George Plimpton (1927-2003) was Walter Mitty with a twist. Unlike James Thurber’s famed, fumbling protagonist, Plimpton didn’t just imagine achieving heroic deeds, he actually attempted them, over and over again, failing nobly, gamely, and thoroughly. And though his books were underrated by some of his more esteemed peers, not to mention by himself, he was one of the finest writers of the latter part of the 20th century, transforming his wry misadventures in the realm of professional performance into triumphs of nonfiction, or as he called it, “participatory journalism.”
Certainly his “Paper Lion” (1966) about training as a quarterback for Detroit’s NFL team of the title is one of the great sports books. Others include “Shadow Box” (1977), in which he went into the ring with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, and “Open Net” (1985), in which he faced a couple of shots as goalie for the Bruins (he actually made some impressive saves). Tom Wolfe included him along with Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion as one of the stars of the New Journalism.
In their coyly titled documentary, “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself” (2012), Tom Bean and Luke Poling tell their subject’s story with appropriate flair. They include rare archival photos and footage and a generous sampling of Plimpton’s elegant prose read in a plummy Brahmin voice-over by the writer. A scion of a family that had achieved greatness in many significant fields of endeavor since it arrived on the Mayflower, Plimpton showed little sign of living up to this impossible legacy after being expelled from Phillips Exeter Academy a couple of weeks before graduation.
He got a public school diploma instead, graduated from Harvard, and in 1953 moved to Paris, after being invited by Peter Matthiessen to edit the fledgling literary journal The Paris Review. Perhaps he thought he might relive some of the glory of the Lost Generation of expatriates in Paris in the 1920s. Though he never achieved the stature of such review alumni as Philip Roth and William Styron, he did land an interview with a reluctant Ernest Hemingway, who afterward declared, “This kid is the real thing.”
Was there a real George Plimpton? Perhaps he’s the hero who while working for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 helped wrestle the gun away from the candidate’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. He did have a real life beyond his participatory journalism and celebrity hobnobbing, but it was one that he tended to neglect, as interviews with his two wives and other family members make clear. The film’s overall tone of wry humor turns to pathos and tragedy when Plimpton’s son, Taylor, chokes up as he reads from one of the last things his father wrote, “Things Every Man Should Do Before They Die.”
“Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself” can be streamed at the Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room until June 5.
Go to www.brattlefilm.org.
Jeffrey Blitz’s “Spellbound” (2002) took Steve James’s landmark documentary, “Hoop Dreams” (1994), out of the basketball court and into the equally intense competition of the 1999 version of what is now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Since 1925 the competition has seen thousands of school kids of different races, ethnicities, and social classes battle for victory by spelling words like “opsimath” (a person who begins to learn or study only late in life) and the perennial favorite “logorrhea” (a marked tendency to wordiness). It is an orthographic version of the American Dream, and in 1999 the winner was a son of Indian immigrants, Nupur Lala.
His victory was just one in an ongoing dynasty. Despite representing only 1 percent of the US population, Indian-Americans have won every Scripps National Spelling Bee for the past 12 years and 26 of the last 31 contests. As seen at the beginning of Sam Rega’s “Spelling the Dream,” the 2019 contest ended in an eight-way tie, and seven of the co-winners were Indian-Americans.
Why such dominance? To find out, the film seeks insights from interviews with such notable Indian-Americans as CNN correspondents Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria and ESPN anchor Kevin Neghandi as well as other experts and previous winners. All agree that the cause is not genetic and not entirely cultural. Rather it has something to do with the community that Indian immigrants have established in America and the way they instill in their children the desire to take advantage of whatever opportunity comes their way. When the first Indian-American won the bee, in 1985, others took note and realized that this was a niche in which they could excel. As Neghandi says, “When we find something that works, we go all in.”
To show how they go all in, the film focuses on four Indian-American kids participating in the 2017 contest — cocky 7-year-old Akash, suave and swaggering 14-year-old Shourav, intense 14-year-old Tejas, and demure but confident 10-year-old Ashrita, from North Andover — as they are prepped by their parents and battle their way up from regional contests to the finals. It’s funny and suspenseful and offers an insight into the immigrant experience in America — not to mention providing lots of new words to look up. And it will have to take the place of the 2020 bee, which has been cancelled because of COVID-19.
“Spelling the Dream” begins streaming on Netflix June 3.
Go to netflix.com.
Dealing with the pandemic
Yu Kung and Crystal Liu’s documentary, “COVID: Our Lockdown in Shanghai,” offers US viewers a glimpse at how the pandemic can be controlled and the sacrifices required of average people to do so.
In January, when the virus first began spreading from Wuhan to the rest of China, the husband and wife filmmakers decided to keep a video diary of its impact on their apartment block, in Shanghai. A lockdown is imposed, family members are separated, businesses suffer, conflicts arise, but people adjust, learning something about themselves and their neighbors and the value of cooperating for the common good.
Some of the measures the government takes are alarming in their potential to violate basic rights and impose social control, but it seems like they are doing something right. Earlier this month China reported that for the first time it had no new COVID-19 cases.
“COVID: Our Lockdown in Shanghai” can be seen on the Smithsonian Channel on May 28 at 7 p.m., May 31 at 3 p.m., June 4 at 7 p.m., June 5, at 11 p.m., with additional broadcasts later in June. Further dates can be found at bit.ly/2X4MrUX as they are scheduled.
Go to www.smithsonianchannel.com.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.