Thursday, November 04, 2004

Spellboud Without a Hitch

Note: I wrote this sometime ago, but never posted it. These films are now available on DVD or VHS for your home viewing pleasure.

Spellbound Without a Hitch
On the Air in Winged Migration


Introduction
Summer is not officially here yet, and already I feel like I'm being forced on a 10-calorie-a-day cinema diet. It's frightening, really frightening, to think back over the last two months and realize that one of the best new releases I've seen is X2...(is that possible?).

Of course I'm forgetting Abbas Kiarostami's Ten, which was a great discovery, but it only played in the theaters for about a week after showing up at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. But where is the new Eric Rohmer film that was advertised as “coming soon” LAST YEAR? Why did Goddard's new film (In Praise of Love) play for ONE NIGHT in the SF Bay Area in 2002 before getting swept back into obscurity? (In recent interviews, Goddard revealed that he has been unable to find distributors for his last two films: Histoire du Cinema and In Praise of Love.)

Fortunately, little gems slip by the schlock-radar and this week I can report on two films that took me by surprise and gave pleasure. Both films seem appropriate for children and adults, and yet both have maturity that summer pep-flicks like Searching for Nemo will more than likely avoid.

Spellbound Without a Hitch
The first subject on today's menu is Spellbound, a documentary that illuminates the pursuit of winning the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee Competition in Washington D.C. In addition to providing a glimpse into the search for an individual with the perfect blend of phonemic awareness and visual memory for words, Spellbound is a study of Americana that few documentaries have been able to unearth from our United soils.

In the first half of his study, filmmaker Jeff Blitz presents eight adolescents preparing for the competition. There are interviews with the kids and their families, and these opening scenes reveal their respective environments, their churches, their dogs, their appetites, their varying work ethics, their ultimately unique personalities, and the different ways that they prepare for the big event.

Since the age-limit for the competition is set for 12 year-olds, the viewers' vantage point is set at the cusp of childhood and puberty. Puberty is that strange and unforgiving passage between childhood and adulthood that have stunned so many of us. Viewers can see the adult forming in these youngsters while viewing the actions (or non-actions) and urges (or non-urges) of their parents.

On the Air in Winged Migration
The second film I saw over the past weekend was Winged Migration, a beautifully photographed work that studies and charts the migration patterns of many species of birds. The film is brilliant in its presentation of the birds, flying in small or massive formations, and the nature photography of the places they depart, travel through and arrive are stunning.

The problems of the film stemmed from a lame soundtrack (was the composer lost in some 70’s cloud of pot smoke?) and an unnecessary voice-over track. Both elements felt like too much of a human presence in a film that otherwise belonged solely to the birds and their fascinating travel patterns. The different species and their trajectories were documented with text and that seemed to provide ample information; viewers were treated to points of departures and the corresponding destinations.

The innate knowledge of these routes represents the unbelievable. How is it that a specific species of bird not only knows that it must travel from the north pole to the south pole and back again each year, but also knows the route and travels it exclusively again and again? It is this sense of belonging, this sense of place within a given timeframe that will surely fascinate viewers.

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