Speaking in Tongues


Is alphabet destiny? “I am as American as April in Arizona,” Nabokov once declared, those three peaks telegraphing love of country. In Jeff Blitz’s addictive Spellbound, which follows eight middle-schoolers on the road to the National Spelling Bee in D.C., the 26 letters can seem like familiar faces or inscrutable conspirators, undergoing capricious mutations and following the ancient rules of distant lands: Why apocope, why hellebore, why repetiteur, why zwieback? Given the abecedarian madness to follow, it’s appropriate that Angela Arenivar stands at the head of the alphabet, the start of the film, and perhaps on the brink of a language itself. Her father, Ubaldo, hollers in the fields, unenglished despite his quarter-century in Texas, calling in the cattle; though every child in Spellbound has a gift, self-trained Angela’s achievements seem even more remarkable given the alien angle from which she intersects the tongue.

The other seven hail from a mix of locales and economic backgrounds, from the fruited subdivisions of Orange County to the asbestos-mill haven of Ambler, Pennsylvania. Some get tutoring; others hit phone-directory-size practice books, or attach letters to poster board in some homegrown mnemonic grid. In competition, they utilize or disdain the four questions they can ask: Can you repeat the word? Could I have a definition? Could I have a language of origin? Can you use it in a sentence? Each participant has unique appeal, but my favorite might be the un-Ritalined Harry Altman, a joke-cracking squirt who takes the stage with a tumbling dash worthy of Joe Cocker.

Two of Blitz’s subjects, Neil Kadakia and Nupur Lala, have subcontinental roots, as does the mysterious, brilliantly named Georgie Thampy, whom we learn about only when the D.C. melee is well under way. A home-schooled Christian with decidedly odd elocution, he dispenses homiletic advice (“Twust in Jesus . . . honowing yuh pawents”) that will remind A Mighty Wind fans of Fred Willard’s catchphrase-coiner. Neil has some tense moments, ironically, with darjeeling; we also learn that his grandfather has paid 1,000 people to pray for his victory, and has promised to feed 5,000 hungry mouths for a month should that glory come to pass.

“There is no way you can fail in this country,” announces Neil’s motivated father, but when it comes to the nationals, 248 will fail, forgivably. If spelling is culture, an imposition of order on the yawping welter of all possible sounds, it is also at some level unnatural. One of Nupur’s earlier rivals, stumped by iridescent, wryly notes, “A lot of people thought it had two rs.” A sign outside a Tampa Hooters offers “CONGRADUL TIONS” to local hero Nupur; a school marquee in Missouri hails its “CHAPM.”

In their randomness, the bee words take on an oracular quality—shades of kabbalistic gematria, or the Sortes Vergilanae, the supernatural attributed to symbols on paper. But in Baghdad or beyond, as Alberto Manguel recently noted in the Times, tablets bearing the first writing, from 4000 B.C., now reside in the hands of looters. The markings account for cattle—Ubaldo Arenivar’s stock in trade.

Most tearjerkers operate along the distaff, but It Runs in the Family is full of emotive males who tend to be related off-screen as well as on-. The sight of grandpa Mitchell Gromberg (Kirk Douglas), lawyer father Alex (Michael), and lifetime Hunter student son Asher (Cameron) reach out, repel, and make amends should be as exciting as leafing through another household’s old photos, but Family goes easy on the schmaltz, and the catastrophes have the puncturing feel of real life. Stroke-weathered Kirk eschews pity, getting in touch with his Jewish roots. “Autobiographical—that’s a hard word to pronounce!” this eldest living Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) said on a talk show last week. The consonants were fogged, but perhaps we have a language of origin.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 29, 2003

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