Party Like It's 1999: Election
For the next several weeks, we are celebrating films celebrating their 20th anniversary this year that have stuck with us! Find additional entries in the series here.
In 1999 I was a 12 year old movie nerd beginning my first collection of movies bought with my own money. These would be relatively affordable VHS tapes bought from Wal-mart, such as Jaws, The Terminator, and True Lies. It's honestly surprising to recall this now, that I owned multiple R-rated movies at this time, since I wasn't allowed to see them. As such, movies like the one I'm writing about today would have barely been on my radar at the time and would only pique my interest a couple years later when I became an early DVD adopter and priced out my perfect player - a Toshiba, if I recall. Around the same time I would start lurking around IMDb message boards and lists, trying to figure out what kinds of movies I needed to own.
In 2002, About Schmidt came out and got some good attention. At the time, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was one of my go-to answers for my favorite movie, so I would often try to see new Jack Nicholson movies if I could. I don't remember if I saw About Schmidt in the theater or if I rented it later; it seems likely this is one I would have rented. But what I do remember was really loving it, and discovering a taste for a nice blend of character drama and dry comedy. I would then take to those message boards to seek out other like-minded films and of course discover that Alexander Payne, director of About Schmidt, had made a movie starring Matthew Broderick, another actor I admired, just a few years prior. And that movie, Election, would become one of the first DVDs I ever bought, (which I still own and watched this week for today's column) and easily one of the most played. I loved this movie and thought it was absolutely hilarious in my teenage years.
Election holds up remarkably well for a movie produced by MTV at the turn of the century. And yes, this is partly because we're in the midst of a tumultuous presidency and the basic premise of the movie is that elections are all bullshit and exclusively serve special interests. But that's honestly not why it worked so well for me all these years later. I didn't have one of those experiences where I was like "Wow! They predicted the gosh-darn future," likely because this feels like the kind of criticism any thinking American would make of our electoral process, at least since Watergate. I instead had an experience of being kind of shocked at this movie's execution and how well it works despite seemingly breaking some of the cardinal rules of film making. Now, as a 32-year-old man that's struggling with my own failures and successes, much like the characters in this movie, I have a new appreciation for this movie's use of perspective.
If you're not familiar with Election, it's the story of a high school election for class president gone awry when government teacher Jim McAllister (Broderick) steps in to try and ensure overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) doesn't run unopposed. Mr. McAllister enlists popular jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy, only to have Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) also join the race to spite her ex-girlfriend who has started dating her brother. If that doesn't sound complicated enough, Jim's best friend Dave (Mark Harelik) was fired for having an illicit affair with Tracy just before the election began, and Dave's now ex-wife has become the object of Jim's misplaced desire who is struggling to get his own wife pregnant. It's a messy web of morals and ethics, to use the movie's terms, sex and politics, to use my own terms, and very personal choices in the midst of what should be an impersonal exercise.
So how does Payne make sense of this mess and convey this story in a digestible way? He employs what I assume is the same tactic from the book this is based on, by Tom Perrotta, which is a narrative coming from multiple points-of-view. All four of our main players (Mr. M, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy) speak to us in voice-over throughout the movie, jumping from perspective to perspective, sometimes multiple times within the same scene. I've always loved this about the movie, but it only occurred to me on this watch that this is generally considered a poor practice in movie-making. Rules are certainly meant to be broken, but if four different characters need to narrate the story for us, what room is left for there to be any visual storytelling, or even any scenes where characters interact and actors get to act?
I want to be clear that this isn't a problem for Election - I'm not criticizing the movie for this at all. In fact, I still think it's what makes this a brilliant movie. It occurred to me on this watch that all four of these character's perspectives are absolutely necessary to this story, because perspective is precisely what this movie is about, and what makes it feel just as relevant in 2019 as it surely did 20 years ago. We need to hear Mr. M criticize Tracy's ethics and her willingness to step on anyone that gets in her way as we watch him step all over Tracy and her classmates to get in Tracy's way. We need to hear Tracy claim that Paul's entry into the race doesn't bother her as we watch her tear his campaign posters down. We need to hear Paul worry about his sister and her anger issues as we watch him continue to date her former lover and seemingly not make the connection between the two things (in this case, the dichotomy I'm trying to draw is less extreme, but I'll address that in a minute). We need to hear Tammy claim ignorance over her failed relationship as we watch her smother her girlfriend with the kind of dramatic affection that starts to sound like death threats. The whole point of this movie is that our perspective on events is always warped by our need to excuse ourselves from behavior we find abhorrent in others. It's in our nature to be shitty to one another, and it's just as much our nature to deny that shittiness at every turn - not just to each other, but to ourselves.
