Who Cares About Student Council?
For me the key difference between Citizen Ruth and Election is that the main character in Election is someone the educated audience for these small-scale movies, which are both smart and smart-alecky, can identify with. Election is about a student council presidential race in an Omaha high school, and is narrated in turn by Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), the history and civics teacher who oversees the student government, and the three candidates. At first there’s only one candidate, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), because Tracy has been working up to the presidency so resolutely that kids in the school feel it belongs to her. Besides, who cares about student council? The situation changes, however, because Mr. M., as the students call him, can’t stand Tracy, for two reasons, one of them odd for a teacher. Mr. M. thinks of himself as a born educator, someone who loves instilling knowledge and wisdom in young people, but Tracy gets to him precisely because she always raises her hand. She fires it up like a rocket, in fact, and when he doesn’t call on her, casting around the room saying, "Anybody?" but meaning "Anybody but Tracy?" she pulses her raised arm, pushing her mask-like face forward with determination. (She’s simultaneously patient and impatient.) When Mr. M. relents and calls on her, Tracy begins to acquit herself reasonably well of a difficult question: the difference between ethics and morals.
This question is apt for both Tracy and Mr. M., but he thinks the irony runs only against Tracy because of the other reason he doesn’t like her, which is that she had an affair with his best friend, a math teacher at the school, that ended disastrously for everyone except Tracy. (The aftermath will take Mr. M. down eventually.) After Mr. M. calls on her and she begins talking, the movie freezes on an unflattering shot of Tracy while Mr. M. continues narrating. This still is funny in itself, but there’s a weird split in it that would be easy to miss. Seeing an ugly shot of Tracy is what makes you laugh, perhaps remembering eager beavers like her you’ve been in classes with. (Or perhaps you yourself were, or are, one.) But it’s expressionism in character: that’s how Tracy’s character looks to Mr. M. The freeze frame is thus a snapshot of the teacher’s failure of generosity and the entire movie shows us how Mr. M.’s character looks to the moviemakers. When the bell rings and Mr. M. interrupts Tracy to dismiss class, she picks up on his hostility and naturally resents it. But she has a way of assuaging herself, by pitying this man stuck in a small-time job in Omaha, teaching the same material year after year, while she will go on to a more exciting life in Washington, by such means as the presidency of the student council, both symbol of, and reward for, the diligence with which she’s overcome her class disadvantage.
Mr. M. decides to block Tracy’s presidential aspirations by convincing an ingenuous lunk of a jock, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to run against her. Paul is more popular than Tracy and stands a good chance, though not for a good reason with respect to student government, as Tracy points out. The race becomes more complicated when Paul’s younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) enters the election. She’s just had her first, excruciating, lesbian relationship, and the object of her desire, Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), has panicked. To prove to herself and Tammy that she’s not "like" Tammy, Lisa has started going out with Paul. Tammy, who’s not popular, decides to get back at them in her turn by running for president. Her campaign is the most interesting because she alone doesn’t pretend that a high school student council presidency is worth winning. Her revenge becomes more generally disruptive by showing the entire process up as a joke.
Mr. M. sees what’s unpleasantly nuggety about Tracy, but he doesn’t see the extent to which his own narration doesn’t gibe with what we observe about him. When describing his marriage, for instance, he says that he and his wife Diane were "closer than ever" after nine years of marriage; the movie shows the two of them masticating in silence at the dinner table. When Diane asks him if anything’s wrong, he says, "No, no ... just, you know ... school." There’s something blandly unconvincing about Mr. M.’s idealistic view of himself, and Broderick is spectacular as a man who doesn’t understand that his actions don’t evince adult self-awareness.
Along the same lines, he and Diane spend a lot of time with Linda, the ex-wife of the math teacher who was fired over his affair with Tracy, and the camera catches Mr. M. watching her ass and looking down her cleavage, though he says to "us": "I began to see what an incredibly sensitive and giving person she was." Driving back alone with Linda from the mall, he half-jokingly suggests they check into a motel and she says, "That’s not funny." When he gets home he complains to Diane, his "best friend," "Linda’s great, but she can be a little bit much sometimes." Self-deception thus merges with deceit. When Mr. M. finally does have sex with Linda, in her living room one morning before school while her infant son looks on from his playpen, Mr. M. says, "For the first time in years I felt free and alive." There’s a parodistic cut to him as an Italian movie star from a ’60s movie driving a sports car and waving to the girls he passes. Textually you think back to how recently he had told us that he and Diane were closer than ever.
