Cross words

Last night my flatmates and I watch "Wordplay," last year's film about the creators and solvers of the New York Times crossword as well as the participants in the annual crossword competition in Stamford, CT. I must admit that I have a significant soft spot for this sort of documentaries. Although I rarely find them innovative or feel an urge to revisit them, there is something comforting and entertaining about the idea of extraordinariness in mundanity that is explored by films like "Wordplay," "Word Wars" (the Scrabble film), "Spellbound" (about children at the National Spelling Bee) or "Mad Hot Ballroom" (which follows a pilot program to bring ballroom dance to NYC schools). Of course, the flip side of this coin is the criticism many have leveled at this sub-genre of documentary, that it seeks out the oddities of its subject and displays them for the mockery of the audience, taking eccentricity and transforming it into freakishness to create narrative interest. To a certain extent this criticism is true, and shows evidence of the perilous influence of reality TV: though the enthusiasm of these "characters" is fascinating, their obsessions terrify, and we must be on our guard against forgetting that they are actual people rather than fictional constructs, easily condemned.

The cast of "characters" in "Wordplay" is sufficiently sympathetic that this is less of a worry than it has been in other films. Or perhaps our sympathy comes from the fact that the crossword, as pastime and status symbol, has permeated our lives to a greater extent. We (or at least I) can understand the social capital it confers to be able to finish a New York Times crossword (especially one from late in the week) quickly and in pen, in a way that I couldn't necessarily understand spelling bees and Scrabble tournaments. And the film trots out celebrity after celebrity, from a baseball pitcher to a comedian to a former president of the United States, to prove how elite the pursuit is. In one marvelous scene, all these celebrities attempt to complete the same puzzle, and I for one heaved a huge sigh of relief when Bill Clinton quickly answered clues about missiles, for instance. There is a jarring note, however, in the continued assertion that people who do crosswords are a certain type of people, "my type of people," just as an alarm sounds when Ken Burns makes the startling assertion that he believes that the English language is the greatest force in the world today. Ah well, I will keep watching these films as long as they keep making them - warts and all, they delight me.

"Wordplay" (2006)
dir. Patrick Creadon