The way we were

The weather in New York has been so dreary over the last few months that I'm actually heading to London to get away from the rain. But at least it's prevented me from wasting my time on things like enjoying natural beauty, or exercise, or thinking positively.

You may be thinking that this discussion of dank weather and excess avoirdupois is a bit of a change from the general sense of glamour and Èlan this column normally exudes, and you'd be right. But I'm feeling a little gritty, like keeping it real a bit, because of the film documentaries I've seen recently.

"Spellbound", a documentary that's, well, spellbinding, focuses on the lives of eight contestants in the 72nd Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in 1999. All eight are, clearly, remarkable spellers, and should be proud of their hard work.

But what's truly remarkable about the contestants isn't their talent, but that they look like America. Not in the hackneyed sense of that phrase, that they come from different backgrounds and ethnicities - though that's true, as well - but in that they look and act like typical American adolescents, not their Hollywood doppelgangers. Some of them have bad skin. A few of them look overweight. A number have braces. Some have the kind of poise that shades into pretension and (almost) brattiness; some seem just plain odd.

This said, I'm sure that much of that has more to do with the general physical and mental travails of adolescence than America in general or these individuals in particular. Leaving the theater, I couldn't help thinking that this took place four years ago, and most of these kids have entered college; braces have come off, skin has cleared up, socialization has worked its way for better and for worse, typical processes of college reinvention are taking place.

And then these images are flashed on screens two stories high near campus. For any but the most well-adjusted person, this could be a serious nightmare. (If you have any doubts, just think about how many people you'd like checking out your first driver's license photo.)

Let me be clear: the phenomenon I'm talking about isn't just physical, though that's the most obvious manifestation of it; it's a question of your past coming back to overshadow your present. Think about those eight kids. Some of them, I'm sure, still are interested in spelling. But I would guess that most have moved on - they've found other interests, other loves. And now they're being talked about as the guy or girl who used to be an awesome speller.

It's like when Paul McCartney is only asked about his role in the Beatles: understandable, sure, and he's rightly proud of the work he did then, but you have to wonder if every so often he doesn't feel like yelling at the interviewer, "THAT WAS ALMOST THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, YOU KNOW! I'M A DIFFERENT PERSON NOW! ASK ME ABOUT MY NEW ALBUM, ALREADY!"

Which brings me to Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" which, I grant you, isn't a real documentary, but the point still holds. The characters in "A Mighty Wind" are, by and large, devastated by the success that they had decades in the past. Working jobs that are meaningless, if not actually demeaning, the reunion concert they all attend allows them - and us - to see how far the somewhat mighty have fallen.

This is particularly true of Eugene Levy's character, Mitch, who has been destroyed by past events. There's a real sadness that wafts through the core of "A Mighty Wind," a sadness which makes fans of "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show" a little more uncomfortable and a little more heartfelt about this one. Because both those two were looking firmly at the present with a satiric eye; this one looks back.

America has always had a reputation as a country on the move, looking forward to the next thing, brashly disrespectful of the past. Documentaries - at least these documentaries - remind us of how powerful that past can be. The problem isn't the apocalypse now; it's the way we were.

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