This classic form of blindness extends to Tracy. Diane wants to have a baby but is having difficulty conceiving. She’s so determined in bed, repeatedly urging Mr. M. to "fill her up," that he can barely struggle his way to orgasm. (It probably doesn’t help that once he’s cum she praises him like a coach: "Good job!") One night they try it doggie-style, and on the back of his wife’s head Mr. M. first sees Linda’s face, and then Tracy’s, talking dirty in the same dogged tone she always uses, and he shoots. Mr. M., a man who keeps his porno tapes under the false bottom of a chest in the basement, never has rational access to that layer of consciousness.
Matthew Broderick: Perfectly Flawed
It’s an asset to Broderick as Mr. M. that the boyish prodigy is still visible inside the actor’s now thicker body and wearier face. When Broderick plays into what seems like his own basic decency, he can get doughy, both in a comedy like The Cable Guy, in which he’s off-puttingly nervous-neuter, and in a high-market specialty drama like Infinity. He needs to play against his nice-boy face, and Mr. M.’s self-righteousness, critically observed, works for him in Election as it did in Family Business, in which he held his own with Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman. As Mr. M., Broderick is superficially amiable and dedicated, but bottled up, his words and actions surprisingly unavailing to make him what he says he already is, a devoted educator. It isn’t just a mismatch between Mr. M.’s narration and what we see him do, but also the mismatch between the formulaic expressions he uses when talking to Tracy (which owe something to the dialogue of Fargo, I would guess) and the variety of feelings, from contempt to fear, that we can read in his bright bird eyes when he says them. Broderick is especially good at miming what those expressions reveal by concealing.
Broderick pulls off something very difficult, and rare, in a comedy, which is to get us to identify with a character with an anti-comic flaw. He’s a nice guy, but in a strained situation he lacks sympathy and a sense of proportion. (His underhandedness would play differently if he were a student himself running against Tracy.) In Tom Perrotta’s 1998 source novel Mr. M. says of his speech to Paul to get him to run for president, "I didn’t bullshit him about service to school or any of that. As faculty advisor to the Student Government Association, no one knew better than me that the post of President was entirely ceremonial," 1 but in the movie he does bullshit him, with an inane chalkboard illustration of apples and oranges. In both novel and movie Mr. M. has pettily lost sight of the thing that makes the movie jokily appealing to audiences: it’s only a high school election. Altogether, Mr. M. is full of platitudes about teaching and his marriage but can be as unresistingly me-first as Tracy, only in ways he thinks show his commitment, his passion, even his moral superiority.
That it’s only a student council election has the ambiguous quality of the mock heroic that you also see in the bowling competitions in Kingpin. Are we laughing at the campaign machine Tracy gets going--posters and buttons and customized cupcakes, all of which she makes herself--because she’s carrying on as if she were running for president of the country, or does she represent a larger absurdity that takes in the superheated hucksterism of national politics as well? It may not be decidable, and perhaps what’s important is the opportunity it provides for comedy. (Just as it was in the sublime 1976 movie Nasty Habits, adapted from Muriel Sparke’s novel The Abbess of Crewe, which transposed the Watergate scandal to a convent and featured Glenda Jackson as an archly sophisticated and paranoid nun--she’s like Bea Lillie as Nixon, though Jackson brings more bulldog than poodle to the mix--who engineers her election as mother superior.)
Election goes for comedy, certainly, and in adapting the book the moviemakers have redesigned Tracy’s character as a much funnier caricature. In the book we have access to her ambivalence about her looks and body and sexuality, and about her ambitions and means of achieving them (she refers to "the embarrassing but necessary task of self-promotion" 2 ). At the assembly where the candidates deliver their speeches, Tracy’s inflammatory red dress that shows off her much-admired "caboose" in the novel gives way to a sweater set, plaid skirt, and putty-colored wool tights, her voluntary school uniform. In the book Tracy is more believable as someone you might have gone to high school with, and definitely as a girl who would have an affair with a teacher. The movie’s Tracy has a few vestigial moments of introspection, in which she says she wasn’t a sexual victim of the teacher who lost his job, that she misses talking to him, that she has no friends and is lonely. The problem isn’t that you can’t believe that Tracy, the born campaigner, would feel these things, but that they’re in a different stylistic mode from the rest of her character. In the movie Tracy as candidate is the imp of whatever the opposite of "perverse" is. She’s not meant to be a complete character, but an allegorical figure of ambition. The movie makes her look and move and speak to match Mr. M.’s melodramatic vision of her.
