Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Sep 10, 2003 2:38 pm 
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Spelling counts

Are you a good speller? Do you care? Are girls better spellers than boys? No, no, yes: I wasn't a good speller, girls seemed better at it, and I didn't much care. The teacher corrected my spelling mistakes anyway; what was the difference? As a kid I looked on spelling as something a little bit illogical and not quite the point of writing or reading. I can't imagine qualifying for a spelling bee, and I can't imagine wanting to. Over the years I've improved (my spelling, not my attitude), but I'm still confused about double consonants; I've made a couple of mistakes just typing these lines. But now we have Spell Check on our computers, which almost screams that we need not learn to spell perfectly, any more than we need to add, subtract, multiply, divide, take square roots or find logarithms (I couldn't spell that -- I was writing it "logorrythms," but Spell Check set me straight) since we have pocket calculators. The idea of becoming the best speller in the country seems like pure fantasy; the actual experience of America's national spelling bee as illustrated in Jeff Blitz's engaging documentary Spellbound shows that, once you've won a regional competition, winning the national spelling bee is almost as much a matter of dumb luck (and pluck, courage under fire) as of months memorizing Webster's Unabridged – a task which, to return to the original point, seems beyond futile.

Doesn't it matter what the words mean more than the letters in them? Wouldn't it do a precocious kid more good to pour over Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Hemingway or even Harry Potter than to turn the pages of a dictionary or be drilled by a parent on how to spell obscure words like "lycanthrope" and "cephalalgia" (or the supremely ironic last word in the final shown here, "logorrhea") which the parents themselves can't even pronounce? When little showoff Harry Altman stumbles and comically grimaces over the word "banns," it seems to me he might be doing better – not in the contest, perhaps, but in life – to read more books, so he'd become familiar with the custom of "posting the banns," which isn't so obscure as the film and Harry make out, if you've gathered a wide acquaintance with marital customs through reading.

But there is after all a higher significance in all this. America is a self-made country and English in some queer sense is a self-made language, and these general points play into the significance of this surprisingly moving and thought-provoking little film. It's not only the suspense and emotion Spellbound evokes or its fairly tight documentary organization but such more general themes as social mobility and the accessibility of certain sports that make this otherwise conventional movie rise above the ordinary and explain why it's worthy of theatrical distribution and not just a slot on PBS. What would this be like in Italian? That's a language, like some others, whose spellings are so phonetic that a contest like this wouldn't make much sense. But English spellings really don't make much sense. English poses unique problems. The Italian columnist Beppe Severgnini is wrong to have written that it's because we're terrible spellers that spelling bees excite us. An Italian just can't understand. If you say an Italian word, ninety-eight percent of the time (if you're Italian) you know how to spell it. In English, we've got all those tiny vowel differences and remnants of Germanic gutturals and all those endless words from Arabic and Persian and Greek and a hundred other languages that we've transliterated by a hundred different unrelated systems. Why should `Darjeeling,' which so ironically almost stumps the Indian-American Neil Kadakia, be spelled that way and not darjiling or dardjeeling, or who knows what? It's because English spelling had no strict rules till the late nineteenth century; English went through so many growing pains from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dryden to Jane Austen; because we still have no consistent phonetic system; and because our language has all those endless half-assimilated loan words from other cultures and tongues, that spelling in English is a nightmare and a kind of art, and a truly expert young speller is a real entity worth the chimerical task of seeking him or her out each year.

Spelling bees are a matter of rote knowledge, but success in them can sometimes involve some inspired guessing, and this is shown by the fine tuning contestants are allowed in the DC competition when they ask what language or culture the word comes from. Despite the strong element of memorization, the event attracts and finds ambitious, bright, even rather intellectual kids: lots of hard work maybe, but also some kind of raw brainy talent we don't by any means all have: inspiration and perspiration, the old combination.

The new immigrants in Spellbound are a major force. There are not one but two Indian-Americans in the eight the filmmaker has carefully singled out for special focus, and one of those wins. There's the Mexican girl whose father (so movingly) feels fulfilled, his whole life's journey made worthwhile, just because she has qualified; and he can't even speak English. And there's Ashley, the Black girl from the DC projects who didn't get a trophy or much recognition but dreams, nay prays, to be the winner. And even the boy from rural Tennessee who says there are hardly any other smart kids in his school qualifies as some kind of outsider who magically comes home, and gets put in his place in a complex way, like an Oklahoma valedictorian in the freshman class at Harvard, when he gets to compete in the national spelling bee.

What's interesting are the personalities, the regional, social, cultural differences among the eight finalists Blitz focuses on. It's not only the kids we get to eye closely but their regions, their milieus, and their parents, some controlling and demanding, some modest and laissez-faire, and the dreams of success that are so different for each. Some are naively convinced they may win, like Ashley, who's devastated when she doesn't, because she didn't realize what a big world it was till she got there. Some are pessimistic, like April DeGideo, who drills endlessly but remains convinced she'll lose. Some, like Neil Kadakia, are so pushed by their parents, that winning or losing both seem painful prospects and you wince and aren't surprised that he has a stammer. It's a miracle he emerges strong. But he does; and to do him credit, his dad has moments of decency and fairness and shows evidence of a sense of proportion despite the fierce immigrant drive he imposes on his son.

Spellbound itself isn't a profound movie, but it has heart. Like the German WWII film Die Brucke (The Bridge) it shows a group of kids up close and personal and then follows them into battle where one by one they fall, till the last remains, and gets "logorrhea" right (I didn't -- I had to use Spell Check again even though I guessed it right the first time), and becomes champion. And in the emotion of trying so hard and then getting knocked out by one wrong letter, Spellbound illustrates sportsmanship and being all you can be and the joy of competiton and the agony of defeat. It's about poise and maturity and just being a kid. And it's a close, intense analysis of an event – a phenomenon, really – with more ramifications than we ever realized, till we see it. Spellbound is pretty universal in its appeal and by any accounts it's a wonderful little documentary.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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