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Bee Season (2005)

11-year-old Eliza is the invisible element of her family unit: her parents are both consumed with work and her brother is wrapped up in his own adolescent life. Eliza ignites not only a spark that makes her visible but one that sets into motion a revolution in her family dynamic when she wins a spelling bee. Finding an emotional outlet in the power of words and in the spiritual mysticism that he sees at work in her unparalleled gift, Eliza's father pours all of his energy into helping his daughter become spelling bee champion. A religious studies professor, he sees the opportunity as not only a distraction from his life but as an answer to his own crisis of faith. His vicarious path to God, real or imagined, leads to an obsession with Eliza's success and he begins teaching her secrets of the Kabbalah. Now preparing for the National Spelling Bee, Eliza looks on as a new secret of her family's hidden turmoil seems to be revealed with each new word she spells.

Bee Season (2005)

Letters to God

I am coming to believe that no effective movie can be deeply spiritual. We know the problem with cinematic love: how do you show it? Sex? Placed in the midst of larger flows like war?

Mystical forces are similar, internal. A bond, a sway that cannot be seen by definition, cannot be visually displayed.

Its a real challenge for the serious filmmaker who is tired of stories about spiritual awakening as sports contests. The solution we have here is clever. Yes, I know it was solved first in a novel, that the larger structure wasn’t immediately intended for the eye. But what the author and screenwriter put together is very good cinema if somewhat stupid on the spiritual side.

The first thing is how the idea is surrounded by the four characters. Ostensibly, the display is anchored and explained by the father. He plays double duty, teaching (in words) about the mystical tradition he studies, professes and failed in his attempt to follow. He also provides the human problem of blind expectations that haunts the others in his family. Its a tired formula, even if the spiritual piece is substituted for the more common failures, and wouldn’t be enough if the supposed secondary stories didn’t eclipse it.

The apparently number two character is the daughter who wins spelling contests because she has this gift, this insight that her father lacks. This coincidence: of the mystical tradition and the spelling of words by deep “seeing” is what makes the story work, and also happens to be the thing that makes it anti-spiritual — at least so far as it self-advertises. More about that in a minute.

Then there’s the older son. Oh, this is when the Jewish imposition comes: the son is simply rebelling, and it matters that he leaves a religion of the written word for a chanted one. Dramatically, this is the least interesting occlusion, though it shows that the author understood how words play in the thing.

Finally, the mother. We are seeing this movie primarily through the eyes of the dad, so the mother’s actions seem at first inexplicable and incidental. Later we are convinced she is mad and was so from the beginning. Under the spell of her husband’s spiritual notions, she engages in an obvious misunderstanding of what it means. Or so we are meant to believe.

The structure of the thing is why I want to recommend it to you, but the spiritual message is off. Perhaps necessarily so, as I’ll explain.

Here’s the plot: Father studies Kabbalah. Daughter apparently has the gift he studies. The Dad’s understanding of Kabbalah is one that novices have, that words carry the essence of the thing, so their constituents (namely the letters) are the atoms of God’s breath in the world, motivating and reflecting all in creation and creation itself.

So when the daughter closes her eyes in the contest and “sees” the letters assemble, she is one with the coupling force of God. She is an adept. Meanwhile, her mother is ill and the daughter discovers this right before the ultimate context. She performs the forbidden Kabbalistic exercises right before this contest so that she has the powers of a fuller adept.

She deliberately loses the contest, thereby healing her mother, and surprising her father with her wisdom. That’s what a novice viewer will see. But the point and construction is that there is an alternate flow here. I’ve told you the apparent plot so that you can imagine the realer one underneath.

The dramatic tension isn’t between father and daughter, but daughter and mother. The father is a doofus, who makes the same mistake we as viewers do. In Kabbalah, there are several blinds, just as in a way the Bible itself is supposed to be a blind to first level of Kabbalah. In that first level, is the stuff the father spouts in this movie, that letters matter, or that they denote some ineffable spiritual soufflés.

This is the stuff of the modern Kabbalah Institute we know from yearning movie celebrities. Real Kabbalah is beyond that, beyond its Jewish confines, escaping into softer and broader Christian, Muslim and alchemical Judaic wisdom in Spain. It is, as it happens usually visual and folded. In fact, my own awareness of this tradition comes from study of folded narrative.

(The girl’s last two spelling words are “syllogism” and “origami.”)


Just as within the story there is a deeper vision beyond what you see, so is there a deeper story. The mother is the adept. Her actions seem insane to her husband, and therefore us. But she is the one who turns her relationships (all of them, including the sex), into the ability to influence events. As with any magi, she does this indirectly through others, invisibly. All the others will think they are in control in some important way, but they are not.

I would like to recommend this to you for the way it is put together. It is cinematically something between “Beautiful Mind“ and “Pi” but far, far better than they in conveying what it is like to be a mathematical mystic. The tradition hinted here, the one that envisions the world geometrically, is the parent of what we now call mathematics.

I recommend you take the movie seriously (perhaps more seriously than the directors) and see the underlying story, whatever you may recognise.

But the spiritual notions on the surface are as mundane as the politics in “V for Vendetta,” If you want better mysticism in this tradition, go to “Ninth Gate” and “Drowning by Numbers.” The former brings inner visions to cinema and the latter the other way around. Or perhaps “Andrei Rublov” for the travails of an artist in this quest.

Posted in 2006

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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