Friday, May 05, 2006

Get Yer Hot Docs Here

Yeah, that title is pathetic. I'm bad with titles and headlines. Which is why I'll never be a professional copy editor.

So Toronto's annual documentary extravaganza Hot Docs is wrapping up this weekend. I love documentaries. If blockbusters are brain candy and the news is brain brocoli, docs are like brocoli smothered in cheese. I haven't seen as much as I'd like (stupid day job, you go squish now!) but there have been a few standouts so far, which I'll cover in my first few posts.

If you saw and liked Spellbound, the movie about the hopelessly geeky kids competing for spelling bee glory, you'll like Wordplay, a movie about hopelessly geeky adults competing for crossword glory. There's much less cuteness, but lots more humour, and where Wordplay totally has it over Spellbound is in the celebrity interviews: there's Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls and a pitcher for the Yankees whom I should probably recognize but don't, all of whom do the New York Times crossword religiously. (Stewart says he'll occasionally turn to the USA Today crossword when he's alone in a hotel room, but he doesn't feel good about himself afterwards. Hee.)

You get a look at how crossword puzzles are put together from start to finish, including the rules governing the puzzles (no more than one-sixth of the puzzle can be black squares, no profanity, no bodily functions, puzzle templates will always look the same upside down), and how the puzzle-makers choose what the major words in any given puzzle will be, how those words are centered around a theme and how that theme reveals itself in the different letter combinations. You meet Will Shortz, the Times crossword editor, who created his own university curriculum about puzzles (me=jealous), who Stewart refers to as "the Errol Flynn of crossword puzzles." Early on in the film Shortz reads snippets of the gazillion abusive letters he receives weekly, the best of which queries the word(s) "Oy vey": "I have never heard it before. Is it Northern?" Awesome.

Despite the humour, this would all just be a series of visually-uninteresting talking heads if it weren't for the graphics. Using split-screens, we're able to watch someone solve a puzzle, read the clues and see the actual boxes filled in in real time - and, dude, these guys are fast. They've filled in the word and moved on before I've even finished reading the clue.

But enough with the set-up - on to the tournament! Specifially, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament that takes place each year in Stamford, Conn, described as "an orgy of puzzling" by one of the organizers.

We of course meet several of the competitors before the tourney begin, and yes, they're dorks, pretty much to a man. There's a guy who's written a love song called - I kid you not - "If Your Love Doesn't Come Across I'm Going to Be Down". There's a guy who's created his own 3-D puzzle hat which I can only describe as looking like the love child of an ice cube tray and Sputnik. There's a former champion who does baton twirling for the talent night. Yes, there's a talent night. But this former champion, named Ellen Ripstein, also has the best line of the night: talking about a former boyfriend who used to make fun of her passion for puzzles, she says "And I said to him, 'Well, what is it that you're the best in the world at?'" Take that, dumbass boyfriend.

Patrick Creadon, who directed Wordplay, came out to talk to the audience (which apparently included one Dustin Hoffman, although I didn't see him; he's in town shooting a movie with Jason Bateman, I think), and even though this had been quite the hit at Sundance he seemed genuinely moved by the enthusiastic response we gave him. He said Clinton was the hardest interview to line up, unsurprisingly, and that once the former POTUS was on board, Stewart, who'd been hard to schedule too, suddenly became very available. Heh. Jon's such a Clinton fan-boy and I love it. Creadon also said he'd been asked if he'd tried to get the current president in the film too, which got a huge laugh. Seriously, the whole evening was so enjoyable that it made me want to dig out my Times crossword puzzle book, which I haven't looked at in ages because I couldn't solve anything in it. This movie is the goods. Go see it.

Wordplay is getting its theatrical release June 16th in New York, and is supposed to open in Toronto shortly thereafter.


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