First, a confession: I am a failed spelling-bee champ, haunted by my squandered potential and my brush with sixth grade greatness. Yes, I’m an embittered nearly-was, the Mighty Casey of the “i-before-e except-after-c” set, a rising star of the Asheville geeks who won his school bee and his district bee before swaggering into the Buncombe County finals. After an hour or so, I had barely broken a sweat as I was one of the last two standing, alongside a skinny girl that looked to me as if she had arrived by horse and buggy from the back of beyond. But my dreams of spelling glory went up in smoke when I went down in flames spelling out “a-d-v-a-n-t-a-g-o-u-s.”
Now, after watching the frankly gripping Spellbound, a documentary about the national spelling championship, I know that I never had the goods anyway. Heleoplankton? Hellebore? Lycanthrope? Not a chance. But never mind my dashed dreams. The excitement of this new film is c-o-n-t-a-g-o-u-s.
Every year, we’re astounded by the arcane words that these national finalists are able to spell, and the 1999 bee chronicled in Spellbound is no different. Spelling bees started in frontier America, as a marker of the remote school’s progress in civilizing the farmkids, many of whom hailed from the uneducated and unwashed classes of non-English speaking Europe. Learning to spell the words in the difficult language of their new country was a crucial chit in the immigrants’ quest to be acceptable Americans. And English in particular is so difficult precisely because of its polyglot ancestry: Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French and German to start, and constantly and swiftly evolving ever since. It’s not an accident that a disproportionate number of the kids in the national finals are children of first-generation immigrants. For them, mastery of the Yankee tongue is a precious goal.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz, a youngster making his feature debut, found his subjects through research and scouting. In the style of the up-close-and-personals we get during the Olympics, he spends time with eight of the 249 contestants who are girding their loins for the national spelling bee. It doesn’t spoil anything to report that several of the film’s subjects perform quite well. (Blitz may want to consider financing his next picture by handicapping horses.)
One of the most ingratiating of the kids in Spellbound is Angela, a daughter of Mexican-American ranch hands in the Texas panhandle. Her folks don’t speak English, but through sheer will and intelligence she has made herself into the terror of the Texas spelling bees. Her precisely honed diction is thrown into ironic, rather merciless relief by the filmmakers when they interview the elderly whites who employ Angela’s family. Speaking in a lazy, slurred drawl, the couple informs us that their helpers are good Mexicans as opposed to the ones that are lazy thieves.
Even if spelling bees seem to reward pattern recognition and rote memorization more than creative, critical thinking, they’re still a gripping spectacle. The final round is an annual television staple (tellingly, the broadcaster is ESPN, not, say, PBS). Watching Angela and some of the other immigrant competitors is frequently shaming–they are so ferociously single-minded in their determination to excel that they treat the spelling bee with more seriousness than it really deserves. But America is truly the land of opportunity for them and they are determined to make the most of it. Nupur, an Indian-American girl from Tampa, says at one point, “You don’t get second chances in India the way you do in America.”
Another South-Asian is Neil from posh San Clemente, Calif. (which makes him the champion of presumably formidable Orange County). His father, who is also the head of his coaching team, points out for the camera crew the genuine marble in the stunning home he’s built for his family. “There’s no way you can fail in this country,” he exults. “If you work hard, you’ll make it.” Neil’s father is the film’s closest approximation of an overbearing stage parent, but even he manages to win us over. Later, one of the many fascinating twists in this film occurs when Neil runs into a difficult word at the nationals: “darjeeling,” as in the tea that is named for the town in northeastern India. Maybe Neil’s lack of familiarity with the word is a reflection of the thoroughness of his assimilation.
The filmmakers also find scrappers among the natives. There’s a raw spelling talent named Ted–an overgrown kid from the Ozarks who gets teased at his small, rural middle school. On camera, Ted exacts his revenge. “The kids [here] like to use real simple words, things they can understand,” he says with a preadolescent’s lack of tact. “All they talk about is trucks. Anything that doesn’t have to do with an engine or how a truck runs, besides real basic things, they won’t understand what you’re saying.”
Then there’s Ashley, an African-American girl from the D.C. projects who is the citywide champ. Where Ted’s training is non-existent, Ashley’s is improvised and makeshift. And despite the teachers who are committed to her success, her learning environment is volatile: On the day of the camera crew’s visit to her school, everyone gets evacuated because of a bomb threat. Ashley only has to take the subway across town to get to the nationals, held that year in a swank D.C. hotel, and she’s so nervous that Blitz’s camera catches her crying in her seat after she correctly spells a daunting word.
We end up wanting all of the kids to win, though we may have our favorites. For some reason, I was pulling for a gloomy girl from Pennsylvania coal country. Sporting the unseasonable name of April, she tells us that she has hobbies other than spelling: “I like to ride roller-coasters, I’m a vegetarian and I like to drink coffee.” She could be the depressive kid sister of Hermione from Harry Potter. Somebody get her an agent.
