December 01, 2005

Wordplay Watch #1: Cruciverbalism on the silver screen

What Spellbound did for spelling bees and Word Wars did for Scrabble, a new documentary hopes to do for the world of crossword puzzling. The Sundance Film Festival has announced its 2006 lineup, and among the 16 entries in the documentary competition is a film called Wordplay, directed by Patrick Creadon. This should be of even greater interest to word buffs than Spellbound or Word Wars, since as Lauren Squires recently pointed out on Polyglot Conspiracy, national spelling bees and Scrabble tournaments are "not really about the words."

(Sundance will also be screening a film called The Secret Life of Words, which unfortunately is not the etymological blockbuster we've all been waiting for. Instead it's a film by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, starring Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins, about a nurse who treats a man with severe burns on an oil rig. By which I mean that the burns are on the man, not the oil rig.)

Here's the brief description for Wordplay supplied by Sundance:

An in-depth look at the New York Times crossword puzzle and its editor Will Shortz, and the wonderfully unique and loyal fan base he has built and nurtured during his 12-year tenure at the paper.

But that doesn't do justice to the film's content, apparently. For the real scoop, check out the blogs of Trip Payne and Ellen Ripstein. Payne and Ripstein are among the perennial champs at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held each year in Stamford, Connecticut. According to the cruciverbalist blogs, Creadon's focus was originally just on Shortz and his tenure at the Times. But it ended up being more about the competitive side of puzzling, particularly the nerdy intensity of the Stamford tournament, which Shortz directs. (Readers of the New Yorker may recall an article on the topic a few years ago by Burkhard Bilger, featuring Shortz, Payne, and Ripstein, among others. I'm guessing that Bilger's loving portrait may have served as an inspiration for Creadon's film.)

A screening at Sundance of course doesn't immediately translate into a distribution deal so that the rest of us can see it, but there are some hopeful signs that the film could be alluring to movie distributors. Spellbound and Word Wars have already proved the marketabilty of the word-nerd genre. But Wordplay has something that neither of those documentaries has: star power. According to Payne, Creadon interviewed "a number of big-name celebrities." Cagily, he adds, "I won't spoil the surprises, but when I say big, I mean BIG. No, bigger than that." So that might be just the enticement distributors need to convince them to get the film into wider circulation.

I don't know if any Hollywood superstars will pop up, but I'll make an educated guess and say that Bill Clinton, a longtime fan of Will Shortz, will make an appearance in the film. Something tells me our current president would be slightly less likely to make a cameo.

[Update, 1/23/06: You can read about Wordplay's debut at Sundance here. Turns out I was right about Clinton.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 1, 2005 04:37 PM