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For millions of people the crossword puzzle is part of life and the object of personal ritual. I have always enjoyed doing a good puzzle until I got married and my wife took it over. Every Saturday night here in Brooklyn, NY, I would go out for the Sunday NY Times and some bagels. Immediately upon my return my wife would grab the crossword puzzle, head for the bathroom, run a hot bath and I would be banished until she finished it. Like many puzzle aficionados a source of great pride is that she finishes the crossword in pen. The New York Times crossword puzzle is the epitome, the holy grail of enthusiast everywhere. The documentary ‘Wordplay’ by Patrick Creadon takes a look at the puzzles, their creators and the people that are addicted to solving them. Some may wonder how a film about crossword puzzles can be interesting just remember what other subjects have been shown on film and television of late. There are endless shows that show people playing poker, series where we get to watch people fish and golf. For those that enjoy a good puzzle on a Sunday morning this film is for you. As for the rest of the audience, it will provide a look at a community that you never before appreciated. This film takes a comprehensive look at the word of crossword puzzles; the creators, the solvers and the tournament players.

One of the main focuses of the documentary is Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles and the only holder of a degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. He is also the founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in Stamford, Conn. whose 28th annual competition is featured here. He has about 100 people working under him all trying to make a puzzle that will challenge the legion of fans. From the age of eight Shortz has been creating puzzles. He considers himself very fortunate that Indiana State University permits its students to create their own academic track so Will was able to major in the science and art of puzzles. He desired to make a profession out of his obsession and as editor of the NY Times crossword he has made that dream come true. Now he gets both letters of thanks and admiration as well as a good amount of hate mail. In the film Will reads a few and I have to say that it would make my week as well.

The love of crossword puzzles is something that transcends most social boundaries. It is an activity that is enjoyed equally among the rich and famous and those that work for a living. True, there are some requirements for solving the better puzzles. You need a better than average command of the English language, the ability to think in several directions at once and an eye for some of the tricks the creators will throw at you. In the word of crossword puzzles there is a definite hierarchy. Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s Daily Show explains that he can do a puzzle from USA Today but it doesn’t make him feel good about himself. He likens it to one of those word puzzles where you hunt for words in a page of letters and circle them. The NY Times puzzle is the one to beat.

The documentary details the work of the twisted minds that come up with these puzzles. There are rules to follow, especially for the lauded NY Times. The level of difficult has to increase from Monday through the ultimate challenge presented on Sunday. The clues have to be realistic and fit with the overall standards and style of the Times. One sixth of the squares can be black. Two letter words are frowned upon and there has to be an overall symmetry to how the puzzle looks on the page. There is also some regulations about using terms referring to bodily functions. As Shortz explains most solvers would not appreciate an answer of ‘urine’ on a Sunday morning. Most of these rules where established by Margaret Farrar, the first NY Time crossword edition who held the position from the forties to the late sixties. There are also regulations enforced on a more personal level by the solvers. President Bill Clinton is an advocate of using ink, committing your answers to the page. Jon Stewart leans more towards the more forgiving pencil. Ink uses pride themselves as being at the top of an elite group. They show how a puzzle is created, using the word ‘Wordplay’ as the theme. Since this word has a even number of letters and most puzzles have an odd number on each side it offers a little challenge to the constructor. They work backwards, laying out the answers in the grid first and then fitting the black squares and clues afterwards. It appears that creating the puzzles is as much of a challenge as solving them.

This film follows several people involved with the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. This is overall a friendly competition until they sit down in front of the puzzles. Then it is every man for himself as the work against the clock to be crowned the champion. They take on some of the most difficult puzzle, the type that would keep most of us busy for hours, in a matter of a few minutes. At this level the contestants can literally see the letters move around in their heads.

Some hearing about a film concerned with crossword puzzles may be boring but the director has made sure this is not the case here. Patrick Creadon exhibits both a love for the pastime as well as a great sense of humor. He paces the film perfectly moving around to each group examined showing just how they interact. The Weinstein Company has done an excellent job in bring this Sundance nominated film to DVD. The widescreen video is crystal clear. The audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 which is a bit of overkill here but the sound is impeccable. What really shine in this DVD presentation is the extras. There are five crossword thematic crossword puzzles are provided but on screen and in a little booklet. There is an audio commentary track with Creadon, Shortz and puzzle constructor, Merl Reagle. They add a lot to the enjoyment of the film with their off the cuff remarks about the subject matter and the film. There are some deleted scenes that were wisely left out of the finished film. Also included are some interviews with people that enjoy the puzzles and a look at taking the film to Sundance. This is more fun to watch than you might think and definitely worth having in your collection.

Posted 10/30/06

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