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By the numbers

Quick: What's an eight-letter word for 'diverting'?

With the number of films about spelling bees and crossword puzzles and the upsurge in Napoleon Dynamite- and Miranda July-style geeks, this could very well be the season of the nerd.

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In a culture endlessly genuflecting at the temple of celebrity, the nerd is a breath of fresh air, a reminder of the virtues of intelligence, pluck, scholarship and pure idiosyncrasy. These are the little men and women who defy the Great Man march of history.

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The nerd hero of Wordplay about hardcore crossword puzzle fans is Will Shortz, the New York Times "Puzzle Master," as Patrick Creadon's debut documentary describes him. Shortz is an archetypal puzzle geek: a nondescript, slight, squared-away fella with a tidy mustache who, in his 12 years as Times puzzle editor, has emerged as the form's messiah. Shortz's puzzle cred is impressive: As a college student, he was puzzle-mad enough to create his own major at Indiana University, "enigmatology."

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And in 1978, Shortz founded the annual World Cup of fill-in-the-blank, the Stamford, Conn., American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

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Shortz has since morphed into a kind of cult hero to puzzle fans who write angry letters to chide and often curse him for his puzzles but who clearly embrace him as one of their own — "the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzling," says "The Daily Show" host and crossword fan Jon Stewart.

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The first portion of Wordplay is the most engrossing, as Shortz and other puzzle nuts detail the factors that go into creating the Times' daily puzzle.

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There are the "Puzzle Constructors" like renowned wordsmith Merl Reagle, who creates the words and clues that delight and befuddle fans.

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And there are the puzzle players — a sometimes wacky-diverse contingent — including Stewart, shown humorously goading and cursing an absent Shortz as he goes about solving a puzzle.

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Bill Clinton, who works confidently in pen, also appears to offer his quintessential Democratic theories about the crossword puzzle's applicability to human success. Viewing intelligence as equal parts nature and nurture, Clinton seems to see the struggle to complete the puzzle and increase one's knowledge as related to the human potential for growth and improvement if given the right opportunities and role models.

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"We're all capable of doing more than we think," he says, midpuzzle.

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The Indigo Girls are also puzzle fans, along with filmmaker Ken Burns, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent, a self-professed nerd who identifies two professions that excel at puzzle solving: musicians and mathematicians.

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But the meat and potatoes of Wordplay are the non-famous contestants headed for the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an event where there are more professorial beards and crossword-puzzle ties than at a Decatur PTA meeting.

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Among the contestants who are briefly profiled: Al Sanders, a Hewlett-Packard manager from Colorado; Tyler Hinman, an IT major at an upstate New York polytechnic college; and Ellen Ripstein, a Manhattanite who is another self-identified "little nerd girl" and former tournament winner.

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Creadon can really force the meringue-light quirkiness with his peppy soundtrack and vignettes showing Ripstein twirling her baton in Central Park, or panning 20-year-old puzzle-wunderkind Hinman's fraternity-house room decorated like a shrine to beer. But it is just such moments when these ordinary and famous fans describe the significance and metier of puzzle solving that the film rises above a thinner, fluffier crossword take on the acclaimed spelling bee documentary Spellbound.

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Even with a surprise tournament upset to help him along, Creadon is less successful at generating suspense in the tension-deficient race to the finish of the 2005 tournament. His failure to focus in more closely on the contestants early on in his film makes their tournament upsets and triumphs difficult to connect with on a more personal level.

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It may just be the nature of the beast. Puzzle solving is internalized and mental, unlike the spelling bees or basketball games that stoke our excitement and carry us along.

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Diverting though Wordplay may be, when it moves into tournament-mode, the film suffers from the essentially undramatic nature of this solitary "sport."

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felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com



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