Reese Witherspoon: The Trap
This is great for Reese Witherspoon, whose natural comic mug combines the pertness of a Barbie doll with the perkiness of a troll doll and does exactly what she wants it to. (Payne has said of Witherspoon, "I swear her eyebrows are individually wired." 3 ) With her habit of retracting her lips as if to press the wrinkles out of them, her mechanical wading bird walk, and her piping, invariably upbeat voice, Witherspoon has a teen version of Madeline Kahn’s mad caricatural mastery, which helps because Tracy is intent about everything (except sex). Witherspoon even makes her own tininess and Tracy’s asexuality comic attributes. Despite the fierce unity of her performance as Tracy you feel that Witherspoon could become grand some day if she found directors and scripts that put the clutch in and let her roll. (Which means she’ll have to avoid extruded-plastic products like Legally Blonde and wet firecrackers like Sweet Home Alabama). But Payne is definitely about control, and his stylization of Tracy, crayoned firmly within the lines with Witherspoon’s expert help, makes sense in working a major stylistic change from the novel.
Mr. M. is a fuller character, one, unlike Ruth, whose crisis and blindness might accurately reflect our own. In this way Tracy serves as a trap for the movie’s audience. Payne and Taylor make a sport of catching out unwary liberals who are liable to identify too readily with the figures ostensibly most like them. That’s the reason for having Ruth stay first with the pro-lifers: it lulls the audience into thinking the movie is anti-anti-abortion, thereby making the satire of the feminists that follows that much more shocking.
Both Citizen Ruth and Election are meant to be disorienting experiences. If you see Tracy as Mr. M. does--of course, in the movie you can’t help it--and if you’re hoping she’ll lose, then you’re making Mr. M.’s disastrously fatuous mistake of taking the election too seriously. In the novel Mr. M. refers to his own "easy, unthinking faith" in his own "good judgment and moral integrity," 4 and, by reducing Tracy to a lampoon figure of ambition, Payne wickedly lures the educated audience into unthinking identification with that unthinking faith.
This is not to say that Mr. M. is the only fool in the movie. Election is as much a total satire as Citizen Ruth and with a high school election as the setting the material is just sitting on the vine, waiting to be gathered. You see it in the assembly at which the three candidates speak. Tracy goes first, giving a concerned, "impassioned" speech quoting Thoreau and promising to make the students’ days at school more productive. She’s heckled by the students, and you can’t blame them. Paul draws cheers when he steps up to speak, but then reads his speech hunched over the mike without inflection, pausing for breaths at unnatural points in the syntax. When he’s done he looks up expectantly, but everyone is too stupefied to respond.
Unpopular Tammy gets the least applause initially and is heckled before she starts, but, having nothing to lose, she turns the situation around, and certainly comes off best. Her speech, snottily accurate about the futility of the enterprise, opens with the line, "Who cares about this stupid election?" When she promises to dismantle the student government, the students roar and begin chanting her name. Tammy, whose darting eyes and rosebud smirk suggest that this round-cheeked child is tasting power for the first time, steps back to the mike to work it like a rock star, topping herself with, "Or, don’t vote for me! Who cares? Don’t vote at all!" which brings the crowd to their feet. This speech, and Campbell’s delivery of it, are classics of adolescent impudence--insight driven by resentment that produces nothing beyond the moment.
Tammy, however, doesn’t make it as far as the election. The weekend before, Tracy emerges from the yearbook office to find that one corner of the poster she put up in response to Tammy’s speech (WHO CARES? I DO! VOTE TRACY!) has come unstuck. We know from the first shots of her, opening the legs of a card table and wrapping tape around a pen to gather nomination signatures before anyone else is in the school building, that Tracy is a compulsive perfectionist. So it’s not surprising when she accidentally falls while attempting to restick the poster and tears it through that her mental seams would come unstitched. All her rancor comes out--over Paul, the rich kid who hangs out with friends after school in the parking lot by the big silver truck his father gave him while Tracy sits alone on the bus, and over the teacher who put him up to running for "her" office--and she rips down all of Paul’s posters. This fit leaves her panting, every curler-perfect hair out of place, her hands spotted with blood. Furtive as a criminal and carrying a garbage bag she herself would easily fit into, she disposes of the evidence in a dumpster by the power plant that Tammy regularly sits and watches while contemplating life.
