Thursday, May 10, 2018

CANON OF FILM: "ELECTION"

ELECTION (1998)

Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor based on the novel by Tom Perrotta



So, on Facebook, a few people, friends of mine, some of them were posting a meme that asked people to name three fictional characters that se poster, reminds them of. I thought it was a fun little challenge, so I participated in a few of them, and something struck me. Maybe it was the people who were posting it, maybe I just need to be a little more selective with my choice of friends, but one surprising name kept popping into my head, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). On first glance, this doesn't seem like a name that should pop up a lot, but, is she a seminal character? I was trying to think of previous characters similar to her in literature and I was coming up surprising short. Most characters I think of like her are usually side-characters in things and are typically not the leads and most famous characters from their work. We certainly don't get inner monologues from them. It's not just that she's a know-it-all high school overachiever who's greater ambition leads her to run for Student Body President,...- well, actually, maybe it is. Maybe it's that she is the nightmare version of that archetype we know from high school, the one who no one really likes but is still trying to control and run things even when there's nothing much to run. 

"Election" is a twisted dark satire that seems to feel more and more relevant and important with each passing viewing. It was a critical hit, but not a commercial one originally. Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta who would use his multi-narrative structure elsewhere in stuff like "Little Children", also based on one of his novels, as well as the cult TV series "The Leftovers", "Election". That's the weird thing you notice about the film, is the filmmaking style. This is Writer/Director Alexander Payne second feature and a director and his first great film, and he often talks about how for him, movies are finally made in the Editing room, and "Election" is an oddly-structured film, one I have no doubt is inspired by Perrotta's novel, but one that's unique egalitarian in how it gives each side their own say in the story. Actually, kinda like an election. I don't remember school assemblies on the elections or- for that matter, even voting for the Student Government in my high school; we did that in middle school I remember, but I honestly don't know who was in our student government, although I'm sure it had a Tracy Flick or two.

The main narrative involves a teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) who has decided that Tracy must be stopped-, there's a few reasons he has for this, but a big one that is sorta overlooked is that Tracy had an affair with a fellow-teacher, Dave (Mark Harelik) the year before, in essence, ruining his life, although he seemed like he was more-than-willing to throw it away and Tracy,-, well, is more complicated then people might notice, but Jim decides to cross her anyway. He recruits a school's beloved jock, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. He's injured so his football career is put on hold for his Senior year, but since he's generally a happy guy and everything comes up roses for him, he decides to play along and run, although he feels sorry about Tracy. One of those things that goes well for him is his new girlfriend Lisa Flanagan (Frankie Ingrassia) who begins dating him shortly after "breaking up" with Klein's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell). Tammy correctly configures that she's dating her brother out of spite and decides to get into the race herself and suddenly becomes popular when she announces a campaign based around dismantling the student government entirely, which actually makes her the frontrunner for awhile. When I first used to watch this film, I generally considered Tammy the most interesting character since she seems to be the only one who is acting out of pure emotion and spite, (And it is fascinating to see how her scheme and mind worked and inevitably, she's probably the only one who actually achieved the goal she was striving for)  but that's not entirely true. In a way, she's a critical character 'cause she's basically the opposite character from Mr. McAllister, who is also acting out of spite and vengeance against Tracy, but Tammy at least realizes her selfish desires are her own, Mr. McAllister is under a delusion that his actions are for everyone's best interest. (A curious contradiction since he acts with utter selfishness once he realizes that his best friend's now ex-wife Linda [Delaney Driscoll] seems interested in him, and he's just as willing to sneak off on his marriage for Linda as Dave was for him.[This sequence leads to the most slapstick section of the film where his affair is averted from among other things, a bee sting])

Perrotta claims his biggest influence for the novel was the '92 Presidential election, which of course involved Ross Perot at one point sneaking into the race, as well as a little heard story about a Eau Claire, Wisconsin high school Principal-led conspiracy who burned ballots after a Class Presidency election ended with the winning candidate being a pregnant student. I don't know if Payne takes the novel and makes it even more subversive, but it's a curious film that analyzes personality conflicts better than most, certainly better than most films involving teenagers. And if you ever want to argue it's believability in a modern school, look no further than the trash motif. Seriously, I never would've picked up on this either, but there's just as many subtle references to literal trash in the movie as their are symbolic representations of sex in "Rebel without a Cause". Some of these seem inevitable since, if you're ever been around a modern high school, it's basically got as many trash can as Disneyland, but they consistently find creative ways of using this motif. In fact, it's just a unique film altogether.

Payne's later work has remained comedic but he's so rarely dived head-first into satire like this since, he's used similar techniques but they always streamed more towards the introspective than the absurd. Then again, the narration does that for this film. Just imagine how many other ways this film could've been made; there's plenty here for a lot of different kinds of comedy; this easily for instance, would make a good farce. You've got all the characters you need, the moody angry lesbian, the dim-witted jock, his slut girlfriend, the stick-up-her-butt insistent overachiever, the jealous and lustful teacher(s), and their wives, Preston Sturges would've had a field day with this material, and in some universe there's probably some twisted version of this story that's gone through a "Porky's" filter that probably isn't too terrible either, but that's not the choice they made. It's a comedy of extremes but they gave these characters more depth and empathy than most of them deserve and in doing so, they created a movie that works much better because it chose to accentuate characters, and zero in on perspective. He's not quite "Rashomon"-ing the film as is shorthand, 'cause I don't think we get multiple perspectives on the same incident, but we get how these characters see the world's they're in. I'm actually surprised more films don't use this approach in hindsight; you can really tell some creative stories this way.

I mean, think about it, "Election" is a movie, that's literally about a guy crumbling two pieces of paper and throwing them in the trash, and this made this compelling and this hilarious.

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