Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Opsimath, Logorrhea, Cabotinage, Heleoplankton...

Or, Big Exciting Me Watched Spellbound The Other Night, thus completing the Documentaries About Words duology (see also: Wordplay), in which Spellbound is clearly the awesomer of the two, and closer to being universally appealing to film viewers, not just because if focuses on precocious grade school/junior high school kids who muse about are "wary" about their differences with their "peers" (and I was quite charmed by April, a self-described pessimist -- her word! -- and though I should probably worry about self-esteem, seeing someone her age being so neurotically self-aware was in its own way funny), Spellbound also features some beautiful filmmaking: the coda at the end culminating around the announcement of the winner is poetry.

Spellbound also doesn't, errr, bind itself exclusively to its stated subject and actually portrays some fascinating dynamics of America-ness -- the promiscuity of our bastard language is what makes the very idea of a spelling bee possible and/or compelling, for starters. Then there's the background of the first speller we meet in the film; she is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant working as a ranch hand who crossed the border illegally 20 years ago, and whose employers talk about how he's one of the good Mexicans.

The real meat of the film, though, lies in how it portrays the different forms that American competitiveness takes, which I sorted into two main camps, or to be clever, two main classes. On the one side of the tracks are kids from sufficiently affluent families who can turn Bee preparation into a process that's professional in all but name, that decide one year not to bring the au pair to the National Spelling Bee so that they can make the trip a real family affair, and that can hire private language tutors (not the plural!) for the etymologically trickier words. Furthermore, in true American fashion, we see an immigrant family (belonging to Neil Kadakia) bring its own twist to this privileged environment by routinizing the Bee preparation to a frighteningly mechanized, infinitely reproducible and quantifiable degree (though I guess in the end it's nothing that Henry Ford didn't already invent, or else his dad is a hardcore management science guy). These kids embody American exceptionalism; in crude terms, they're great because they have been built to be great because they can afford to be great.

On the other side of the tracks are kids who come from no more than lower-middle class. They've exhausted the basic public infrastructure of schools and supportive but out-of-their-depth families and thus have to rely on their own brilliant and innate gifts and rapacious work ethic -- in short, these kids are the bootstrappers of classic American myth.

Being the contrarian LOLMarxist that I am, I naturally rooted for the kids of modest means -- my stance, of course, wasn't really that contrarian because of the implicit underdog appeal that's embedded in humble circumstances, i.e. the typically American valorization of the "working class" complemented by the suspicions of privileged elites (au pairs!).

Of course, this being America, Spellbound in its last third introduces one more genus of spelling bee contender: the homeschooled child whose success is all thanks to his "trust in Jesus" (which was how he signed his autographs), though he comes on as something of an interloper because he doesn't get the in-depth interview treatment.

Anyway, if you were wondering:
opsimath: someone who learns late in life
logorrhea: diarrhea of the mouth
cabitonage (Update: DING! "cabotinage"): hammy overacting
heleoplankton: a plankton that lives in small bodies of still fresh water

Indie rating: Apparat - "Useless Information"


momo said...

I loved Spellbound as well, in part because my kid was the age of those kids when we saw it.

Oh, let's use cabitonage in every SYTYCD post from now on!

Leee said...

Sweet irony! I misspelled cabotinage.