It falls to Mr. M. to investigate the destruction of Paul’s posters. Assuming Tracy is guilty, he makes both a tactical and moral (ethical?) error by straying beyond the business at hand to suggest to Tracy the lessons he thinks she should have learned from her close brush with sexual scandal. (You know it’s going to be a mistake because he himself brings the subject up by saying, "This isn’t the time or the place to get into it ... ".) It’s a moral error in that he’s come to school that day fresh from his adulterous tryst with Linda. The tactical error may be greater, however, because Tracy is quite able to defend herself. As soon as Mr. M. goes beyond the subject of the posters Tracy asks, "Why are you lecturing me?" (The logic is inescapable: since she has not yet been found guilty of destroying the posters a lecture isn’t appropriate.) Mr. M. is less sensitive to the situation than Tracy, and entirely too sure of his position. He doesn’t actually refer to her affair with her former teacher in so many words, but this gives Tracy the ability to turn his own euphemistic language about "a certain former colleague" against him.
She first uses similar phrasing, and then gains the upper hand by abandoning it, referring to "certain older people, like you and your colleague," in a way that almost parodistically makes clear how absurdly ineffective Mr. M.’s moral posturing is. Tracy sounds more like an adult, if a ruthless one, when she says that the teacher who fell in love with her acted like a baby, makes passing reference to Mr. M.’s own difficulties in getting his wife pregnant, and refuses to talk any further without a lawyer. She’s meant to be menacing, but frankly you’d rather have her negotiating for you than Mr. M. who, with all his unexamined, supposed good intentions, is left gaping. It’s turns out to be especially pointless because Tammy, nursing a plan of her own, confesses to destroying the posters, which she has recovered and brought in as damning proof. Suspended earlier for her rabble-rousing speech, Tammy is now expelled.
Later the same day, after his talk with Tracy, the "born educator" will give his class a pop quiz so that he can leave the room to make arrangements at a motel where he hopes to continue carrying on with Linda after school lets out. Linda stands him up at the motel, and when he goes to her house to find her he’s stung by a bee on the eyelid, adding injury to insult. Eventually he does find her, at his own house, where she’s gone to confess to Diane. Mr. M. withdraws without a scene, spends the night in his car, only to arrive at school on election day tired, cramped, dirty, and in pain from the sting on his eyelid which is now swollen shut. (Tracy sees him and says, "Looks like you could use a cupcake!") While showering at school he bitterly mimics his students’ demands for As and recommendations, and then spends the day leaving recriminating phone messages for Linda, only to get through to her and have her accuse him of taking advantage of her. So when it comes time for him to do the second, corroborative vote count for the presidency he’s been pushed irrevocably in the direction of his flaws.
While counting he happens to spot Tracy, who has sneaked up on his classroom, urged one of the student marshals to signal to her the outcome, and begun jumping up and down in uncontainable triumph. This sight turns Mr. M.’s dislike of Tracy into a cuckoo mission: "Who knew how high she would climb in life? How many people would suffer because of her? I had to stop her. Now." Paul, his chosen candidate, would have won if he hadn’t suddenly felt self-conscious about voting for himself and so marked his ballot for Tracy, who bests him by a single vote. Mr. M. attempts to override destiny by crumpling two ballots and declaring Paul the winner.
The worst you can objectively say of Tracy is that she tears down Paul’s posters in a snit resulting from an accident, and then that she takes an out she knows to be false, and really plays it up, when Tammy, for reasons of her own, confesses. Mr. M.’s action, on the other hand, and not even taking into consideration his attempt at adultery, is patently objectionable from the outset, intentional and malicious mischief. Anti-democratic, even, to answer in terms of his overstatement of Tracy’s threat.
The shot of Tracy jumping up and down when she thinks she’s won the election is tricky. There’s a similar shot in Citizen Ruth when the pro-lifers announce the $15,000 they’ve raised for Ruth. Inside the pro-abortion safe house the activists watch the live news report on TV and can’t immediately grasp that the shot of their own house with Ruth leaping and crowing in joy in front of it means that she is no longer in the room with them, much less beside them in their ideological battle. Though Tracy and Ruth span the spectrum of character--one has been reduced to a single trait, the other is irreducible--they both express their enthusiasm in a physical way more than anyone else in either movie shows over anything else that happens. Tracy is meant to bug us as she bugs Mr. M., but if you fail to perceive Mr. M.’s humorlessness and meanness in swiping the election from her, then you’re missing the reason the makers want you to identify with him at all.
