When I was young and lived in New York, I thought the New York Times crossword puzzle had been invented to keep people occupied while they were waiting around. After all, people in New York wait around a lot -- for subways, discount theater tickets, special shows at the Met, or just a table in that restaurant that serves the really good pancakes.
But while I am proud to say there was a time when I could do the Sunday crossword in ink, I really had no idea what I was dealing with. No concept of the Cult of Puzzle, no inkling of the dedicated ranks of puzzle fetishists in this country. It's an obsession, it turns out, cutting across all demographic lines. It has its own language, it has its own tournament and now it has its own movie.
During its small theatrical release last year, "Wordplay," a film about the strange fascination of the New York Times crossword puzzle and the puzzle world in general, was for a brief and shining moment the critics' darling. As it airs Thursday on KCET, television critics can add their words of praise and try to find clever ways to do it. A 12-, 10- and nine-letter word for "Wordplay": Illuminating. Delightful. Hilarious.
Where else will you find Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls rhapsodizing about a shared hobby in ways more psychically revealing than any Rorschach test?
"Cities are where we leave the imprint of human interaction," intones Burns, peering up through his signature mop top. "What this city offers is a sense of grids. It's all about boxes. You live in a box and you ride in a box to go to work in a box. And we have this wonderful newspaper that's boxy shaped that has in it this page . . . and there are a set of boxes in which you kind of practice the wordplay of this exquisite language."
"Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle," explains the former president. "You start with what you know the answer to and you build on it and you unravel the whole puzzle. You have to find some aspect you understand and build on it to reveal the mystery."
And you thought it was just a puzzle.
Bookended by the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., "Wordplay" explores every aspect of crossword puzzles and attempts to capture, if not completely explain, what drives otherwise normal people to spend hours of their lives filling in little blank squares by answering often elliptical and smarty-pants clues.
If the film has a star, it is Will Shortz, the amiable and authoritative editor of the New York Times puzzle and NPR puzzle master who has devoted his life to the puzzle.
But he is by no means the only one. As a syndicated puzzle creator, Merl Reagle, for example, can afford to be a bit more direct, dishing on the rules and regs, including an unwritten good taste clause.
"Urine would bail me out of a corner a million times a year," he says. "Same with enema -- talk about great letters. But you have to keep them out of crossword puzzles because they don't pass the Sunday morning breakfast test. . . . They're sitting there relaxing and here comes 'rectal'? I don't think so."
Who said puzzle freaks don't have great senses of humor? Not me.
Issues are dealt with -- pen versus pencil, Times versus others, preferences on folding and stance. We watch Reagle create a puzzle that Clinton, Stewart and others then solve. But most important, we meet the tournament competitors, each with their own poignant back story.
The tournament is a much more dramatic experience than I would have thought you could have at a Marriott in Stamford. I won't tell you who wins, but it's a nine-letter word for a nervous carpenter. Nailbiter, get it? OK, so I won't give up my day job. But remember, Nick and Nora's dog is Asta, and that one shows up a lot.
'Independent Lens: Wordplay'
When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)