Christopher Guest has carved a niche for himself as our master of the mockumentary, wreaking comic havoc by taking a serious form and filling it up with silliness. Guest began his career as pseudo-documentarian with his screenplay for Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, a behind-the-scenes look at a hapless rock band on tour. From there he proceeded, as director, to lovingly skewer small-town theater troupers in Waiting for Guffman and dog owners in Best in Show. His terrain lies wherever modest talent meets delusions of grandeur, and cant serves as cover for a wobbly sense of self. A pretty broad swath of American culture, in other words.

A Mighty Wind is Guest’s takedown of the folk-music scene. The movie covers a memorial concert for a famed folk impresario and the three has-been acts who reunite for it: the Kingston Trioesque Folksmen; the New Main Street Singers, who resemble a grown-up Partridge Family; and a Sonny and Cher-like duo, Mitch and Mickey, whose beatific smiles at one another cover a deep, boiling magma of wrath. The music is brilliantly bad, including one number, "Barnyard Symphony," that has the audience’s aging folkies neighing and oinking in their seats-it’s like a singalong at a retirement home. As for the performers, life post-1965 has not treated them kindly. Mitch has been in and out of mental institutions, while Mickey has married a manufacturer of bladder-control products; the Main Street Singers practice a Wiccanesque religious ritual replete with candles and pointy hats; and the bass player for the Folksmen discovers he is transgendered, appearing in one gig in a dress and blond wig. "All these verkackte people," the concert’s organizer says with a sigh.

Critic A. O. Scott has called Guest’s movies "trompe l’oeil satire." A Mighty Wind addresses the capture of our minds by jargon-marketing, self-help psychology, New Age religion. Still, if this is satire, it’s the gentlest kind imaginable. The characters are almost too likable-like the Folksmen’s genial bass player, smearing skin cream on his face before a show, burbling that the cream "helps me look my best, play my best, be my best-and you can’t put a price on that!"

What Guest loves is messing around with the documentary form itself, the comedy of catching his subjects in the perilous throes of figuring themselves out on camera. A Mighty Wind brims with deadpan absurdity (one character confides that his parents enrolled him in the Jewish Polo League as a boy), and hilarious failed attempts at the mot juste. When an overweight and hideously made-up Jennifer Coolidge, playing one-half of a publicist couple (along with Larry Miller), is asked to describe their collaboration, she screws her face up in furious concentration. "It’s almost like... like we share one brain together," she says. Too true. Guest’s characters are, shall we say, intellectually challenged, and the camera turns them into virtuosos of the inadvertent, the malapropism, the howler.

Yet satire requires more than a cast of bumblers. It requires, if not an enemy, at least an enemy value (as in, for instance, the rapacious developers of John Sayles’s Sunshine State); not just stupidity, but cupidity. Guest is too fond of his subjects to locate an enemy value among them; and they are too gentle-and too dull-to foment villainy. So instead, he opts for puerile humor, steering a dinner conversation onto the subject of spastic colons, or writing lyrics that inadvertently invoke an act of fellatio as the singers sing on in smiling innocence. It makes you laugh, but in a sixth-grade kind of way. Peopled by likable dullards, Guest’s own movies end up being a shade or two less smart than they should be.

Being smarter than anyone should be, on the other hand, is the matter of Spellbound, a documentary (a real one!) by first-time filmmakers Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch. The two train their video camera on Washington D.C. and the National Spelling Bee, where 250 finalists-out of an original 10 million-gather to duke it out against some of the English language’s least useful words.

Spellbound succeeds by a shrewd insight-namely, that a spelling bee might shed light on deep themes of American identity and American dreaming. Mostly by implication, the film takes on education and upward mobility; the meaning of competition; our deep ambivalence about highfalutin language; and, of course, the cult of the precocious child. The documentary has some of the fascination of Michael Apted’s celebrated 7-Up series, which followed a group of London schoolchildren down the decades, conducting a living experiment in the workings of class. Yet where Apted arrived at a deterministic view of social destiny, Spellbound reveals a far more open, fluid, American game. Blitz and Welch’s elite eight are breathtakingly diverse. There’s Angela, from Texas, daughter of a Mexican ranch hand who himself speaks no English at all. ("Why do I need to?" he asks, his son translating as the two stand out in a field among the herd. "The cows, they don’t speak English.") And Emily, from Connecticut, whom we see riding a horse and practicing polo, and who brings her German au pair to the contest. Then there’s Ashley, a dreamy girl from an inner-city neighborhood in Washington. "Two of her uncles are incarcerated," her mother tells the filmmakers. "But they’ll watch her on TV." Uninsistently, Spellbound offers the spelling bee as a primer on democracy. Anybody can play. Anybody can win.

Of course, some parents are intent on making it their anybody. Like the India-born parents of Neil, who prepare for the competition as if for global conquest. Neil’s father drills him on seven thousand words a day, then feeds him analyses of previous bees. Tutors are hired-not only in English, but in French, Spanish, and German as well-to break down English words to their root origins and provide Neil an etymological advantage. Gently the filmmakers elicit the ideology behind this furious will to prevail. "There is no way you can fail in this country," Neil’s father muses while taking us through the family’s sumptuous California house. "That’s one guarantee here-if you work hard, you will make it." At the other extreme is April, a dour girl from an impoverished town in Pennsylvania, whose father tends bar across from the closed-down asbestos factory. "I’m not a real success story," he says with a rueful smile. His daughter’s fixation baffles him, the eight hours a day she spends poring through what must be the world’s most dogeared dictionary. "April," he tells her. "Lighten up!"

The spelling bee itself proves a mesmerizing drama, centered on the dread moment, after each contestant spells his or her word, of waiting for the ding of the bell that means they’re out. There are scenes seemingly designed to make parents moan in agony. One kid is so beside himself with nervousness, he starts spelling "mayonnaise"-his very first letter of his very first word-with an "a." Ding! Another girl hears her word, "Châteaubriand," and her eyes widen in terror. One by one, arcane words fell our heroes. Test yourself on "allegar" vs. "alegar," or "cabotinage" or "cabotenage." And are you going to get "helioplankton"? Not if you spell it that way, which is how you’d guess at it if, like 99.999 percent of America, you’d never heard the word before. There’s a special giddiness that percolates when adults watch children doing something far better than they themselves can. As the spelling bee pushed into the later, tougher rounds, the audience in the theater began to murmur in mirth. Ding! We all knew the bell tolled for us.

Spellbound could have presented a pathology of American competitiveness. Instead, the kids turn out to be models of good sportsmanship-"I’m kind of relieved," one says after being eliminated; "I already feel like a champion, just getting here"-and even the most obsessed parents take their kids’ defeats graciously. The result is the most quirkily optimistic film about American democracy to come along in some time, a film in which a spelling contest illuminates our best impulses: our American tendency "to look beyond differences and find things that are common," as one of the parents puts it. If the events of recent months have left you aching for an alternative version of patriotism, well, here it is. By turns touching, scary, and hilarious, Spellbound measures both the correspondences and the discrepancies between American lives and American myth. "My life is like a movie," confides Ashley, the girl from Washington, D.C. How so? the filmmakers ask. "Because I go through different trials and tribulations, and finally I overcome them." [end]

Published in the 2003-05-23 issue: View Contents

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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