In this sense, Payne and Taylor’s movie version of Election offers satire at its most salutarily uncomfortable. The aim of this kind of irony is to expose vice and improve people’s behavior by holding a mirror up to them that they can’t look into with self-love. To be effective, then, a minimal requirement would seem to be that the target of the satire within the work be a likely member of the work’s target audience. Otherwise, far from combating complacency, it would promote it, as I think movies like Bob Roberts and Wag the Dog, and Dr. Strangelove before them, do.
Which is to say that I like the wholesomely puritanical aspect of satire: making fun of others as a mode of self-examination. Do I do these foolish things? Do I do them in these objectionable ways for these suspect reasons? Do I kid myself that I’m not doing them or that it’s okay when I do them? I like it because if we don’t keep this stern headmistress eye on ourselves, then Life, where is thy sting? When satire succeeds to this end you could say that it has more power to work an effect in the world than almost all political art.
Curses: The Problem of Satire
As Robert C. Elliott demonstrated in his classic study of the genre, The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art, satire grew out of curses, which were held to be supernaturally effective. 5 "The principal belief ... is that satire kills (or at least causes death), that magical power inheres in the denunciatory and derisive words of a poet whose function is to blame as well as to praise." 6 Early in western civilization such "invective [could be] attached to a feeling of moral mission; the satirist ... [was] ... concerned with punishing vice." 7 Further, in the Irish tradition the magical effect of satiric curses had a judicial function. That is, curses might be effective against the poet’s victim only if they were just; if not, they were effective against the poet himself. 8 In numerous cultures, satire, often in the form of insult matches, functions as adjudication itself. 9
Once satire has moved from the realm of public ritual to art, and people no longer believe in its magical effectiveness, you have to wonder on what basis it is considered effective. Sensitivity to ridicule is one possibility, but then what gives the satirist his authority? The authority has to be assumed by the author, and he often sets it up within the work either in the guise of a figure who shares his outlook, or as the moral stance implied by the behavior being satirized, its opposite, in essence (referred to elsewhere as the satiric norm). 10
This isn’t the case with total satire, such as Citizen Ruth, where the opposing sides of a public battle are pitted against each other in such a way that the sum is zero, and the protagonist is a null, unconscious figure of irony, who wins out by bilking Harlan, the least self-deceiving character in the movie. (If Ruth hadn’t been able to sucker him, Harlan might otherwise have served as a norm, though one so unglamorous as to cauterize self-flattery.) But the lack of a norm does tie in to another aspect of satire that Elliott points out, which is that many of the great satirists (he names Aristophanes, Juvenal, and Swift) are rationally anti-intellectual. 11
In Citizen Ruth, the ideas of the pro-choice group are travestied in a way the Christians’ beliefs (as opposed to their medical information) generally are not, and in Election the high-minded teacher is blinder than the monomaniac student he abhors, and ineffectual to boot. I would guess that Payne and Taylor come in on the ideological spectrum closer to the pro-abortion people (anti-abortionists strike me as far less likely to make a non-committal comedy on the subject) and to Mr. M., so in a sense there’s something irresponsible about the way they excoriate the liberals who are so undiscriminating in their slogans and actions in these movies. But what’s salutary merges with what’s irresponsible, in a way arguably necessary for this kind of irony to work as comedy.
The satirist himself is slipperier than his guise as a puritanical counselor suggests, after all. He’s a joker, a trickster. So Payne’s rebuff to an interviewer asking for his stand on abortion, "I won’t answer.... I think it takes fun away. I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of the movie," 12 can be taken to support my point. Payne shows the split in the figure of the satirist: he’s both a force of morality (more effective for audience members who can identify with the butts of the satire) and a scary guy with a barbed tongue who knows your secrets and is exposing them to ridicule as the evening’s entertainment. This is especially true with a total satirist, who has not made the commitment of putting a figure representing the deviated-from norm in the work.
