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JULY 7, 2003
'Spellbound' simply spellbinding SCOTT
By Joel Hoard
Daily Arts Editor
I can still vividly remember
studying for my elementary school
spelling bees, scrupulously poring
over a black and yellow booklet
full of long and complicated
words, words that I would never,
could never and should never use.
Although I never accomplished
nearly as much on the spelling bee
circuit as the eight Scripps Howard
National Spelling Bee participants
featured in "Spellbound," I can see
a lot of my 10-year-old self in them
- the meticulous nature, the need-
less studying, the belief that it
somehow mattered in the grand
scheme of life.
With time, I came to realize, as
these kids may someday, the inher-
ent absurdity of spelling bees and,
to a greater extent, ESPN's thor-
ough coverage of the national
event. But the innocence and obliv-
iousness exuded by the "Spell-
bound" kids only adds to their
charm. There's still plenty of time
for them to turn into jaded misan-
thropes, but for now, if the kids
want to spell, then let them spell.
It's under that premise that Jeff
Blitz's "Spellbound" operates,
serving as nei-_______________
ther a promotion S b
nor a chastise- Spellbound1
ment of spelling AttheState Theaterl
bee culture. ThinkFilm, Inc.
Rather, it pro-
vides an enthusiastic yet unbiased
look at a peculiar phenomenon and
its equally peculiar participants.
But peculiar doesn't even begin
to describe some of them. Take, for
example, Harry Altman, a child of
no more than 10 years, who is
already laden with enough charac-
ter quirks to populate a dozen Wes
Anderson films. It's hard not to
Harry Potter ruined my 4ife
Meet Harry Altman, the Mark Fldrych of spelling.
smile as he shifts his thoughts and Texas town.
attention rapidly; he peppers his But perhaps the most telling
speech with nervous, unsettling moment doesn't involve anyone
laughter and strange robotic nois- overcoming difficult odds. It
es; and he screws up his face and involves Neil Kadakia, an East
talks to himself between each letter Indian boy living in an affluent
as he struggles to spell "banns," Orange County neighborhood. His
which, in his opinion, the modera- parents would be considered over-
tor mispronounced. bearing and controlling by some,
Still, for all of their eccentrici- as Neil studies spelling with his
ties, the children involved are gen- father for several hours a day and
uine kids who have been raised by spends additional time with
genuine parents. Blitz does his spelling coaches. His father would
part by taking a hands-off like nothing more than to see his
approach and avoiding sensational- son win it all in Washington, but
ism, allowing his subjects to when Neil fails to meet his expec-
emerge as truly authentic people. tations, he isn't met with the kind
He shares stories ranging from the of scorn or disapproval you'd find
humorous - like that of Nupur in bad fiction. Instead, his father
Lala, a girl who found herself out- greets him with a smile and a hug.
spelling three very jealous boys in Itsis moments like these that
a regional bee, only to be praised make "Spellbound" such a pleasure
by a sign at a local Hooters restau- to watch. The personalities and
rant exclaiming "Congradulations back stories of these very unique,
Nupur!" - to the inspirational - engaging and talented children are
such as Angela Arenivar, daughter compelling enough to suppress the
of Mexican immigrants who ludicrousness of even the National
scarcely speak any English, who Spelling Bee itself. Spell on, you
taught herself to succeed in a rural crazy diamonds.
Let's say, hypothetically, a certain 21-
year-old college junior got really bored
last X-mas break.
And while he had any number of
internship applications to start chipping
away at, and an ever-increasing pile of
enriching, age-appropriate books at his
fingertips (many of which he had been
meaning to get at for months, others
which had literally just been handed to
him as gifts), let's say he, on the advice
of his 10-year-old cousin read four
Harry Potter books in just under four
and a half days (the cousin, a born
enabler, loaned the books).
That's 1837 pages of reading, which
averages out to 408.222 per day.
That's not really impressive, but keep
in mind that our hypothetical friend has
to struggle to complete even a portion
of his required academic reading
load when classes are
in session. Rarely has
this kid, who, by the u
way, doesn't necessari -.
ly exist, ever devote
himself with this
much gusto to
reading for pleas-
ure or school or,
well, to anything at
all. He could be, in
fact, writing a long
ago promised column well
after his deadline right at
this very moment.
While you should keep
that old not-believing every-
pers mantra in mind right
now, this imaginary kid
obviously has a problem.
Not that he holds any fundamentalist
grudges against J.K. Rowling for
spreading Satanism or that he really
thinks he's above reading a children's
book (as Huck Finn author Mark Twain
once pointed out, a good children's book
should appeal "to a boy and anyone who
has ever been a boy").
It seems reasonable that somebody
could enjoy a bit of junk food after a
healthy diet, but what our likely non-
existent college boy is doing amounts to
He must force himself to read the
books half because he wants no one to
see him carrying a Harry Potter book
(perhaps fear of a nerd stigma or fear
that hardcore fans will approach and try
to befriend him and invite him to play
D&D all night) and because he is legiti-
mately addicted (i.e. despite himself
cares about H.P., Ron and
And purely for the sake of
argument, let's alltry very hard to
imagine that this guy might have
pre-ordered a copy of the brand
new "Order of the Phoenix"
many months ago, read the
nearly 900-page book as
soon as it hit his doorstep
with the same rapid pace
as the other books, but
refused to write a prop-
er review of the book
for the student newspa-
per he works at for fear
that his peers might
hear of it.
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