nov 14 issue, anthony lane's hindsight
But in his review of the current film also about spelling bees (!!??) Bee Season, Anthony Lane says something like, "It was 'Spellbound,' the 2002 documentary about spelling bees, that set the standard for anybody wishing to approach the angular packages of spectacles, orthodontic braces, giant craniums, and even bigger ears - in short, children - who triumph in this unusual field. What that movie grasped was that these prodigies are randomly scattered across state, class and ethnic lines, and that to listen to their aspirations, or their techniques for word-hoarding, is a joyous exercise in human curiosity." (102)
I liked Spellbound, which is odd, because I dislike documentaries, and I dislike documentaries because I hate the exploitative and condescending conventions they have historically used to address their subjects (from Nanook to almost anything by Errol Morris to Bus 174). You'd think these would be even more pronounced in a doc about children, and often they are. And then on top of that I hate the guilty self-reflexive conventions employed to allay this problem. But I liked Spellbound.
And I think I liked it because to some extent, it was a documentary about exhibitionists. There are other recent good ones (Derrida, Fog of War, The Cruise, The Kid Stays in the Picture) too. When the subject is a celebrity of sorts, or at least a good performer, the filmmakers and film are forced to treat the subject as such, and often acknowledge the subject as such, and the tone of the whole film changes . . .
But this is just another classic example of New Yorker cluelessness. Why didn't they, couldn't they, tell us about the wonderful film Spellbound when it came out? It is so clearly a small, important documentary, and a good one but no, they have to write snide reviews of popular drivel rather than good, strong, critical reviews of good, strong, critical film. Anyone can write snide reviews.
Granted I'm not sure they could put this down, on Richard Gere in Bee Season, "given that his sole means of signaling brain activity is to go very still and shut his eyes, the world of academia may not be his patch."
In my personal life I've taken to accusing nitwits of my acquaintance of being "half-educated" - this means well-read or widely traveled or engaged or whatever, but not critical of that which they've read, seen or participated in. And I think this goes for this lost soul, or at least the Godard lovin' reviewer s/he dreams of. As if what we need is more connoisseurs.
Categories: film, newyorker