The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
"Midrash" by Ellen Ross and George Barany (February 2015)
ER: The Best Picture of 2015, just announced as this puzzle goes into wide distribution, is Alejandro Iñárritu's brilliant, innovative, funny and edgy Birdman. My favorite movie of the year—it’s so nice to be right.
ICYMI: the plot revolves around a play within the film. The play is an adaption of a short story by Raymond Carver entitled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." A washed-up former movie superhero, Riggan Thomson, is trying to revive his career with this passion project. Many things go wrong on the way to the Broadway opening.
And to further complicate the issue, Riggan is haunted by the specter of his superhero persona, "Birdman."
Whew. There are wheels within wheels, and layers of meaning on top of meaning, and symbolism all over the place.
So to honor this unique cinematic achievement, we bring you Birdman (The Puzzle). Two puzzles—one for Riggan Thomson the character, and one for the great Michael Keaton who brings him to life.
GB: As part of my goal to create a trilogy of puzzles honoring the top three 2015 contenders [click here and here for the others], I was much intrigued by Ellen's enthusiasm for this film. I therefore asked her to start brainstorming for possible theme entries, while doing my own due diligence by heading to the theater and reading the short story. But what really intrigued me was the opportunity to create a so-called Schrödinger puzzle [click here for a thorough discussion of this genre on our site] with several layers of trickiness ... or "magical realism" as I have come to understand the jargon.
As a crowning touch, I thought that we could spell out B-I-R-D-M-A-N in a manner resembling a superhero in action, landing on each of the three main perches of the puzzle. So here goes the dual 78-word answer grid, with perhaps more black squares than one might want in a 15x, but, IMHO, quite plausible:
ER and GB: There follow a series of comments, annotations, and riffs—selective rather than comprehensive—about some of the answer words and/or their clues [listed in order, with Across first, then Down]. We hope that our analysis does not leave you in a FOWL (18-Across) mood. Please appreciate that to truly make our concept fly [in contradistinction to 22-Across = ANNEX], you'll have to cut us a certain amount of slack on some of the vertical Schrödinger clues.
- 19-Across: RAYMOND_CARVER was an American short story writer who, according to the movie's enabling premise, started the Riggan Thomson character off to greatness by passing along a note about his acting scrawled onto a cocktail napkin.
- 23-Across: Our clue, "___ Day (May 1 every year)," has three possible answers: May, Law, and (the correct, given the crosses) LEI. Some day, we'll write a Schrödinger puzzle based on this concept.
- 24-Across: SEX. In the movie, the character played by beauteous Naomi Watts explains that she and the character played by Edward Norton "share the same vagina." That's certainly a new and novel way to explain "sex." Bonus: Click here for Edward Norton's charming explanation (to Conan O'Brien) about the "ins and outs" of another (rather eye-opening) scene from the movie. Finally: We took a close look at Raymond Carver's full ouvre, and noted that the word "sex" did not appear in any of the titles. We considered using the same clue, something to the effect of "19-Across wrote about this," to cover both SEX and LOVE (7-Across), until an astute beta tester pointed out that this could apply to just about every writer.
- 29-Across: MEDEA. Click here for the tragic story of a very bad divorce, à la Greek mythology as related by Euripedes.
- 37-Across: When thinking LIAR, think Jim Carrey. Take a look here.
- 38-Across, along with 7-Across: Click here for a synopsis of Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which is also the title of a compilation of Carver stories. Note how in that 9-word title, words 2 through 4, and words 6 through 8, are identical, hence setting up our Schrödinger premise on the basis of just the two-letter difference between WHAT and WHEN.
- 43-Across: In an earlier draft, we asked solvers to click here for the Talking Heads' "Life During WARTIME," but that clue was ditched when we realized LIFE was already in the grid, as 7-Down. So a new clue was concocted, which allows us to reference this classic snippet (5 sec).
- 47-Across: MIZ, as in Les Miserables. Click here for a complete performance (2.5-h). You do not have to watch it all.
- 55-Across: MICHAEL_KEATON has played Batman, Mr. Mom, and Beetlejuice, and was nominated for Best Actor for playing the role of RIGGAN_THOMSON (same number of letters, only four of which are the same) in this puzzle's theme film. Take a look at Mr. Keaton talk about his life and career by clicking here. Watch the Birdman in action by clicking here.
- 66-Across: No wordplay here, just swordplay with SNEE. The brilliant Mike Leigh movie Topsy Turvey brings Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado" to you here. Enjoy seeing the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko, with his snickersnee.
