By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Wordplay,” IFC Films]
There are far too few avenues in the pop-cult arena for the glorification of higher brain functions almost by definition, the flexing of intellect and education makes the masses feel like a lower life form in a way that watching “American Idol” doesn’t, even if the high-minded exercise in question is meaningless tosh. So, when a doc like 2003’s “Spellbound” or Patrick Creadon’s “Wordplay” appears on the horizon, a certain percentage of literate Americans go to it like desert animals to an oasis spring.
It’d be easy to dismiss Creadon’s homage to crossword puzzlers, craftsmen and publishers as a full-on brown-nosing for The New York Times it’s a movie about fandom, and if you’re not a fan, it could easily seem to be much ado about a lot of masturbatory nothing. But if you are, and you harbor an ardor for the engaged mind at play in the fields of language, culture and memory, then this is all you. Creadon sweetens the pot by interviewing virtually every celebrity that’s ever been known to prefer the tougher, end-of-the-week Times puzzles to the easier early ones, including Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina, Bob Dole, Ken Burns, et al. Since there’s not much to talk about, Creadon has them solve on camera, a spectacle that in itself can make you feel as stupid as a grouper.
Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and his freelance cronies properly take center stage, and while they manufacture the networks of numbered clues and dish out dollops of historical trivia about when and how the habit/hobby got started, the movie builds up to the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. (The clue-empty space-ticking clock action is arranged with digital graphics, making DVD backups profitable.) The cast of reference-section puzzle geeks may take their competition too seriously, but Creadon doesn’t, and it’s a sweet thing to see the members of this uncelebrated, unglamorous mob taste stardom thanks exclusively to what’s between their ears. The DVD comes with commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes and five specially designed DVD-ROM puzzles.
Talk about big brain: it’s a wonder that America ever made a bestselling author out of Nietzschean philosopher/mega-novelist Ayn Rand, but we did, and Hollywood even stepped up and adapted her elitist, demagogic masterpiece “The Fountainhead” into a movie back in 1949. It’s more than just a respectful filmization of a popular message-tome that still speaks to readers who see themselves as victims of society’s monobrow it is itself an act of Übermensch modernism.
Restless director King Vidor tells the tale about a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque architect (Gary Cooper) battling the world for the right to his own integrity, and raps out, in thick paragraphs of dialogue, Rand’s caught-somewhere-between-capitalism-and-socialism “objectivist” doctrine. But he’s also managed to make the only true Futurist film in American cinema, with a distinctive cement-and-bleached-beam veneer and a maniacally didactic narrative style. Little effort is made to persuade us that these are real characters, not just walking, ranting points of view, and in fact the film seems to have been made in an alternate universe where architecture is the country’s most imperative public concern, architects are thought literally heretical if they experiment, and hordes of citizens riot if a newspaper supports (on its front page) an untraditional building.
As with all utopia-building, and with most anything Rand stamped her sensibility on, this film is sweeping, hopeful nonsense; the final image of Cooper’s Howard Roarke standing atop the world’s tallest structure, hands on hips, is a poster for a revolution that never happened. There’s a crazy, innocent beauty in that. Predictably, mass audiences in the postwar 40s didn’t know what to make of this humdinger, but its rep has ballooned over the decades, and it has been one of the most eagerly awaited DVD titles malingering in the Hollywood vault. Supplements include a new making-of documentary.
“Wordplay” (IFC Films/Genius Products) and “The Fountainhead” (Warner Home Video) are both available on DVD on November 7th.