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A Puzzled Look at the World of Crosswords

In 1999, USC grad student Jeffrey Blitz was struggling to find a potential subject for his first feature film when the National Spelling Bee suddenly flashed across his television screen. Blitz had never seen a bee before, but knew instantly that all of his preconceived notions of the event (stodgy, dull) were wrong. The National Spelling Bee, as all of us who have seen Blitz’s Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary Spellbound now know, is an intense crucible of adolescent and parental dreams.

Spellbound’s commercial and critical success begat a 2005 adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season, the Starbucks-promoted Akeelah and the Bee and kiddie dance comedy Mad Hot Ballroom. It also clearly influenced longtime cinematographer Patrick Creadon’s ode to the New York Times crossword, Wordplay.

Like Blitz, Creadon was looking for a subject for a feature documentary when he stumbled upon the crossword. Unlike Blitz, the subject he found was one that was already very close to his and his wife/producer Christine O’Malley’s heart. He and O’Malley didn’t see an American Dream story in the New York Times crossword. Instead, they wondered at the man, Will Shortz, who edits the crossword, the mysterious constructors across North America who dream up the week’s most cunning puzzles and the myriad box-heads who see their daily brainteaser as more than a ritual.

“When I realized no one had made the definitive film about Will or crosswords, we knew we had a great topic, so we became like hunter-gatherers,” Creadon told the crowd at Wordplay’s Hot Docs screening last month. By trying to be “definitive,” Creadon crams an insane amount of material into his film’s running time. Shortz’s story alone would make a decent television biography—the story of a young man, obsessed with puzzles, who went to the University of Indiana and majored in “Enigmatology” (a name of his own invention for the study of puzzles) and then on to work for Games magazine and National Public Radio, eventually ending up at the Times.

After Shortz, we meet Merle Reagle, puzzle-constructor extraordinaire, another man whose life and work I would have gladly given an hour of my life to watch. The high point of our time with Reagle comes when Creadon sits in on the construction of a Tuesday crossword. (Though, to be honest, I would have rather seen him compose something more difficult—the puzzles get more challenging as the week goes on).

We subsequently meet sundry crossword enthusiasts—everyone from Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton and the Indigo Girls to the most zealous attendees of Shortz’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The former are nice to hear from, but their presence here is unessential. The latter are far more interesting. Here are people who don’t just do the weekend crossword in bed with a cup of coffee. These folks train like Olympic rowers, pushing themselves to get faster and faster, all in preparation for one weekend in a Marriott in Stamford, Connecticut. As audience members, we want to know what exactly it is that makes them so fast. Why the crossword and not something else? What’s the difference in temperament and mind between the constructor and the competitor? We ultimately don’t get at much of this. By trying to pull a Spellbound and focusing so much of the latter stages of the film on the Stamford tournament, the film is slightly unfulfilling.

Blitz’s movie was at its most compelling when Nupur Lala, Harry Altman, and their fellow competitors were forced to sweat and fret through arcane spellings on stage. The spelling bee is like baseball in that its very structure lends itself to tragedy. Harry steps up to bat, his parents are watching and hoping, the word is something absurdly strange, and he swings. Spellbound was about the hopes and dreams of children and their families. It was not about the National Spelling Bee.

Creadon’s film is about the New York Times crossword puzzle. Shortz’s annual tournament for word-heads is surely of note, but it should not have been allowed to swallow up the film the way it does. Watching grown people (even frat boy puzzle wunderkind Tyler Hinman) do crossword puzzles is not the same as watching stuttering adolescents spell floccinaucinihilipilification. With adults, the pressure is generally self-imposed. There’s far less at stake. Furthermore, despite Creadon’s creative use of a digitally partitioned screen, it is virtually impossible to follow three competing crossword solvers. As a result, the audience is never properly invested in who will win the tournament.

Creadon shot more than 90 hours of footage for Wordplay. He was admirably trying to make the “definitive” film about something that might just be too big to define. A book perhaps could have done it. But a film? Just because he fails in this regard though, doesn’t mean Creadon’s film isn’t worth watching. It’s fun and punchy and always handled with a requisite light hand. Were its focus somewhat tighter, Wordplay could have been great. As it stands, unless you are a diehard crossword fan, you don’t need to see this on the big screen.

Wordplay is now playing at the Cumberland, 159 Cumberland St.

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