June 22, 2006
Brain-Busting Doc, Eight Letters
The cult status of The New York Times Crossword puzzle is the subject of "Wordplay," an uneven but entertaining documentary by director Patrick Creadon about the people who design the fiendishly difficult crossword puzzles for The Times and the gifted eccentrics who devote their lives to puzzle solving and who compete against each other with all the fury and devotion of Olympic athletes.
Before we go further in discussing "Wordplay," there is one question that needs to be dealt with, in the context of this publication: Is the Times crossword somehow a Jewish thing? The short answer is, well, yes and no.
Although the Gray Lady, as some media critics dub The Times, is published in one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, "Wordplay" does not convey the sense that there is any Jewish preponderance among the crossword-puzzle community. Judging from the range of competitors in the 2005 national annual crossword in Stamford, Ct. documented in the film, both the enthusiasts and the winners are reassuringly rainbow.
Champions of the annual event have included both men and women, including the winsome Ellen Ripstein, a self-described "48-year-old nerd girl" who looks like your sixth-grade math teacher and who can solve a Friday Times crossword puzzle in two minutes flat, give or take a couple of seconds. (Advice to movie goers: If you have any ego investment in your ability to do The Times crossword, you would be better off seeing "X-Men: The Last Stand.")
If there is nothing intrinsically Jewish about the crossword puzzle, then, there may be something deeply Jewish about the way some Jews respond to this arcane verbal puzzle. As the proverbial People of the Book, there is a vein of Jewish culture about verbal ability and problem solving. The extremely compressed sentences of the Babylonian Talmud might be described as a kind of puzzle to be decoded as much as read.
Maybe The Times crossword is Jewish friendly because my family has been addicted to this obnoxious word game for at least three generations.
My grandfather, largely self-educated and boastful about being a reader of Proust, insisted on doing it in pen, the macho way where there is no turning back. My mother uses pencil, and my father used a pen. I used pencil before the electronic version arrived, usually leaving at least one hole in the newsprint where I erased one time too many. In a family that has not handed over a great deal in Jewish oral tradition, the notion of the Sunday crossword puzzle, accompanied by slabs of Nova lox and very strong coffee, and maybe some choral music on the radio, became its own kind of tradition.
There is perhaps another aspect about The Times puzzle, which may relate to some Jewish people, and a great many other people as well, and that is wit and humor. The Times crossword is both funny as well as a teasing. The people who solve it must have not only a great stock of general knowledge and unusual English words, but also a sense of fun.
More to the point, perhaps, The Times crossword, more than any other word puzzle, takes full advantage of ambiguity, particularly employing words with multiple meanings. Take "jar," as a random example. Is it a noun or a verb? Is the solution "amphora" or "disrupt"?
Puzzle solvers must also know beforehand not to be misled by easy clues. If the crossword offers an obvious giveaway for a word that fits into the space provided, you can be assured that is the wrong answer.
One of the strongest moments of the movie shows a discussion between a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a 20-year-old student who is a contender for the national championship. The two wonder whether computers could ever be programmed to solve The Times crossword -- the student says no, that computers cannot handle the ambiguity inherent in the wordplay because they lack the ability to judge different scenarios of meaning for a single word in order to choose the one that has best chance of fitting into an elegant geometric pattern with other carefully chosen words.
In other words, Times crossword puzzles are a subset of language as an enormous puzzle. And, although crossword puzzles cannot be described as literature, a good crossword can be a mind-expanding exploration of the many weird offshoots contained within the big tent of the English language, probably the most compendious language, in the number of words, in the world.
As a film, "Wordplay" follows a very conventional form. The filmmaker interviews the top contestants in each of their homes or daily environments -- Ripstein is shown in a diner -- and follows them on their breathless way into the competition, with the thrill, the agony and the like. So conventional is "Wordplay's" form and direction that at times we think we are watching outtakes of a Christopher Guest movie like "Best in Show."
One particularly strong sequence, however, shows a kind of symmetry between a man constructing a crossword puzzle and a group of people -- including comedian Jon Stewart, former President Bill Clinton, film maker Ken Burns and indy rockers the Indigo Girls -- all solving the same clue, each in his or her own fashion. Another strong moment is when the filmmakers provide a large-scale diagram that shows how quickly the competing crossword masters fill out the page.
All of them seemed a little stumped at a clue asking for a "novelistic quality," with the bizarre answer of "Zolaesque," in honor of Emile Zola, the French realist writer. This is the kind of clue that generates hate mail to Times puzzlemaker Will Shortz ("you are sick, sick, sick!") from puzzle devotees.
Like many similar documentaries, "Wordplay" is an inquiry into a community of gifted people with a strong drive to make themselves champions, even if they are drab and underachieving in the other areas of life. Even people who have no attraction to crossword puzzles may find themselves involved with the notion of a society that uncovers the subtle genius of otherwise unremarkable people. And certain Jewish people may feel a hankering for the escape of spending a leisurely morning, with music and food, in the company of the world's most maddening and enchanting word puzzle.