Sunday, September 20, 2009

on the value of Netflix

One might immediately and naturally assume the benefit of Netflix is that yours truly can get updated on the two decades of TV/Movies that she missed. Not so. Rather, it is so I can catch up on even more obscure titles in the documentary genre that are completely void of pop (short for "popular") culture. Specifically, in the past month I've watched a documentary on the spelling bee (Spellbound), a documentary on high school debate (Resolved) and today, a documentary on crossword puzzles (Wordplay). Rumor has it that there's one in the not-so-distant-queue-future about Scrabble!

First up: Spellbound. A documentary on the National Scripps Spelling Bee launched my husband immediately into homeschooler jokes. To his dismay, none of the eight contestants who were followed for the film were homeschooled. Myth #1 dispelled (pun intended). One contestant came from a rural farm in Texas of a family who had migrated to the United States under questionable documentation, spoke two languages and relied on friends and teachers for strategy and practice. Two of the contestants were of Indian descent with contrasting approaches: one family hired tutors for their son, practiced for hours daily and had an older daughter who had also placed high at the National competition; the other family encouraged their daughter to pursue excellence in many initiatives but supported her intense focus on spelling in preparation for the event (spoiler alert: she won). Another contestant was from an affluent Connecticut family, had a healthy competitive spirit but in the end confirmed that she was glad she didn't have to study any more. Finally, there was a contestant from D.C. She lived in a mid-to-low-income neighborhood with a family that, though proudof her achievement, didn't appear to truly value her accomplishment. She did not have the benefit of tutors and hours of practice, but she was committed and took full advantage of the resources that were available. Regardless of backgrounds, approaches or motivations, all the students were in it to win but none of them seemed to have staked their entire identity on the outcome.

The second one was by far the most enlightening: Resolved. I was expecting preppy schoolkids in Oxford, button-down shirts under argyle sweaters. Said kids would be expounding on the pro or con of a given situation in a well-versed, eloquent approach and would then sit primly waiting for the rebuttal. So, when the first screen focused on a lanky, brown-haired kid, in jeans and a loose button-down shirt practically hyperventilating while spewing out what seemed to be English-words in an aggressive style punctuated by short gasps of air, I checked the DVD to make sure we had the right one. It seems debates that allow for an audience to appreciate the process are a thing of the past. Today it is about getting as many arguments in under a set amount of time. The students spend hours collecting information about the statement they will defend or rebut, which they cart around in plastic Rubbermaid containers (similar, though smaller, to the ones that currently store my seasonal decor) - multiple containers, stacked one on the other. While one team is presenting (forgive me for not having the correct terminology), the other is furiously scribbling shorthand notes of arguments and counter-arguments. The shorthand must mimic the nearly indiscernable language of the speaker as it is also muddled to the untrained eye. The best visual of the film, to demonstrate the intensity of these competitions, was one of the teachers' fingers which had a permanent blister the size of a jelly bean protruding from the side from jotting down notes as the teams were competing (he may have been a judge, come to think of it). The ultimate achievement is to win the national finals (the name of which I've forgotten) and while that remains the focus of the film, an underlying conversation emerges. One team dared to challenge the norms of the competition. Rather than collecting volumes of facts about the resolution, they built from their own experience. Through their approach they argued that debate needs to be about more than just cramming researched thoughts into a laundry list of arguments - debate needed to look at the issues through a modern lens and with an eye towards applicability. Do you debate to see who can accumulate the most facts and avoid nuclear war (this is the predominant strategy) or do you debate because you believe you can change the direction of political, social or cultural norms?

Finally, today we watched Wordplay by Will Shortz of the New York Times. The film talked to Shortz, people who make the puzzles, puzzlers, competitive puzzlers and celebrity puzzlers (Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Ken Burns). Shortz created a crossword competition that is held each year at a Marriott in Connecticut. Those who were interviewed admitted it was like coming to an annual family reunion. Everyone gets to compete for the first seven puzzles and then it goes to the top three to beat the clock and each other in front of the group. Now, Nick and I enjoy the occasional New York Times crossword challenge visiting one of our favorite pizza places - and take a great sense of pride in completing one before leaving the restaurant. These people were completing the daily puzzles in 2-4 minutes! The competition had a 15-minute time limit! But the competition was the most dull part of the film (completing a crossword really is more of an isolated pursuit). The creation of the puzzles was where the story was - starting with the rules provided by the original editor of the NY Times crossword puzzles: Margaret Farrar. About 1/6 of the puzzle could be black spaces. The puzzle had to look the same standing upright and upside-down. And, clues and answers had to pass the "Sunday breakfast" rule - i.e. you don't want to think the word rectal or urine while munching on toast and drinking OJ. The puzzles get progressively difficult throughout the week with Saturday being the most challenging. My favorite example was a puzzle published the day before the election run-off between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. The New York Times created answers to two questions in a line that read "_ _ _ _ _ _ _ " and "Elected". The clue was "Tomorrow's headline." Uproar ensued as accusations were thrown that they had jumped the gun...until it was revealed that the puzzle creator had found a way to make the words work for "Clinton" or "BobDole" in the blanks. The thought that went in to figuring out the other question/answer combinations to create two words that answered the same clue with one of two possible appropriate letters falling into the correct spot boggled my mind.

What delight awaits me in the Scrabble world? In short, my pop culture education remains sorely lacking, but I am increasingly amazed by sub culture - thanks to documentaries. And Netflix.

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