Media : Wordslinging



Crossword puzzles were invented in 1913, and if James Joyce (who was born in 1882) had set his mind to solving them, he could have been a champ. But then he would not have written Ulysses. Word games are the purest form of verbal play; poets write their odes out of tainted motives — a bid for spots in great anthologies — but crossword virtuosi fulfill themselves without applause by setting letters into empty squares. Once a year, however, a crossword-puzzle tournament makes celebrities out of obscure wordslingers. More than a hundred aficionados convene in Stamford, Connecticut, to compete for the national crossword championship. The 28th-annual edition of the tournament, held March 11-13, 2005, frames Wordplay, a genial excursion into a subculture of verbal obsession.

New York Times Crossword Editor Will Shortz is a real man of letters.

Presiding is Will Shortz, crossword-puzzle editor of The New York Times and puzzle master on NPR’s Sunday-morning “Weekend Edition.” Comedian Jon Stewart calls Shortz “the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzling,” though it is hard to picture Flynn as “the Will Shortz of the picture shows.” Doing crossword puzzles is a solitary pleasure pursued by odd ducks whose amniotic fluid must have been alphabet soup.

“It is a kind of nerdy thing,” Ellen Ripstein, a crossword champ who could never be mistaken for Marlene Dietrich, tells a scoffer. “But what are you the best at in the country?” You have to admire the aptitude, knowledge, agility, and devotion of what, in sesqui-pedalian terms, are called cruciverbalists, even if their energies and talents might be put to more constructive use.

Dir. Patrick Creadon; writ. Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley (PG)

The challenge of supplying a six-letter word for a whip made of an animal’s penis (“pizzle”) might be stimulating, but crossword puzzling hardly seems a spectator sport. It is as thrilling as watching taxpayers complete 1040 forms. Yet the wonder is how exhilarating Wordplay is to view. Everything converges on the anxious final round, in which three finalists — from Colorado, Florida, and New York, respectively — stand before an enlarged crossword grid and attempt to fill it in rapidly and accurately. The tension is as thick as a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. Along the way, filmmaker Patrick Creadon fills us in on the history of the hobby and the lives of the most proficient crossworders. We learn how Margaret Farrar, the Times’ first crossword editor, standardized the form, how Shortz, who took over in 1993, has expanded the scope of the Times puzzle, and how the Tuesday and Sunday editions differ. One sequence cuts back and forth among Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, and former President Bill Clinton, as each takes on the same perplexing puzzle. “We’re all capable of doing more than we think,” says Clinton. It is tempting to think that the Oval Office ought always to be occupied by someone who thrives on the nuance and romance of words.

Though it has traveled more widely — under crucigrama, mots-croises, Kreuzwortratsel, and other names — than football, Wordplay presents the crossword puzzle as an exclusively American pastime. Does cruciverbalism in Morocco, handled from right to left, reflect distinctive national character? Do clues in Cuba have to pass a censor? Like spelling bees and Scrabble contests, crosswords defy rampant indifference to written language. On the evidence of Wordplay, this perky canary in the coal mine has not yet run out of lyrics.

As of press time, the San Antonio opening date was moved to July 21, 2006.

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