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...a sweatshop of moxie

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Squids, Bees, And Friends

After missing its very limited release last year, today, I finally watched the Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche film, Bee Season.

Unlike perhaps Reader_Iam, I hadn't read the reputedly excellent novel by Myra Goldberg, on which this film is based.

I honestly thought that it was about a spelling bee -- a kind of Jewish Akeelah and the Bee, which coincidentally debuts quite soon.

By the way, I love the archly American obsession with spelling bees.

I also hope Americans realise a spelling bee is the perfect vehicle for showing off the quirks of their culture.

Think about it:

It's a democratic process, emphasising youth, with random word selection playing the luck angle for all its worth.

The youngster who gets an easy word, could be the son of an Indian immigrant who works at a motel, as easily as it could be the daughter of a Jewish doctor.

No matter how much tutoring is involved, (and anyone who has watched the documentary based on spelling bees, Spellbound, knows that it is rife), it's as nothing if the kid has a memory lapse, or gets stage fright, or cannot handle the pressure during the small moment in time, he or she is "on".

The word could be difficult for one person, and easy for another.

Intelligence plays a role, but so does memory retention, and concentration -- but even after all of that is factored in, some kids just luck out on guessing how a word is spelt.

In other words, it's about democracy, cut-throat competition, and talent, mixed with luck, plus chutzpah.

I don't know a better culture which showcases that particular mixture, than America.

(Contrast this to the contest fare we like in Britain -- there's "University Challenge": a carefully selected panel of University students, who get to show off their uniquely acquired erudition; the creme de la creme which one percent of Britons, belong to. The late, lamented Mastermind and recently, The Weakest Link, which is merely a vehicle for Anne Robinson to humiliate everyone around her, just reinforce that we revel in arcane minutiae and quips)

Little did I anticipate, then, that Bee Season was a rather quirky, elegant, taut but ultimately unsatisfying film, yet one certainly not unwatcheable.

The premise is that a religious studies professor, rather full of himself and his ideas on life (anchored by his belief in Tikkun Olam -- the piecing together of the broken shards of light, symbolic of our distance from God), is married to a Frenchwoman who bears a terrible emotional scar.

Their children are barely aware about the tensions, but they try to seek attention from their narcissistic father, by trying to placate him by excelling -- at anything.

It could be Jewish mysticism, or it could be spelling bees, but it has to be something which is sure to reflect well on him, by association.

Within such situations, there is usually a child who rebels, and one who peacemakes, although not being a child of divorce, I only know this anecdotally.

As I watched the film, I found myself uttering outloud,

"This is like a combination of The Squid and The Whale, and Pi."

And if you haven't seen either film, do.

They're both very intriguing, with TS&TW being perhaps my favourite film of 2005 -- a true gem.

TS&TW is an autobiographical story by Noah Baumbach which is as brutal a look at a crumbling family, as I have seen on the American screen.

Though the acting by the mother, played by Laura Linney, is exceptional, the film is truly is held together by the awkwardly vicious portrayal by Jeff Daniels.

He's precisely this kind of narcissistic man, whose pronouncements and associations, must be of the very best -- the better to make him look good, of course.

I'll never forget the odd gasp of surprise I made, when the Jeff Daniels character called anything he thought was wonderful, "the filet" -- as in mignon.

It was a term he employed with pathetic frequency as his circumstances declined, and yet it is precisely this usage which rang true, and made him very vulnerable as a character.

(I've met people like this. They'realmost all social climbers like Hyacinth Bucket, to a man and woman. Harmless, but very very irritating)

Perhaps this is it with Bee Season.

Richard Gere cannot portray the slightest bit of vulnerability, or let his guard down emotionally, until the very last scene of the film, by which time you don't care.

It could be a moment to shine, like Jeff Daniels, by leaving his ego behind, but you are never unaware it is not the Buddhist poster child up there (as the IMDB forum members so comically put it).

Bee Season also reminds me of Darren Aronofsky's PI, but merely because of the mysticism involved, which however, was treated very well in both films.

Despite making fun of New Age Kaballists and their smarmy ilk, Jewish mysticism greatly interests me, and I'll watch just about film on the topic.

Ultimately, Bee Season perhaps is too unwieldy a topic to adapt for the screen.

It relies on too much hidden secrets, something which tends to creep its audience out -- if not dealt with, deftly.

Now, Friends with Money, which debuts this weekend around secondary markets, will be quite the opposite.

At first, I was astounded it wasn't a Coen Brothers special, but given my declining interest in their films of late, perhaps its just as well.

However, I'm very gratified that at least, the topic is unusual enough, and signals yet again, the continued chatty, "adult" films Hollywood have made in the past year.

I've already heard the uneven reviews the film is getting, but the mere fact that subject matter is a complete departure from hokey formulaic premises, means I'll definitely look foward to seeing it, this weekend.

And blogging about it later.

Watch this face.


  • Wow, I can't believe there were no comments about this. Not even from film-mad Ron. :(

    Boo. *pout*


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Apr 20, 09:25:00 am GMT-4  

  • Great stuff ... not sure why we yankees are so obsessed with spelling bees, beyond our need to be the best at everything .. that said, I saw Akeelah last week and found it to be surprisingly entertaining

    By Blogger Reel Fanatic, at Mon Apr 24, 06:33:00 pm GMT-4  

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