I love this set-up, where the visuals themselves are the only truthful thing in the movie, and the voice-over is all extremely personal, rather than expository. For one thing, it makes all the moments where the characters do interact have an incredible amount of impact, since we know exactly where everyone is coming from. But this is also a perfect marriage of sight and sound, the combination of which are unique unto film making. We watch the truth play out as we hear four different people's personal perspectives on that truth, and how they all differ in what you might call calculated ways. We often have to lie to ourselves just to keep moving forward, and especially in Mr. M we see the kind of tragic existence that often is. And this is where the movie's construction truly is brilliant - if everyone in the movie is lying to us, then what is the movie's perspective on these proceedings? I think for that, you look no further than to who is actually happy, and I'd like to assert that Tammy is the only happy character by the end of the movie.
Tammy is continually rewarded throughout the movie for simply being herself. Yes, her girlfriend breaks up with her in the beginning because Tammy is so overwhelmingly in love with her. But this ultimately leads to her entering the race, where she gains some attention and respect from her peers for the first time when she expresses her dissatisfaction with school during her campaign speech. Yes, Tammy gets suspended for making that speech, but this simply gives her a few days off from school during which time she realizes there's an all-girls school she could be attending and she witnesses Tracy throwing out her brother's campaign posters. And yes, Tammy is ultimately suspended when she takes credit for throwing those posters out, but this only leads to her being sent to that all-girls school where she's likely to be happier, or at least feel like she fits in. Tammy makes decisions based solely on who she is and what she wants, and she's rewarded for it every single time, even if that reward looks a bit like "failing upwards" sometimes.
This is the not the case for the rest of our characters. As I alluded to earlier, Mr. M is miserable when we meet him and continues to be miserable when we leave him. He's constantly talking about how happy he is, but we see right through that in his actions, where he's trying to please anyone but himself and when he does try to please himself he cheats. He quite literally is living life like a cockroach by the end of the movie, eking out a tiny existence in a small corner of an apartment building in NYC, with a spirit as unkillable by humiliation as a roach by nuclear winter. And Tracy, while seemingly successful in her adult life, is an extremely lonely person. Her only remark about her relationship with a teacher is the constant refrain "I miss our talks," and when she discusses her mother it's clear that they mutually served the role of sole confidant and friend to one another. Her ambition lead to success but not necessarily happiness.
Paul is an interesting case, existing somewhere between all of these extremes. He isn't so much lying to us in his voiceovers the way the rest of the characters are, he's perhaps not lying to himself enough. He's kind and gentle to a fault, literally losing the election that gives him some temporary purpose because he couldn't bring himself to vote for himself. His casual approach to life allows life to walk all over him and pretty much pass him by. In the end, the movie kind of alludes to him not surviving beyond his college years, as he makes a vague reference to some trip with his buddies and then is the only character to break the fourth wall when he says "Or maybe I'd be dead." I kind of think the reason he's the one special character to speak directly to us is that he is in fact dead, and the trip to Yosemite he's referring to is some drunken excursion that he accidentally dies on. I'm grasping at straws here, but it's an interesting moment in the movie that I think is begging us to try and draw some conclusions around. He's certainly here to be a sort of counterpoint to the rest of the characters, allowing us to see that some form of self-deception may be necessary in life.
As I wrap this Election reflection up, I want to make sure I pay proper respect to this cast. The work everyone is doing here is really incredible. Tracy is such a specific, meticulously crafted character on Witherspoon's part that I can imitate her speech patterns with ease and anyone who has seen the movie will know exactly what I'm doing. And whether intentional or not, Broderick really feels like he's playing the logical extension of Ferris Bueller here. Were we to meet that character a decade or two later in his life, this is surely where he'd be - pathetic, more or less. The MVP for me is Chris Klein, though. He plays Paul so earnestly that you really feel bad for Paul, despite how much love his life is filled with, and how good of a person he truly is. And really, he is just so, so funny in the role. The way he reads Paul's campaign speech and delivers his prayer are just perfection. I love him in this role so much.
So 20 years have gone by and Election still stands out to me as an excellent comedy. That alone is a really difficult achievement for any movie, being as humor and taste are constantly shifting. But the fact that its theme of self-deception as survival resonates so loudly in 2019 is what is really remarkable about this, in my opinion. In the age of the internet and outrage culture, to be reminded that everyone is on a very personal journey and our own finger-wagging could just as easily be directed back at us is a powerful thing. And one that I'm still ruminating on as I write this, trying to decide if this is even how I want to end this piece. But it does seem fitting, to try and deliver my honest perspective on this movie and how it reflects our times, while knowing full-well that my perspective is as much bullshit as anyone else's.