A degree in Enigmatology

I spent my Friday night by myself at home, with my laptop plugged into our telly, watching a documentary about crossword puzzles. Let's face it, you're jealous of my rock and roll lifestyle, aren't you. Fortunately, the film in question, Wordplay, isn't half bad.

The first half of the film highlights the appeal of the New York Times crossword puzzle, speaking to editor Will Shortz (the scene where he reads hate mail is hilarious) and constructor Merl Reagle about how they do what they do, and some of the people addicted to the puzzle. Amidst all the nerdlingers, there's also some famous fans, like Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls, New York Yankee Mike Mussina, and a surprisingly grating Jon Stewart. There's also a history of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, in Stamford CT, which Shortz started in the seventies. It's interesting to meet some of the past winners, and see them knock through a puzzle in four minutes. They acknowledge that it's an usual hobby, but it brings them together, and one interviewee, Ellen, says that once a boyfriend made fun of her for her hobby and she replied with "Well, what are you best in the country at?" Later you see the closeness the people have, meeting once a year in Stamford, and it's pretty sweet.

For the second half, we're at the 2005 competition, having met some of the favourites. There's Tyler, a redheaded frat dude; Jon, many-time previous winner and "the greatest puzzle player of our lifetime"; father-of-three Al; and Tripp, who's the least socially awkward, but his boyfriend looks like Wayne Rooney, so he loses points there.

I liked that 'Wordplay' balanced two sides of a documentary - speak to people who're united by a common but unusual hobby, see what draws them to it; and then go for some excitement as we race to see who'll take the crown, and we know that contests make for compelling documentary fodder. And, I was surprised to be so drawn into caring about who would win. As much as there can be at a crossword competition, there is a pretty awesome "twist" during the ultimate three-way showdown, which is kind of startling.

I'm not going to start doing the NYT crossword anytime soon, mostly because I don't know any long or clever words, but the documentary was engrossing, entertaining and more than a worthy substitute for going out drinking. Check out the trailer here, and DVD link below.

[buy DVD (US)]


structuredchaos said...

So I didn't pick up the NY Times... but I DID start doing the Democrats' crossword. I can only get 25ish out of 50ish, and I almost always give up before I should, but it's fun nonetheless. I particularly liked the hate-mail, "This is a Friday puzzle, not a Tuesday." Also... I wanted Al to win.

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