Monday, November 14, 2005

nov 14 issue, anthony lane's hindsight

I don't think The New Yorker reviewed Spellbound (2002) the documentary about kids going to the national spelling bee that was nominated for an Oscar in 2003.

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.

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4 Comments:

Blogger mzn said...

Your point about Spellbound is basically my problem with the NYer's TV coverage too: too little attention to too many good programs.

But I'm all for reviews of popular recent films, as long as they're balanced with reviews of docs, revivals, indies, and foreign films. Denby might fairly be called snide but my sense of Anthony Lane is that he's a cinephile who loves trash no less than art, which is just the way it should be.

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Chris Johanesen said...

Hey! I'll have you know that I'm rather poorly read, and not very well traveled either. But for a person who some may consider "legally retarded" I think I have a good command of pseudo-intellectualisms.

Oh, and I think you missed my poorly articulated point—but I guess I can't blame you.

1:13 AM  
Blogger zp said...

I see the name Godard (or, as it were, Goddard) and I see red. (How many corny Godard in-joke puns can I make in one day? I've never done this before! It's such a rush!!)

What can I say, all of my quiet calm reading comprehension skills go out the window (Is this a Godard in-joke? Or is it just me? I always think the girl is going to fall or jump in Masculin/Feminin. Wait, maybe she does.) Sorry I missed your point, Chris.

And I would so love it if the revivals and docs moved from the little blurbs to the full reviews. And, in asking for better TV coverage, mzn has thrown down quite a gauntlet for the magazine. Given the (Curb Your Enthusiasm) ads, its quite clear someone assumes NYer readers are tuning in . . . What does Franklin do outside the NYer?

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Chris Johanesen said...

One could say you were gridlocked in the traffic of my ill-conceived examples.

9:47 AM  

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