Election is total satire, which because it doesn’t propose a clean, unobjectionable alternative point-of-view, overlaps with the more reticent form of irony. Many reviewers have overstated the satire of Tracy as critique. (Especially dubious in that the ambition she represents must be healthily present in any working journalist--those jobs don’t just fall to the self-effacing.) There’s no question the movie makes fun of her, but it makes fun of everybody. (Payne has said of the characters in Election, "They’re all so sad.... That’s how I feel about people in general. I love them but I hate them." 13 )
It’s quite consistent in the way all four narrators’ comments are ironically undermined. Tammy’s narration, for instance, begins with a statement as unaware as Mr. M.’s: "It’s not like I’m a lesbian or anything. I’m attracted to the person. It’s just that all the people I’ve ever been attracted to happen to be girls." Tracy has an even more self-subverting speech in which she claims not to be upset when Paul enters the race, but what she’s saying, and the way her voice tightens and gets louder as she says it, gives her away. Like Mr. M., she also speaks in platitudes, confiding of the affair with her teacher, for instance, that he was the first person who saw "the real me." Paul is the most innocent character, assuring God in his bedtime prayer, "I guess I wanna win an’ all, but I know that’s totally up to you." But innocence doesn’t protect you from a satirist: Paul is so dumb and sweet, his voice constantly expressing disbelief in the bounty of life and the generosity of Mr. M., that you laugh every time you see him. (He may also set you dreaming; at times the young, non-professional actor Chris Klein has the most beautiful clouded gaze since Jessica Lange.)
The movie undercuts the characters’ narration with visual as well as verbal cues, but some of this fast-shuffling though ironic isn’t really satiric. For instance, when Mr. M. has been caught falsifying the election returns and his misdemeanor becomes a national human interest item, we see an animated illustration of waves radiating from a transmitting tower on a map of Nebraska. When he then relocates to New York, we see stock footage of the city from the 1970s. Payne’s range thus includes a sophomoric humor-magazine resourcefulness. The only cheap jokes that don’t work are the times Tracy accuses "subversive elements" in the school for the destruction of the posters and then later thanks God for showing His "divine hand" in disqualifying Tammy from the election. Tracy and her mother are probably meant to be Republicans, as if we all know what that means. (What it means here is a throwback to what it meant in the ’50s and ’60s.) It’s the one form of smugness in the movie.
Otherwise, the movie laughs pointedly at all the characters for their self deception. Still, Mr. M. is unaware at more levels, with repercussions that don’t fall on him alone, and he’s supposed to be the adult in charge anyway. In the last scene, he informs us of the last time he saw Tracy, when he was a tourist in D.C. and spotted her getting into a limousine with a Republican representative from Nebraska. What he says--
I suddenly realized I wasn’t angry at her anymore. I just felt sorry for her. I mean, when I think about my new life and all the exciting things I’m doing. And then I think about what her life must be like, probably still getting up at five in the morning to pursue her pathetic little dreams. It just makes me sad. I mean, where is she really trying to get to anyway? And what is she doing in that limo? Who the fuck does she think she is?
--matches what Tracy said about him when leaving his class after he rudely cut her off in the middle of her answer about morals and ethics. We know he’s still acting like a kid because this speech, meant to convince us he’s gotten over Tracy, winds him up so tight he throws his milkshake at her limo as it pulls away. The clincher comes in the last scene when we see him in his new job as in-house educator at the Museum of Natural History. He asks a group of children the difference between igneous and sedimentary rock and a little girl fires her hand up, and Mr. M. reacts the same way he had reacted in class to Tracy. He just can’t help himself.
The movie is nothing if not purposeful in herding its audience into an unflattering identification with Mr. M., but there is a little more freedom than that suggests. Tammy, for example, is the only person in the movie who could be considered on Payne and Taylor’s "side" with respect to the unimportance of the election, and the only character besides Tracy who knows how to get what she wants. True, the moviemakers show that her lesbian crushes on girls are as shampoo-commercial "romantic" as any straight girl’s fantasies about boys. Even the tinges of masochism attending Tammy’s sexual awakening, for instance, spying on Lisa and Paul’s tryst, are shot for comedy. But then this is a fabulously dippy mode of assimilation for a gay character.
All the same, Tracy is a more likely character than Tammy for gay audience identification. Gay men often identify in a campy way with bad girls and villainesses and "other" women:
Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz,
Ann Blyth in
Agnes Moorehead in Dark Passage,
Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed,
Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind,
Cruella DeVil in 101 Dalmatians,
Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,
Eleanor Parker in The Sound of Music. McCormack as the schoolgirl who uses her Mary Jane as a lethal weapon to get a school prize out of the hands of the little boy who won it, is especially analogous to cutthroat, just-so Tracy.
