Wordplay (PG), directed by Patrick Creadon, is playing at Little Theatres and Pittsford Cinema | Interkosmos (NR), directed by visiting guest artist Jim Finn, shows Saturday, July 15, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.
by Dayna Papaleo
In our big, beautiful world there are pen people and there are pencil people. The ink devotees are daring, somewhat arrogant, and totally willing to fall flat on their faces. Graphite disciples are sensible, cautious, and orderly, and while that doesn't sound terribly sexy, without them it would be anarchy. It should come as no surprise that former president Bill Clinton leans toward pens. Comedian Jon Stewart does, too. And if you have any idea what I'm referring to, you've probably already seen director Patrick Creadon's documentary Wordplay. I'd also wager that, like me, you're a pen person.
Wordplay takes us inside the thrillingly nerdy realm of crossword puzzles by allowing us to spend time with those who make them, those who solve them, and those who solve them really fast. The star of Wordplay, if there is one, would be Will Shortz, crossword editor at The New York Times since 1993 and something of a minor deity among the puzzle set. He decided early on that his future would be in crosswords, going so far as to take advantage of Indiana University's create-your-own-curriculum option and major in enigmatology (imagine breaking that news to your parents).
Through the ultra-amiable Shortz we meet a few of the puzzle constructors who supply him with the 60 to 70 submissions he receives per week --- most notably Merl Reagle, who takes us through the creation of a crossword puzzle. Reagle points out the symmetry of a puzzle and acknowledges the rules, which include a set number of black spaces as well as a ban on clues relating to bodily functions, lamenting that the word "urine" would have gotten him out of more than one jam. It's probably the most fascinating part of the film, as Creadon highlights yet one more thing we see every day and give very little thought as to how it came to pass.
Creadon visits with the more famous crossword aficionados, including New York Yankee (and former Rochester Red Wing) Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls, and filmmaker Ken Burns. Jon Stewart trash-talks the puzzlemaster in absentia as he defiantly tackles a grid with a Sharpie ("Bring it, Shortz!"), and the ever-charming Clinton, still addressing truths we hold to be self-evident (on crossword puzzles: "They're fun!"), recalls a particularly ingenious seven-letter clue the day following the 1996 election that could have been answered with either "BOBDOLE" or "CLINTON."
Using the same sort of narrative device found in recent documentaries like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, throughout Wordplay we also get to know a few of the crossword fans who will participate in the film's centerpiece, the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. A quirky lot, the contestants share a deep intensity, colossal brains, and a warm camaraderie that was on full display as Creadon filmed the crossword action, occasionally using a split-screen that at first seemed confusing but was easily adapted to by the time the competition heated up.
And, surprisingly, it is truly "action." As in any competition, there are hotshots and underdogs, and it's not difficult to get invested in at least one of the finalists (but not too invested; they are, after all, über-cocky pen people). And from the renowned to the unknown, Wordplay's subjects are dripping with wit. Reagle's color commentary during the tournament is hilarious, and of course, there's Stewart, particular to the Old Gray Lady though admitting to an occasional crack at the USA Today puzzle: "But I won't feel good about myself."
Filmmaker Jim Finn will be in attendance at the Dryden Theatre on Saturday night to present his debut feature Interkosmos, a faux documentary about an East German mission to settle the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, replete with Busby Berkeley-esque musical numbers, miniature sets, and stop-motion animation. At the heart of Interkosmos is a timid romance between two of the cosmonauts, played out through static-y confessions and a bizarrely funny debate over "The Trolley Song."
Resourcefully shot in Illinois and Central New York, Interkosmos is shocking in its Eastern Bloc loveliness, with the film stock suitably tinged and scratched in furtherance of the illusion. Composers Jim Becker (from Califone) and Colleen Burke (she plays piano in Bug Jar faves We Ragazzi) have fashioned a score of celestial '70s Teutonic electronica that blends perfectly with the images. I know we're bombarded with musical mockumentaries about space colonization, but this is probably the best one you'll see all year.