Tuesday, October 25, 2005



The Bee Season,
adapted from a best selling novel by Myla Goldberg, was shown as the opening night film at HIFF (The Hampton's International Film Festival).

I hated this movie.

Here's the short, preview explanation. (Below, for those who have already read the book, or seen or never will see this movie, I'll tell you exactly why; but there'll be too much about the story to qualify as a preview for someone who wants to actually see the film.)

First of all, I should mention that the acting, by Juliette Binoche (currently at BAM's Next Wave, onstage in 4.48 Psychose) as the wife and, especially, Flora Cross as the daughter, was very fine, and I did love the film -- it had a brilliant, visually inventive beginning -- until Richard Gere opened his mouth and spoke. He seemed to be acting very hard, possibly even improvising, to convey his character's personality. The character was (apparently supposed to be) an obsessive Jewish mystic. (Gere is not believable in this film as obsessive, Jewish, or mystic.) Later, this character (was it in the book or changed to fit the star power of the movie?) becomes the most normal.

But what I really hated was that the story, as told in the movie, justifies lying and failure as being the right way to deal with familial dysfunction, and does not allow for the possibility of healthy, though intense, deep intellectual interests and philosophical investigations.


Saul Naumann, the father of the family, is fascinated by words and their power. In his thesis, he studied the work of a mystic. He lectures to students on the power of Tikkun Olam, "the fixing of the world," or bringing shards together to make a whole. It is a very strange lecture. Why would he not write the phrase in Hebrew? What is the course? It does not seem, from what he says and how he says it, like a lecture in a course on comparative literature, comparative religion (or any other subject I can think of, for that matter).

In the movie, largely because of Saul's interest in Tikkun Olam and Kabbala mysticism, his wife goes completely crazy. I suspect that in the book there is more to her character, but in the film we see very little of her history or character development. When she blames her insanity on trying to measure up to his interest in Tikkun Olam, Saul simply says, "It's a metaphor." He seems to understand the role of mysticism in ordinary life and has it under control. No one else does, yet the film seems to try to blame everything on him, nevertheless.

At the end of the film, blaming herself, somehow, for her mother's insanity and believing her father too obsessed with her success, the young girl at the crucial moment, about to win the national spelling bee, deliberately gives the wrong answer and throws the contest.

By any normal standard, deliberately failing is reprehensible. If you are bribed to throw a contest which people bet on, that's a crime. Though the facts are slightly different (no bets, no bribes) this is actually the same thing. The girl deliberately throws the spelling bee because she thinks it would be bad to win. The film implies that this was a wonderfully wise and noble thing.

This celebration of lying and failing; this description of philosophical interest destroying everyone else in the family, in addition to being reprehensible on its face, also seems to me contrived. That is, this is not a brilliant description of a tragedy. (Tragedies are always about deeply flawed people.) This is a manipulated assault on the possibility of healthy intellectual passions and competitive success.

I have not read the book, and I do not know if I would have the same reaction to the book. Here are some quotations from the Random House web page for the book, presumably by the author:

"...the two days I spent there..." (at the 1997 National Spelling Bee)...

"...an alternate universe of anxiety and expectation ruled by one of the most arbitrary of systems: the English language..."

"...I became obsessed with spelling bees and how they can take on such great significance to the children and the parents involved in them..."

"...the spelling bee was pathologically important to a tangible percentage of contestants and parents..."

"...this ridiculous contest..."

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