This other Eden, where words are celebrated

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The Independent Online

It's an important distinction, I think, and one which some people were at pains to reiterate even while they were pulling down his effigy - Bush is not America. Bush is not Saddam Hussein either, I'd have thought, and you have to be pretty crass to think he is. But then everything about that act of frolicsome iconoclasm in uncontested Trafalgar Square was crass, not least its failure to imagine what Iraqis who'd lost their families to Saddam must have felt when his statue was toppled. That's why ironic reference, like moral relativism, goes down so well with the young. It requires no maturation of the sympathetic intelligence.

But yes, an important distinction, Bush is not America. I, for example, don't much mind Bush. It's America I can't stand. And by America I don't of course mean Americans. Americans, encountered one at a time, I rather like. It's the collective idea I'm against.

Something to do with its blankness in the face of the grotesque. I was reminded of this while watching Alan Yentob on BBC1 the other night, investigating what happens to British sitcoms when they are exported to America. It's a story quickly told. What happens when British sitcoms are exported to America is that they keep the sit and lose the com. They cannot do a monster. They cannot conceive a monster. They cannot even copy a monster when we give them one of ours. Show them a schizophrenogenic homicidal depressive suffering pathological myxedema shading into chronic masochistic sabotage and they turn him into a family man with a cold.

Cowards, bullies, misanthropists, bigots - the very stuff of comedy - don't sell soap powder. That's the usual explanation. Blame capitalism. But they sell soap powder well enough over here. So the only reason they don't sell soap powder over there must be that the people who buy the soap powder don't buy the grotesque. Affirmation sickness is the real problem. Acute optimism syndrome. They think all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds, which might make for the reassurances of wisecracking but doesn't favour the comedy of the grotesque.

So what about Bilko? That was a long time ago, and the past is another country. Frasier, then? Close, but not close enough. That which is grotesque in Frasier is invariably mollified, rendered harmless, forgiven, redeemed, before the programme ends. In the best of all possible worlds, the beast is seen to sleep at last in the arms of beauty. And you can't have a culture when you keep letting that happen. Culture is dialectical, the savage and the civilised, the redeemed and the irredeemable, for ever at one another's throats. Cede precedence to the one and you get the home life of the Marquis de Sade; cede precedence to the other and you get America.

That said, the pay-off for turning your back on the ravening beast of comedy can sometimes be a most endearing earnestness. As witness the best American film on the circuit at the moment, a documentary, not a fictional concoction, and the only reason I've had to shed tears in the cinema since Mario Lanza sang goodbye to Ann Blyth in Heidelberg in 1954. The year I cried a lot.

We don't often discuss cinema in this column. Though I enjoy the social rituals of going to the pictures as much as many man, and like the idea of film as it were in absentia, I mainly get bored and restless once the actual fleshly film starts. Too long, most of them are, and too bothered by the intricacies of plot. I am not by nature a plot person. Either I get lost half way through, or wish I had got lost sooner. Little in life promises more and delivers less than plot. Which is why audiences look so flat when you see them trooping out of the cinema. Like bad sex, plot has failed them again.

Not so with Spellbound, though, the film which has just made me cry, and which otherwise, the night I saw it, kept a packed cinema on the edge of its seats, gnawing its nails, hungry for outcome. Conventional in style but remarkable in content, Spellbound, as you are no doubt aware, tells the story of the hunt to find the best child-speller in the United States of America. So what kept the audience on the edge of its seats? Spelling, reader. The joys and difficulties of spelling, and the agony and jubilation of the competing children as they ascend to spelling heaven or tumble headlong into spelling hell. Forget dressing up for The Rocky Horror Show. Old hat. Go along in your geekiest gear and spell along with Spellbound. You'll be surprised how high you get on it.

And if it's suspense you want, try staying calm when all hangs on the positioning of the h in logorrhea.

As for what made me cry, that's easy to explain. It was the spectacle of children, and the families of those children, not given over to the television idea of children as consumers of junk. It was the charm of their seriousness. That their seriousness comprised greater or lesser degrees of competitiveness, that some of the spellers were pedants in the making, or carried the burden of their parents' ambitiousness, or suffered a little too much agitation in their own presentation and performance, is also what the film is about.

Here, encapsulated beautifully in the pursuit of perfect spelling - mastery of the mechanics of language to the point where not a single word in the American dictionary will be a puzzle or a fright to you (for he who can spell the language owns the language) - is the story of the American dream, the second Eden where the immigrant can still be welcomed and assimilated and make his fortune.

Touching, this reminder of the other America where, whatever the rest of the world thinks of it politically, the rest of the world goes on looking for its fresh start. Bugger Bush. Think this America, tender as a wound, funny in being not funny, grotesque in its grotesquelessness.