- 1-Down: With respect to our clue that guides a solver to TIARAS, click here for more than you ever wanted to know about etiquette in the court of Queen Victoria.
- 7-Down: "Luce's brainchild" can be answered as either LIFE or TIME. Solvers will need to figure out 7- and 18-Across to decide between these two options. Pretty diabolical, huh?
- 20-Down: Our clue refers to a 1943 movie, The OXBOW Incident. Its message is still relevant today. Watch Henry Fonda be great here.
- 34-Down: STAG/SNAG, clued as "Outcome when one's date to the movies cancels, perhaps." Imagine that you arrange to see a movie, Birdman for argument's sake, and at the last moment, your presumptive date concocts some sort of excuse to not go with you. That's a SNAG, for sure, but perhaps you may still want to go it alone, i.e., STAG.
- 38-Down: Don WAS (born Donald Fagenson) is a three time Grammy Award-winning music producer. He is also a member of the group Was (Not Was) and current president of the legendary Blue Note Records. He made his chops working with such artists as The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, John Mayer, Ziggy Marley, Bob Seger, Garth Brooks, and Carly Simon. In 1994, he won a Grammy for Producer of the Year. He produced Bonnie Raitt’s "Nick of Time" album that won the 1989 Grammy for "Album of the Year" (listen to some of it here). He's the real deal and recording artists fight to use him.
- 40-Down: ARA/ERA, clued as clued as “It goes with Parseghian (Notre Dame football, 1964-1974)” Look up ARA Parseghian to confirm the dates of the Parseghian ERA. BTW, ARA and ERA have been used >150 and >450 times respectively during the time that Will Shortz has provided over the New York Times crossword puzzle, but we think this is the first time they have been coupled in this manner.
- 41-Down: AMINE/AMINO, clued as "Nitrogen-containing group." Considering that GB has devoted a major portion of his scientific career to the study of this functional group, you need to trust us on this bit of elementary organic chemistry.
- 45-Down: ENC/ENG, clued as "Abbr. on a London-bound cover letter." We submit that the address field of the cover letter, accompanying a larger package, might include ENG as an abbreviation for "England" ... further down in the letter, below the signatures, its enclosed contents are listed as ENC:
- 47-Down: MUTING/MUSING, clued as "Activity for one bored with what's on the tube," refers to two ways to handle a really bad television show. (“Shutting it off” didn’t fit the grid here.)
- 49-Down: The answer word is ZONKER, clued as "Garry's hippie." Click here to hear Garry Trudeau talk about "Doonesbury."
- 51-Down: AHAS/AGAS, clued as "Words of wonder, perhaps." When in awe, or when enthralled by a sudden insight (like figuring out what is really happening with this puzzle), one might have multiple AHA moments (hence plural on both the answer word and on "word" in the clue). Or, one might say "That's A_GAS"— "a" and "gas" adding up to be two words (of wonder).
- 54-Down: EATS/EMTS, clued as "They might be found in hosp. cafs." One can buy food (EATS, in slang) in hospital cafeterias, and don't EMTs sit down in those hosp. cafs. every once in awhile, when they're grabbing a bite?
- 55-Down: MOVE/ROVE, clued as "Perambulate." This struck us as two alternate ways to get from Point A to Point B, with very little letter change.
- 57-Down: ECOS/NCOS, clued as "Rarely used controlling software for PCs or Macs." These stand for Embedded Configurable Operating System and Network Computer Operating System. Not great [our beta testers with serious computer bona fides were underwhelmed; one even wrote that these operating systems were ARCANE = 2-Down], but can anyone find a common thread for both answer words? [Another idea—"It's worth 6 points in Scrabble, were it a legal Scrabble entry which it's not"—was DOA] [If you accept "ECO" as slang for an environmentalist, and recognize a possible drill sergeant as a non-commissioned officer (NCO), then a clue like "Ones looking for efficiency?" just might fly.]
- 58-Down: LILT/TILT, clued as "One can hear this in many a penny arcade." Carnival games have music that accompanies them. Sometimes, these games (think pinball machines) go "tilt" when tweaked the wrong way by the players.
- 59-Down: KIT/HIT, clued as "Drum ___." We all know what a drum kit is. And yes, there is such a thing as a drum hit.
- 60-Down: When he was producing the movie The Outlaw, Howard Hughes became obsessed with Jane Russell—and her body parts. He employed his engineering skills to design a new cantilevered BRA to emphasize her assets. Click here for more.
We hope you enjoyed our tribute to Birdman. Now, take a gander at this Sesame Street homage, as well as this Saturday Night Live (SNL, February 28, 2015) cold open.