Recounting Election

22 Oct 2013: Election (DVD, 1999, Alexander Payne)

For a film that basically hates every one of its conniving, corrupt or brainless characters, this is surprisingly entertaining – but, nowadays, after having read my Rosenbaum and watched much more of the cinematic repertoire, this makes me more suspicious and critical than purely appreciative. On the surface the story might appear to be some scathing indictment of politics and society that skewers popularity and elections at all levels of America, and for a few minutes, after the dark horse candidate makes an unexpected speech shattering the charade to a standing ovation at a school assembly, it really feels like that. Shortly thereafter, this character’s radicalism fizzles – it was never really there, of course – as she takes the opportunity to get expelled (and thus disqualified) to better slake her unconventional sexual impulses elsewhere, and the vote winnows down to a familiar contest between the stupid “regular” guy and the unscrupulous high-achiever. Presiding over this are teachers who sleep with students, principals unconcerned with principles, and an adulterer who lectures on ethics and morality while devoid of either himself, creating a misanthropic cornucopia of Midwestern anytown Americana very similar to that found throughout the work of the Coen brothers. But something about the popularity and enjoyability of these films doesn’t add up. In this case, we are invited to expect, identify and empathize with (and even laugh about) the very “sins” (statutory rape, voter fraud, adultery) we are supposed to condemn when we read about them in the news, granted a spectator’s superiority that looks down upon everybody as decadent, pathetic (as well as immoral and unethical) beings unlike ourselves. The secret is that there are actually no people at all onscreen, only types refined over decades of American cinema and television into shorthand figures, their particular neuroses and dishonesties broadcast to us by means of cynical voiceovers. In essence, then, every character is a sort of straw man written to win the story’s argument: no one in real life behaves as transparently or as miserably or as cheaply motivated as those in the movie do, but they are constructed thus to make their downfalls or dubious successes more easily palatable (and probably laugh-out-loud funny) to the broadest audience. Everyone is insulted and dragged down – i.e. the filmmakers “do not take sides” – hence anyone can enjoy it, for the technique is about as good as can be expected (ever-stretching pulleyed-camera shots, quickly edited facial close-ups when the shit publicly hits the fan for the main character) from this sort of mainstream material. But this enjoyment likely comes at a spiritual cost, or already represents a spiritual sell-out.

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