, we watch as all of these people work on the puzzle at the same time. It cuts between each one's efforts to finish it and watching how everyone approaches crosswords provides a unique insight into the people involved.
Features Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the pitcher for the Yankees, and the Indigo Girls all working to solve the same puzzle at the same time. As we watch the history of the crosswords and how people came to love these little diversions, including an interesting sub-note on the first editor at the Times directly responsible for crosswords, we meet several people who compete every year in Stamford.
This all leads up to the actual competition in March where it boils down to three people: Al, who's placed third the last four years in a row, previous champion Trip who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, and Tyler who is a 20-year-old college student jockeying to be the youngest champion ever. Remember how I said I couldn't do the Times puzzles at all? Well, these are people who burn through them in less than five minutes. Heck, Al complains at one point that he can never get under that two minute mark.
Wordplay is an exceptionally enlightening and fun documentary on a subject so prevalent in our world that we merely accept it as easy as we do the sun. I love how this documentary fills in the blanks, so to speak, on the subject of something so prevalent in our society that no one up to now has thought to ask, "How did that come to be?" This is a gem that you should definitely check out.