This may be why it’s dicey for a comedy to seek this effect directly, because the pleasure for the audience comes from identifying with these characters against the grain of the movie, and, implicitly, the social values the movie reflects. (That is, intentional camp can be harder to achieve than unintentional camp. For unintentional camp, all you need to have is no talent, to quote the stripper Tessie Tura in
Gypsy.) John Waters has done it in
Female Trouble and
Serial Mom, but he has a truly low insouciance.
(In Female Trouble Divine plays a mean teen who does her parents in with the tree when they don’t give her cha-cha heels for Christmas.) It didn’t work in Gus Van Sant’s
To Die For, the premise of which is close to the story of
Leave Her to Heaven, another camp classic featuring a gay anti-heroine. Like Gene Tierney in that picture, Nicole Kidman is supposed to be a bad paperdoll because she doesn’t want to have her husband’s child. (She says it would ruin her figure--the bitch.) All she wants is to be a newscaster, to see her little face on the little screen.
Kidman turns to the camera as if it were the last mirror she were seeing before a hot date, but she doesn’t have enough high, or low, style to rouse the audience, either for or against her. The movie seems to think it’s stylishly ironic, but with a vacuum at the center, the only thing it has to fall back on is satire of media culture. The point that media fame is a shallow goal is really too lame for satire; it’s more like tongue-clucking, editorializing. And since we’re supposed to like Illeana Douglas as the incorruptible sister-in-law who asks that the camera be turned off her when she’s overcome by emotion, the movie actually reverts to the Gene Tierney-Jeanne Crain, bad girl-nice girl opposition from Leave Her to Heaven. How did an openly gay director, a "stylist," make such a fundamentally priggish comedy? I’d love to watch To Die For with John Waters, who wears his amateurishness as a badge, and throw Milk-Duds at the screen.
Election allows a minority constituency to side with Tracy without rejecting the movie. Which is something because its satire is certainly unified. To make us examine ourselves as it intends it has to close out other possible routes of identification, and can do so only if it persuasively arrogates to itself the authority to do so. By contrast, American Beauty is a satire set in suburbia in which the makers do not persuasively assume this authority.
When moviemakers distinguish between the characters they subject to ridicule and those they shield from it, in American Beauty as in Network, you want to look into their motives. In American Beauty the script’s sinister, corrosive view of the mother and the macho-military neighbor is highly suspect, though not arbitrary. Especially next to the soft-pedaling of the teenaged drug dealer/voyeur/video artist and of the father who quits his job, lives off his wife, smokes pot, and thinks longingly back to his teen years flipping burgers. It’s perfect that we first see the father masturbating; the movie is completely given over to a valorization of adolescent boyhood. It even implies that when the teen lovers run off to New York they’re going to have a fulfilling existence. (Not as video artists, surely, unless, among his other attainments, the boy is a crack legal secretary. At least if they deal drugs they might be able to afford a decent-sized apartment.)
American Beauty is one of those mess-ups where the best performance, Annette Bening’s, is at loggerheads with the movie’s view of her. She turns the hard shellack on the character, meant to show how uptight and shallow she is, to her advantage as a comic actress. (Kevin Spacey, on the other hand, starts out tough and ironic and then gets lax, gooey.) It’s a miracle the movie didn’t defeat Bening with its web of unexamined ideological postures, which critics and educated audiences seem to have experienced as poetic. But the postures are in themselves just arty updated versions of moldy liberal chestnuts.
