Between Reviews: Down and Across a Documentary

Posted on July 13, 2008


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JULY 13, 2008 – FEW INSTITUTIONS HAVE DONE AS MUCH as the Films Division to erect a forbiddingly non-navigable barrier between education and entertainment in the Indian mindset – and this dubious achievement came about primarily through the documentaries they produced. Oh, the endless hours – a few minutes, actually, but oh, did they feel like hours – we’ve spent in theatres before the main movie, watching how thatched-roof huts were made in Tripura or how fixed deposits were the equivalent of raincoats during a downpour. If the outfit had a motto, it could be this: We try to make boring subject matter even more boring. Indifferently shot, and set – seemingly, each single time – to the same, doleful sitar score, these short films have ensured that the word “documentary” has come to represent everything that narrative-fiction film isn’t – dry as dust and intent on pushing an agenda you’re not interested in, like an Amway salesman with a handycam.

But then you see something like Wordplay, and you realise how documentaries can be every bit as thrilling and moving and even funny as hell. Of course, you already know this if you’ve seen the work of Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore – but those were constructed around world events and social trends, whereas Wordplay (directed by Patrick Creadon) is simply an exercise in intellectual masturbation. If you’re into crossword puzzles – as I am – the documentary appears to exist for the sole purpose of inducting you into a secret society of pencil-chewing super-geeks, and thus elevating you from the lumpen proles to whom newspapers are merely about news (and lets face it, we all could use more moments in our lives that make us feel elevated). Wordplay, in other words, isn’t about the terrors of fast food (like Spurlock’s Super Size Me) or the evils of the Bush administration (like Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), and if there’s a thesis it expounds, it’s simply this: crosswords are cool.

Early on in Wordplay – which I’ve been meaning to watch ever since its release in 2006, but got around to only now, thanks to a local video store that had it next to Warriors of Heaven and Earth, as if to emphasise that with the kind of subject matter it deals with, it could practically be in Mandarin – Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword, hosts a radio show in which he challenges contestants to name something that belongs to each category he calls out, with the condition that the object has to begin with the first two letters of the category. As an instance, he offers, Pluto would be an acceptable “thing” in the category of Planets. And so the first contestant comes on line, scoring instant points by coming up with Audi for Automobiles and Carson City for Capitals of States. Then Shortz brings up Snow White’s Dwarves, and the contestant is stumped. “Snoopy?” he offers, while simultaneously erupting into laughter at the wildness of his guess.

His laughter is contagious, and I wondered if there was an earlier documentary I’d seen that was so entertaining, such fun. Of course, Wordplay is educational too – we learn, for instance, that an ideal puzzle is one that fills no more than one-sixth of the diagram with black squares, or that if you turn the puzzle upside down, the arrangement of squares should stay the same – but these instructions are passed along in the tone of casual conversation, and there’s not a dull minute. One reason for this is surely that Americans are a far more irreverent bunch than we are, far more willing to laugh at everything – including themselves. Shortz admits that one of his favourite parts of the week is getting through the mail, and he reads out, for our benefit, the kind of invective that could only be crafted by those who love the language. “This one last Saturday,” says one disgruntled puzzle solver, “was ridiculous. You should be hanged by your cojones.” The next one smacks of the handiwork of a schoolteacher. “Frogs hop, sir, but toads do not. They… waddle.”

And all the while, I was disabused of several long-held notions about crossword-puzzle constructors – for one, that they knew the meanings of the words they filled the grids with. Merl Reagle, a syndicated crossword-puzzle constructor (and, inevitably, a bona fide word enthusiast; he drives past a Dunkin’ Donuts and observes that a simple switch of alphabets could result in “unkind” donuts, “of which I’ve had quite a few”), sits down with an empty grid, and we see him filling the squares with alphabets, which become words and phrases. It’s all going swimmingly, till he encounters a space that can apparently hold only “redtop.” He fills in the word, and then hurries to the dictionary and discovers, to his relief, that it’s some kind of Eurasian grass with reddish flowers. His feeling of closure ties perfectly into what someone, during the course of the documentary, describes is behind the cracking of a crossword. “It’s the basic human need to figure things out.”

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