From the Archive: Wordplay

This was written for my former digital home. That’s about all I have to add this week. 

The new documentary Wordplay is strongest in the final section, when its focus remains fixed on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held annually in Stamford, Connecticut. First-time director Patrick Creadon has followed the methodology established by Jeffrey Blitz with his winning examination of the stresses and triumphs of the youthful participants in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, 2002’s Spellbound: find an off-the-beaten-path competitive event (the event itself will provide some built-in drama), identify some compelling characters among the participants, then point, shoot and pray from some cinematic serendipity. That approach has helped films like Murderball and Mad Hot Ballroom garner levels of attention that most non-fiction filmmakers can only dream of. In the case of Wordplay, the eventual arrival of the large-scale puzzle battle gives the film some purpose and drive that is more elusive in the early-going.

Creadon devotes a lot of time to establishing the simple presence of crossword puzzles in the daily rituals of people. This makes some sense when he’s aiming the camera at those who will figure in the competition that closes the film, less so when it’s the Jon Stewart or the Indigo Girls. It’s unclear if Creadon is trying to make puzzle-solving seem more normal by connecting some celebrities to the activity or just add a dash a glamour to his film, figuring a Newsweek cover boy or two will help the promotional effort more than New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, who is the central figure of the film. Regardless of the motivation, when you’re watching Yankee hurler Mike Mussina explain how much he enjoys solving the Times crossword during the season, you know you’re watching filler. Granted, the film needs to provide somethng leading up to the contest, especially since people solving crosswords individually across rows of tables has some definite shortcomings cinematically, but Creadon would have been better served spending more time on the history of the puzzle-solving pasttime, or further examining how these things get created in the first place (watching puzzle-crafter Merl Reagle at work is an early highlight).

The tournament that closes the film has a few notable twists and turns to make things implausibly exciting (and, at one key moment, heartbreaking). Better yet, Creadon captures the sense of community that develops at these sorts of events. Certainly the film has previously taken its various “characters” and held them up for some gentle ridicule, their effusive expertise in connecting words coming across as comically foreign in our cultural context which only values such skills when deployed in the service of reciting NFL transactions or financial market minutiae. Me, I have a series of colorful jerseys hanging in the closet of my glass house, so I’ll not take shots at the idiosyncracies of those onscreen. I do recognize that sense of camaraderie that exists between those who devote ample amounts of time to an endeavor that’s outside the norm, the relief and celebration of encountering others who share your minor obsessions. Creadon seems to recognize it, too, and captures it lovingly. While the puzzlers onscreen dream of winning the tournament, Creadon shows us that they continually return simply because they enjoy the simple experience of participating and celebrating everyone else who shares their passion.

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Posted in Film

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