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Spellbound and other Documentaries

[Our Sunday Visitor, July 20, 2003]


Last month the movie buzz was about "The Matrix Reloaded" and its "What is reality?" theme. Joke’s on us, because movies are inherently unreal. From the time you step into that darkened auditorium, you’re a guest of Tinsel Town.

But there’s another kind of movie which sets out to challenge this assumption. Documentaries are based on the irrefutable premise that film can capture reality more truly than any other art form. The 1922 silent, "Nanook of the North" set an early high standard. It depicted the harshness of Alaskan life with such directness that reporters flocked to the tundra to interview the star. Too late: he had perished, starving to death on an ice floe. That’s reality, brother.

If you’re scanning the lobby marquee you might still feel reluctant to spend good money on something that sounds like a classroom film strip. Yet enthusiasm has been growing recently for documentary film, alongside its evil twin, reality-based TV. There are several current docs I’d like to recommend: "Stevie," the director’s look at a Big Brother kid he mentored a decade before; "Winged Migration," a literally birds-eye view of flight; "A Family Undertaking," which concerns at-home funerals; "Capturing the Friedmans," about the complex case surrounding a man accused of child molestation. I’d like to recommend them, but I can’t, because they are nowhere to be found. Documentaries don’t hang around the multiplex long.

I’ll recommend two that I was able to catch. "Spellbound" follows eight competitors in the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, from their homes and families to the big Washington event. It has no sex, no violence, no four-letter words. (There are some thirteen-letter words.) And though there is no mayhem, there is plenty of suspense. When a young contestant stands at the microphone, twisting her fingers and searching the ceiling for stray vowels, most of the audience is tense with sympathy, some of us helpfully whispering "e! e! e!"

The first part of the film introduces each character. Angela is a cheerful, popular girl with a smile full of braces, and it surprises us to learn that her dad brought the family across the border illegally twenty years before. He has never learned to speak English; he works tending cattle on another man’s farm. Angela’s brother Jorge recalls the day his mother took him by the hand, and baby Angela in her arms, and stepped into the river. "She seemed so young and innocent," he says with a distant gaze. Their dad did not come to America to tend cattle, Jorge explains, but so that his children could achieve something that would never be within his grasp. When Angela wins a round she looks over and says, "I never saw my dad cry before."

Many of the competitors are children of immigrants. It turns out that the spelling bee is a peculiarly American institution, which grows from the stubborn immigrant conviction that education makes you the equal of anyone. Neil’s father exclaims, "There is no way you can fail in this country. If you work hard, you will make it." Neil’s dad drills him on thousands of words every day, and has hired teams of coaches in different languages. But, just to make sure, back in India the paternal grandfather is paying a thousand people to chant for Neil’s victory.

Emily is a rich kid from New Haven, who brought her au pair to the bee in previous years. Ted is oversized and brooding, and shows us around his rural family’s peacock coop. Little Harry bounces incessantly and answers questions in a voice he hopes sounds like "a musical robot." My favorite was Ashley, a young black woman from D. C. with a serene, beaming face. It’s no surprise when Ashley confides, "I think I’m a prayer warrior. I can’t stop praying." We see her at table, her forehead pressed to clasped hands.

Every child is a jewel, but perhaps eight are too many, and it takes too long to introduce them. When the competition begins we already have to start saying goodbye. One by one they meet "lycanthrope," "ecclesiastical," and "hellebore," and either defeat them or fall in the attempt. (You realize that no one would dream up the spelling bee concept today. Of the 249 competitors, 248 were doomed to fail spectacularly, on stage, in front of an audience. What would the self-esteem nannies say?) A New Jersey child is undone by the unfamiliar word "banns," meaning a church announcement. His mother later comments, "But I felt bad for the boy from Texas who got ‘yenta.’" We flash to a young man standing at the mike, hearing the word "yenta," and doing a double-take.

This is why a documentary is art, not visual stenography. The director doesn’t just turn on the camera and let it run. (Andy Warhol tried this, with eight hours of the Empire State Building. It didn’t catch on.) For all the "unvarnished truth" a documentary promises, specks of varnish are still visible here and there. Sometimes it’s done by editing juxtaposition, as with the "yenta" moment above. Just locating such needles in the haystack of film is itself a heroic task.