Why is the wife who resents her husband’s crisis made such a bitch that she can’t even be "understood"? Her crime is materialism and caring about appearances. The movie sets it up so that it seems that Spacey and Bening can either have good sex only while spilling beer on the furniture, which she won’t have, or not at all. And how could people not resent the manipulative device of making the boy’s military father a repressed homosexual who kills when he can’t deny his sexual impulses? It creates a major problem of dramatic construction, since nothing in Kevin Spacey’s character is completed by being murdered by a homosexual. It’s also funny how little difference it makes in melodrama when a latent homosexual, as opposed to a flaming homosexual, is the killer. It still functions as kinky sensationalism, but the moviemakers can imagine they’re promoting mental health. The only thing I liked besides Bening was the video of the trash whirlwind. 14 Though far from startling as video art, it works as a prescribable med for T.S. Eliot’s depressive view of modern life as detritus in The Waste Land. 15
Election, by contrast, almost always knows where its foot will fall next, and it’s different enough from Perrotta’s novel that Payne and Taylor had to achieve this sureness independently. They took from the novel the alternation of narrators and the satire of the teacher led astray by drives he doesn’t entirely grasp. Otherwise, however, the book is more realistic, the movie more stylized. The movie’s look is brightly enameled, the camera angles blatantly parodistic (the camera rises up over the candidates when they pray at bedtime the night before the election), the intercutting in time and among the narrators explosively crisp (the verbal shock cut that tells us about Tracy’s sexual escapade has the impact of a choice Mad Lib fill-in). It’s a great-looking, ultra-snappy, totally deliberate movie. There are no free molecules of oxygen floating around, they’ve all been consumed in the kiln that fired this object.
Which is to say that though Payne probably identifies with Mr. M., he surely directs more like Tracy would. One result is that the movie’s exaggerated comic style accentuates the way the novel sets up the female characters Tracy, Lisa, and Linda as sirens leading both straight men and lesbians onto the rocks. (And since they’re by no means conventional movie temptresses you can’t even spot the trouble coming at you.) Still, I prefer Payne’s cartoon to Perrotta’s realism. Perrotta’s four teenaged narrators sound too writerly, especially Paul ("the boredom thickening until it came to seem like a climate, the weather we lived in until the bell rang" 16 ).
What I like about the movie’s deliberateness is that Payne doesn’t think of realism as the mandatory style. The characters are more extreme: Paul dumber but even sweeter; Tammy more dopily romantic and more successful (she doesn’t have to learn the dreary lesson about romantic expectations that she learns in the novel); Lisa a spoiler with no vocation for politics; Tracy an allegorical figure of ambition. And the movie adds the bees that sting Mr. M. on the eye and refashions the janitor who turns in the crumpled ballots, both of which function as mythological figures, of punishment and fate. Satire is the umbrella mode, but the means are surprisingly assorted and Payne moves with unnoticed ease among them.
Payne’s direction improved notably between Citizen Ruth and Election. The earlier movie is confident in its grasp of the set-up but in the second half the editing lags behind the beat and exposes the awkward staging. There is at times an amateurish lack of medium surrounding the characters, and even such veteran performers as Mary Kay Place, Swoosie Kurtz (astutely given a role within a role), and Burt Reynolds can’t entirely provide it. (There’s plenty of fruit cocktail but not quite enough Jell-O.) By time he directed Election Payne had upped his comic use of the medium to whipcrack precision. You can’t ever ignore the skill, or his intentions in deploying it, but the movie performs its tricks like the best-trained pony in the circus.
- I didn’t bullshit him: Perrotta 7. (return to text)
- the embarrassing: Perrotta 88. (return to text)
- I swear her eyebrows: Smith 49. (return to text)
- easy, unthinking faith: Perrotta 35. (return to text)
- curses: Elliott 8. (return to text)
- The principal belief: Elliott 47. (return to text)
- moral mission: Elliott 11. (return to text)
- Irish tradition: Elliott 42. (return to text)
- adjudication: Elliott 69-77. (return to text)
- sets it up within the work: Elliott 110-11. (return to text)
- rationally anti-intellectual: Elliott 109. (return to text)
- I won’t answer: Boyar. (return to text)
- They’re all so sad: Payne, Spencer interview. (return to text)
- Maria DiBattista informed me that this video work owes an unacknowledged debt to Nathaniel Dorsky's 1998 avant-garde silent short Variations. For his comments on the borrowing, see Dorsky's interview. (return to text)
- George Axelrod’s 1966 Lord Love a Duck, starring Tuesday Weld, Roddy McDowall, Lola Albright, and Ruth Gordon, is entirely preferable to American Beauty in getting into the poetic-grotesque semi-dream world that American teens enter on their parents’ heels. You can’t really assert that it’s a better-made movie; it truly seems as if it had been conceived and shot when Axelrod was only half awake. (And his subconscious isn't all surrealist inspiration--it’s junk and treasures, like at a yard sale.) Lord Love a Duck, however, unlike American Beauty, is a mess finding its way, an exploratory mess, rather than a mess that exploits a ready audience’s prejudices. (return to text)
- the boredom: Perrotta 5. (return to text)