The art houses are full-to-bursting with good films right now, just in time for the summer solstice and the twin thumbscrews of heat and humidity. Their dark, air-conditioned spaces aren’t open for matinees during the week, but fortunately there’s some good stuff at the multiplexes, too. Chief among them is a potential sleeper hit called 28 Days Later, a British sci-fi flick that has nothing to do with the Sandra Bullock rehab film of a few years back. However, this new picture from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) does concern a different kind of rehabilitation: that of the entire sin-stained human race.
Although the film ultimately doesn’t hold up as well as it should, the prologue and Acts 1 and 2 are fabulously eerie–these scenes transport our imaginations in the manner of classic juvenile pulp like Robinson Crusoe, “A Most Dangerous Game,” Fahrenheit 451 and so forth. The film opens with banks of television screens broadcasting scenes of political violence and repression. We then see that we’re in a Cambridge University animal lab, where the images are assaulting captive chimpanzees. Animal rights activists break into the lab, to document the abuse and to liberate the animals. A lone scientist on duty begs them to reconsider, saying the animals have been infected with “rage.” Of course the chimps escape. (Readers with fast Internet connections can check out a six minute excerpt from the film’s opening at www.apple.com/trailers/fox_searchlight/28_days_later/.)
In its most haunting stroke, the film skips over the chaos that engulfs Britain after the laboratory fiasco. Instead, we arrive in London, 28 days later, and meet a man waking up from a coma in an empty hospital. He walks the streets of a deserted London in his hospital gown. His name is Jim, although he could be anybody. He’s just a guy who survived a massive immolation of humanity (although he’s conveniently handsome in the fey Jude Law manner). Everywhere he wanders there are signs that life in the city came to a chaotic, terrifying end. Phones dangle off their hooks and cars are abandoned at intersections.
These scenes are beautiful, and perversely so, for who hasn’t occasionally fantasized about the obliteration of all humanity and having the planet to oneself?
The screenplay is by the talented Alex Garland, whose precocious and immensely popular debut novel The Beach was made into an unsuccessful Leo DiCaprio film, also directed by Danny Boyle. The basic elements of The Beach are present in 28 Days Later: an embattled group of 20-something hipsters become survivalists after their estrangement from the corrupt modern world. In 28 Days Later, Jim joins forces with several other remaining Londoners and together they make their way across the abandoned English countryside looking for help. Presently, they find a refuge in the form of a military garrison that has sealed off part of the country.
It is in this garrison that the film fails in its last act, although it’s quite possible that others will find the finale satisfying. Essentially, the ending rehashes the cliches about the wickedness at the heart of men that we learned from Lord of the Flies (and The Beach). Furthermore, 28 Days Later also becomes a homage to a very specific kind of movie sub-genre. Those who have seen the trailer won’t be surprised by this development, but we’ll pass over the details for viewers who want to be delighted (or dismayed).
This Friday, another Oscar nominee for best foreign film will open. Unlike the recently departed, thoroughly pallid statuette-winner Nowhere in Africa, the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s winsome The Man Without a Past is an offbeat, minor-key pleasure.
Kaurismaki, where he is known at all, is the guy who made such minimalist charmers as Ariel, The Match Factory Girl and Leningrad Cowboys Go America. His films are laconically funny in the manner of Jim Jarmusch’s early work (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law) and there’s a similar interest in early R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. But Kaurismaki is also an heir to the Marxism that was an inevitable component of a European intellectual’s makeup. In particular, The Match Factory Girl was a short, deadpan portrait of an inarticulate prole who finally stages a nihilistic rebellion against her oppressors.
His new film opens in grim fashion. An ordinary-looking, middle-aged working man gets beaten, robbed and left for dead one night in a park. He seems to expire anonymously in the hospital, bound only for a pauper’s cemetery, but miraculously comes back to life. He doesn’t remember anything about himself, though, and drifts into a hard-scrabble community of people who live in old storage containers. He’s a blank slate, a man who can remake himself from scratch. He sweeps out a container and begins to rebuild his life, aided by the small kindnesses that his neighbors are able to offer. He blossoms further when he courts a lonely, starchy Salvation Army worker (who is played by Kati Outinen, the star of The Match Factory Girl).
There’s not much to this movie but a lot of droll, quietly charming scenes, mostly set in the squatter’s camp. The music is a chief attraction, and it’s mostly performed by Finnish artists who play a soothing, narcotized version of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll. However, for all of its small pleasures, Kaurismaki betrays more than a whiff of sentimentality about the innate goodness of the common people, a form of condescension that was absent from his unflinching work of a decade ago. It may be that he’s reached a dead-end with his deadpan minimalism, but The Man Without a Past is a satisfying terminus from which Kaurismaki could begin exploring fresh artistic territory.