“I hope I’m not disappointed with this movie the way I was with ‘Deer Hunter’,” says Don Novello, the actor-author-comedian best known as Father Guido Sarducci. “There was hardly any deer hunting in that movie, so that was a big disappointment—but I’m really looking forward to all the little bees in ‘Bee Season’.”
The funniest thing about that line is that Novello has just delivered it to filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the directors of “Bee Season,” which is most definitely not about bees. We’ve bumped into McGehee and Siegel while standing in front of the Sebastiani Theater in Sonoma [where “Bee Season” screened in early November as a fundraising event for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival], as we awaited the arrival of comedian-actor-winemaker Tom Smothers. When the older of the Smothers Brothers appears, he has his own line to deliver. “’Bee Season,’ a whole movie about spelling bees,” he says, as we step inside. “It’s a horror movie, right?”
For Smothers and Novello, old friends and fellow dyslexics from the days of the Smothers Brothers Show on television in the 60s, accusing “Bee Season” of being a fright flick is not far from the truth. Starring Richard Gere as a professor of religion who believes that his spelling-champion daughter (Flora Cross) might be tapping the well of ancient Jewish mysticism in order to see letters in her mind, the film tells of a broken family’s quest for God, but it ultimately comes down to a series of high pressure spelling bees—with a lot of spelled out words.
“For me, whenever people start spelling in a spelling bee, it’s like they’re speaking a foreign language,” Smothers states later, as we take over a table at a nearby bistro after the show. “Are you that way too, Don?”
“They could’ve misspelled every word and I would never have known,” Novello chuckles.
“Did it bug you guys, the way the girl approached those spelling bees,” I ask, “where she’d close her eyes and wait for God to send her little magical clues—butterflies and vines and magical birds and things, flying around spelling out the words.
“I agree! You’re so right, man, she was cheating,” says Novello. “She wasn’t even that good a speller. The magical butterflies showed her how to do it. I’m surprised that using God to spell your words for you isn’t against the rules.”
“Did you see that documentary, Spellbound?” Smothers asks. “There was so much tension and drama in those spelling bees, but this movie kind of rushed through the spelling bees to get to all the mystical religious, spiritual stuff—and I’m so anti-religion these days.”
“I’m more anti-spelling than anti-religion,” nods Novello. “The Jewish mysticism didn’t bother me, the Hari Krishna stuff didn’t bother me, but spelling has always bothered me. I always resented it as a kid, that when they tell you to write about the Gettysburg Address, if you got every point right but you misspelled five or six words, you’d get a C or a D or an F. The way you spelled was more important than what you said.”
“Did you ever read that Lewis & Clark book, Undaunted Courage, with all those letters between Lewis and Jefferson, back and forth?” Smothers asks. “They wrote eloquently, but they spelled the words any way they wanted, whichever way they sounded best or looked the nicest. And Jefferson was president of the United States!”
“That’s what I’m saying!” Novello says. “School was all about memorization and not enough about creativity. To say that spelling well makes you a special person . . . that’s bullshit, you know? I might not be able to spell bullshit but I can recognize bullshit when I see it.”
“At the very opening of the film, I wanted to give you a nudge,” Smothers tells Novello, “when the woman says, at the spelling bee in Oakland, ‘You people are the best, because you’ve beaten all the others to get here today,’ and I wanted to say, ‘They’re the best? What? Because they can spell?’”
“For me, being dyslexic, the alphabet was a terrible thing,” Novello says. “They used to put the alphabet up all around the classroom, remember that? A big ‘A’ and a little ‘a,’ and then the B’s and C’s and all of them, all around the room in a big circle, surrounding us, and I always thought it was like the old western movies, where the Indians would suddenly appear all around them in the mountains, surrounding the people on all sides. That’s what it was like with the alphabet. I was surrounded by the enemy, the alphabet was the fuckin’ enemy, honestly. Those damn letters always screwed me up.”
“I like this movie, now that I look back on it,” says Smothers, “but there for a while, in the middle, I just got so angry at this family. The wife is upset and acting weird, and the boy is unhappy and feeling alienated, and the father is only interesting in reaching God. He has no Idea what his own family is doing.”
“He was so into spelling, but spelling is just memorization,” comments Novello, “and philosophy and spirituality are the opposite of memorization, but Richard Gere was approaching religion the way he approached spelling. That’s why he couldn’t reach God, because he was approaching God too analytically. He could spell ‘light,’ but he couldn’t see the light.”
“It’s ironic,” I point out, “that these people were all about words—looking for the right words to find God, the right letters to spell the words—and yet this family never talked, they had no idea how to speak to one another, they couldn’t come up with the right words to reach out to one another.”
“I think a secular family would’ve been more loving,” suggests Smothers, “more loving than this family that was busy looking for God and spiritual experiences.”
“They had no warmth, man,” says Novello.
“You know what I think? I think it’s because they were religious that they had no warmth,” Smothers says. “Really! If they had been secular instead of religious, they might have been hugging each other and talking to one another. Maybe that’s the bottom line of this movie—those who seek God are not godly, because in seeking you manifest your godlessness.”
“Wow! You think?” says Novello.
“Yeah,” Smothers replies. “It’s the same reason that emotionally needy men never get laid at parties. They want it too bad, so they never get it. In a very subtle way, I think this movie is a shot at the hardcore religious right. But in this fascist totalitarian world we live in now, the humanists and liberals can’t just stand up and shout the truth, they have to make movies that are so nuanced and subtle that we have to sit in this f*****g bar and gradually figure out what the filmmakers were maybe trying to say. Do you think that’s what this movie is trying to say, Don?”
“Actually, I think it’s saying that spelling is another form of fascism,” says Novello
“Oh my god!” Smothers shouts. “Did you just say that spelling is a form of fascism? That’s beautiful!”
“Yeah, man,” Novello laughs. “It’s fascism. And spelling bees are fascist exercises. Those who can’t spell, those who can’t quote the party line, are metaphorically taken out and shot.”
“Okay,” says Smothers, “now I’m really glad I saw this movie. It’s a very profound film.”
“Yeah, it is,” says Novello. “But you know, in the end, there weren’t any bees in it. I’m still kind of pissed off about that.”
David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a free-wheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.