Wordplay

February 8, 2007

Thanks to Mary-Ruth’s last minute invite, tonight’s agenda went from night of solitary Bellow reading/Bodganovich watching/Anna Nicole Smith blogging to slightly less solitary documentary watching–and since the movie was the Will Shortz weepie “Wordplay,” it feels appropriate to leave my thoughts on the late Ms. Smith for another time, and to bide my time away with some lexiblography, and ruminant opinions on the film.

“Wordplay” is a solid documentary in the “Spellbound” mold: follow a group of leading contendors for a nerdy, intellectual prize (though recognizable to mainstream society), add equal parts tension, levity, and fetishism; mix with kitsch, and vigor, and hit movie shall ensue. “Spellbound” success was its ability to capture the zeitgeist (see also, ESPN’s airing of the Bee’s, Bee Season, The Decemberists’ “Song for Myla Goldberg,” an episode of “Frasier” ripping off Bee Season, Akeelah and the Bee, Bed Bath and Beyond) and the way it captured the tension of the Bee’s. Appositively, crosswords, the subject of “Wordplay” for those unsure, are not anywhere near as competitive. With less natural conflict, the movie rightly aimed for a sense of whimsy. Unfortunately, this lightheartedness cost the movie some depth, and injections of tension, rather than satisfying, are jarring.

The movie’s big moment of conflict comes at the Crossword puzzle finals, on the word, “Zolaesque.” Zolaesque is listed in the OED under the Zolaism, defined as “The literary manner characteristic of the French novelist Émile Zola (1840-1902), whose works are marked by an excessively realistic treatment of the coarser sides of human life.” Fine and dandy. Still, I can’t imagine just how hard it would be to recreate this word (although getting the Z would help). Unlike, say Kafka or Pynchon, dropping “Zola” in casual, or even semi-literate circles (like this internet community) will evoke little qualified statements about the nature of his work. My knowledge of Zola is pretty much limited to his indictment of the Dreyfus affair, and the accompanying praise in Scholem-Aleichem (Mr. How-do-you-do). Kafkaesque is a highly evocative word; I expect weird machines and hungry people, and things generally having to do with modernism. Zolaesque? Not so much. I was going to complain about the word, but then again, the people in the movie are basically professional puzzle solvers, charged with knowing everything there is to know about dictionarys. Instead, I’ll say this: that word was too easy! Everyone knows Zola! What other Z author is there?

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johnedwards1.jpgFor some reason, John Edwards is back. He lost in 2004, then lost again in 2004 (and probably would have lost a third time had he been running to hold his senate seat). The last time, to one of the weaker incumbent presidents in history, the first to the guy that also lost to one of the weaker incumbent presidents in history. Not exactly a banner year. His boyish good looks might make him a serious contender, but this author just can’t get over the fact that he lost to John Kerry, the guy who made Democrats yearn for the halcyon days of Adlai Stevenson. And now he wants to take on Senators Clinton and Obama? Yikes. Senator Edwards: denial is not a healthy defense mechanism. To take a page from Joe Biden’s playbook, I’ll also compare the Edwards campaign to a sandwich (so no burritos): a Philly Cheesesteak made with swiss cheese. Neither the campaign nor the sandwich make any sense, but John Kerry has eaten both of them.

Anyways, on with the real reasons for the imminent demise of Edwards’s presidential hopes:

1) Son of a mill-worker?

One of Edwards’s most famous campaign lines is that he was born the son of a poor mill-worker. By extension, Edwards must therefore be able to relate to the working poor despite his own personal wealth. While that message still plays reasonably well, let’s face it: mills are so 2004. Back then, mill fever was sweeping the nation. It didn’t matter if it was wind, water, or animal powered, Americans loved their mills and could not get enough of them. But times change and, in 2008, mill popularity looks to be at an all-time low. This could spell disaster for the Edwards team. They need to craft a new message that will appeal to today’s youth and their hip on-the-go lifestyles. Son of a Jamba Juice employee? Son of an iPod manufacturer? Son of a barista? Whatever they settle on, they need to change his official biography fast before irreparable damage is done.

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