This film has been out in various forms of limited distribution for a while, but it just opened in West Michigan on Friday and so we trotted out to Studio 28 again on a dreary gray and rainy Saturday afternoon. They gave us coupons for free drinks at the ticket counter -- their print has a scratch on one reel and they wanted to make amends. Really, it wasn't that bad a scratch, but one of the reasons why we like Studio 28 so much is that they work very hard to do a good job. (Which is why things like cutting out of the credits during World Trade Center the other week was so unusual, it warranted attention.)
And it is a color film -- it's just about a black and white topic:
Oooo -- an entire movie about solving crossword puzzles... No, really. Not only is this an entire movie about crossword puzzles, it's really good. And exciting. No, really! Stop laughing back there!
Will Shortz is the crossword editor at The New York Times. He also does puzzles on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday Morning. 60 Minutes did a piece on him a year or so ago. He's really enthusiastic about puzzles and is a very pleasant fellow. And in 1978, he organized the National Crossword Puzzle Championship at the Stamford CT Marriott and it's been there ever since. Part of Wordplay is about the 2005 competition -- and it's a real nailbiter. No, really!
Along the way we meet some of the past champions and some of the future champions. Also some of the people who set crossword puzzles. And lots of people who like to solve them. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, some of the New York Yankees... and a whole bunch of other nerdy people. Speaking of Clinton and Dole, they bring up what is apparently the most famous crossword in recent memory -- Election Day 5 November 1996, where The New York Times crossword had a clue about "Tomorrow's headlines" and had two solutions: CLINTONELECTED and BOBDOLEELECTED. Seven other crossing clues had to also have two possible solutions. Very clever. (NOTE: Mrs. Dr. Phil did this crossword in like no time -- "It's a Tuesday puzzle after all.")
You're Amongst Friends
I've been to a couple of SF conventions since 2004, to say nothing of professional physics, chemistry and science teaching conferences. Though these nerds may be obsessed about crossword puzzles, they are still "my people". I'd recognize them at any of the hotel conferences I've ever been to.
The makers of Wordplay have a tough job, making solving crosswords interesting enough that you can follow along. They do some nice split screen work and computer graphics -- highlighting squares in the puzzle, displaying selective groups of clues, filling in the squares in realtime with the solvers.
For years the gold standard of self-confidence and smarts has been the person who "solves The Times crossword in ink." Of course, this reference is properly to The Times in London, which like so many things British, doesn't feel it has to identify itself. (It's The Open, for example, not The British Open in golf circles. And just The Derby, pronounced Darby anyways.) Last week we saw via Netflix an old episode of the PBS Mystery!/BBC series Inspector Morse: The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Morse solves The Times crossword in minutes, usually, and in pen, wrestling with the products of a setter named Daedalus whom Morse meets in the course of the murder investigation. And in an episode of The West Wing, Chief of Staff Leo McGerry is on the phone to The New York Times complaining about the spelling of a particular head of the Libyan state in their morning's crossword.
I myself am not properly a crossword person. I love the concept, but I think I like the theory of the crossword puzzle and marvel at the design and setting of them, but am too impatient to sit down and work them out. Eventually, fans of certain setters and certain sources (The Times, New York Times, L.A. Times, etc.) learn some of the standard tricks and definitions. That sort of insider information would captivate me if I had the patience to learn, otherwise it is fun trivia while sitting on the outside and bloody annoying if I'm trying to solve a puzzle. Like solving calculus physics problems, I tend to go for the brute force follow-the-rules-of-the-calculus approach, rather than the elegant mathematics approach.
So this is quite enough crosswording for me -- indeed, it is a delightful film and window into this quiet world of lonely practitioners of this art form. I've been doing a Sudoku a day for a little over a month now. That's much more straight logic application and that's enough of a small time trap for me right now.
TRAILERS: Completely different set of movie trailers before Wordplay than Snakes on a Plane. Hmmm... wonder why. Deja Vu with Denzel Washington looks cool... but I wonder if it is a sequel to that Denzel movie where a murderer is unleashed from a virtual reality police trainer.