But sometimes the art is made during shooting, and that’s where questions arise. It’s not cricket for the filmmaker to feed the subjects lines or stage a scene. But, as you’ll note in "Spellbound," one subject can be filmed in flattering three-quarter profile under warm lights, while another is so brightly lit she’s scary. "The camera adds twenty pounds" when the cameraman wants it to. In "Spellbound" parents are regularly sat down squarely in front of the camera, side-by-side, so we have the amusement of watching one react to the other’s words. They’re shot from about knee-height, which directs the audience’s eyes in ways the subjects, thinking solely about what they are saying, wouldn’t have realized. Neil’s dad delivers adamant opinions, but his silent wife’s feet don’t reach the floor. April’s plump, miniskirted mom holds forth on a sofa while a fat Chihuahua licks her shin. All these seated-couple shots render the subjects adorably dumpy.

Is this fair? Is it true? Is it art? It’s artful, at least, and that’s what makes "Spellbound" such an excellent example of the genre.

You may not get to see it till it’s in the video store, which is often the best place to look for documentaries. You’ll discover that some directors favor history, like Ken Burns ("The Civil War," "Baseball"), and others music (the Maysles brothers’ "Gimme Shelter," "Monterey Pop"), while yet another category is cranky political opinion (Michael Moore’s "Roger and Me," "Bowling for Columbine"). Frederick Wiseman was known for his place studies ("Hospital," "High School") and Godfrey Reggio keeps turning out inexplicables that hover between eerie beauty and tedium, like "Koyaanisquatsi."

In 1964 Michael Apted released a film called "Seven Up," which profiled a group of seven-year-old British school children. He has re-interviewed the same kids (no longer kids of course) every seven years, the most recently in "Forty Two Up" (1998). This fascinating project distills what documentaries are all about: the opportunity to deeply consider another real human life. Apted has said, "All lives are an act of bravery." You can prove it by the kids in "Spellbound."

"Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns" is a film about a band, but it’s not a concert film-it’s an affectionate scrapbook for fans. It’s hard to describe what kind of music the team of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, known as "They Might Be Giants," make. On a single album you’ll hear techno, country, waltz, disco, jazz, and screaming rock. On stage they’ll spin a radio dial then play along with whatever they find, improvising parody lyrics. They’re funnier, in a nerdy-clever way, than most rock groups, which probably explains why their audience is always gathering new crops of 14 year olds.

I am a big fan of They Might Be Giants, which probably explains something about me. The film is as clever as they are, and it’s no surprise that it is introduced by Sen. Paul Simon, that it includes ample information about James K. Polk, and that a high school debate team is glimpsed arguing the nature of Particle Man. It’s a treat to see Hollywood actors attempting to deliver oddly shaped lyrics. (For almost 20 years the band has offered free samples of works-in-progress on their answering machine. Dial-a-Song, 718-387-6962, is touted as "always busy, always broken, free when you call from work.")

But there is little insight into the Johns. They are guarded about their personal lives and families, though we get a glimpse of Linnell’s toddler son (no doubt an inspiration for their first children’s album, titled "No!"). In the film a music show host recounts how he tried to discover the rationale for the song that begins "Meet James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter" - how many rock songs are there about turn-of-the-century Belgian surrealists? But the Johns would only say, "Well, he’s a really great painter."

This kind of cool can’t bear too much explication, perhaps; they want you to nod, not guffaw. Still, it’s a loss that at the end of the film we’re still looking at the surface. Their album "Mink Car" debuted on September 11, 2001, and we see them doing an informal concert in a Manhattan music store the previous night. As the date lingers on the bottom of the screen we wonder how the events, just hours away, affected them. This film won’t tell you; it’s a bubble. Still, bubbles can be delightful.

Video Club: We’ve already mentioned the range of excellent documentaries you can seek at your video store. But the classic exploration of the "What is reality?" question is Akira Kurosawa’s "Rashomon" (1951). An ambush, rape, and murder take place in the woods, and four characters describe in turn what happened. But each story is different; which one is true? Does every person inevitably filter and alter what he sees? Is it even possible to make a completely objective film? Is every documentary a work of fiction?

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