Election – Alexander Payne finds his stride. (Film Review)
Riding on the success of Citizen Ruth, the writing team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, and the film making success of director Alexander Payne, editor Kevin Trent and cinematographer James Glennon continues three years later with the arrival of the great film, Election, arguably both teams best work, most certainly one of Alexander Payne’s “big three”, and one of the best high school flicks ever made, brought to the attention of the film going public when New Yorker film critic David Denby called it the best film of 1999. This is an astonishing declaration when you consider rivals for this title included The Matrix, American Beauty, The Sixth Sense and that other teen romp flick, American Pie – not that I necessarily think those films are in the same league with Election. In retrospect, it was a good call, because if Alexander Payne does anything well, he does timeless well, and except for some high-waisted jeans and a the odd paring of said attire with early days Nike sneakers, his films do stand up to an almost twenty years-on scrutiny, without any sense of the weight of time hanging over them. It seems the success of Citizen Ruth knocked the self-consciousness out of Payne, and we see here the start of many of the familiar Payne tropes that will be heavily explored in subsequent films, including the directors relationship to location, complex father relationships, the unpleasant male protagonist, the subverted moralising, male sexual escapism and character driven narrative.
Without wanting to sound like a broken record, again Payne’s biggest problem in Election is his difficulty with females acting out of their own agency. He and Taylor have no problem with the concept as caricature as exemplified in Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) but by far the most interesting character in Election, and probably the most interesting character in most teen flicks, is Tammy Metzler (Jessica Campbell) who is like this teaser beacon of a promise that never comes. She is the most underdeveloped character in the film and her very interesting narrative peters out into a vapid nothingness that leaves us searching the background crowds for a glimpse of her. Half in the closet, she is late to the plot, but when she arrives Payne and Taylor give her the best moment of the film when she addresses the school in her election speech which comes out of no where and leaves the school obviously flailing about in the very same problem Payne and Taylor have about what to do with this articulate young female they seem to have accidentally created. Like a hot potato Tammy will be bounced from authority figure to authority figure untill she is literally ordered to “get thee to a nunnery” where she finds a large group of promiscuous gay girls and lives happily ever after.
Like the conspicuous by their absence cliché, Payne reveals his biggest problems through his avoidance of it. The jewel in the crowning achievement of Election is the Tracy Flick character, superbly played by Reece Witherspoon who brings a very strident fetish-style sexuality to a prudish and proper young political opportunist who is initially disliked by her ethics and governance teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick who is also so good that I forgot he was Ferris Buller, something that rarely happens I’m sorry to say) simply for being bright, self projecting, and openly ambitious. Part of what makes Tracy Flick such a well written character is the impossibility of her reality, as opposed to Tammy Metzler who fades into obscurity because she could actually exist, and the brilliant performance of Reece Witherspoon in what will work out to be the first of several of these vibrant female performances earning Payne’s films supporting actresses award nominations, including this particular year when June Squibb is up for an academy gong.
However, on the journey through the Alexander Payne films, one notes that Election is a transition film, definitely moving away from this problematical female voice to the easier and therefore supposedly richer voice of the male protagonist, as from Election forward all the women will now act as sounding-board, victims or mirrors for the male protagonist or his side kick. Despite the success of the Tracy Flick character, the Tammy Metzlers will all get to a nunnery and the writing team of Payne and Taylor will now settle into some, admittedly, fine statements about the nature of solipsistic men and their transformative crash landing into the consequences of their actions. Election brings to the fore some of the future complaints about Payne, in that he takes characters he doesn’t like and plonks them in horrible situations that they are forced to deal with, the general gist of this argument being Payne thinks he’s so much better than his protagonists, and perhaps that is true, though far stronger a statement can be made that this man we see embodied in Jim McAllister, but we will see him in the next two films also, is Payne, or more likely Taylor’s alter ego and the shadow he wants to torment into submission. This shows up in the treatment of females as victims, and the moral subtext of Payne’s work which judges his males to be found wanting, although in the case of Election, both Jim and Tracy are pretty horrible characters – but then Tracy Flick isn’t possibly real and Jim McAllister is impossibly real. To be fair, his male protagonists must be found wanting because they are too unpleasant to get away unscathed, despite his obvious (and our subsequent) warmth toward them.
Election was filmed in New York, Washington and Omaha, but once in Omaha local landmarks are used and treated as in jokes, something that the Nebraska born Payne will now include in all his work, culminating in an eventual fascination with his characters and their relationship to their environment. Cinematographer James Glennon works with Payne again, and again he washes the film in a greyness that perfectly balances the ugliness in Payne’s characters, providing a pairing with Payne and editor Kevin Trent that will continue through About Schmidt and end with Glannon’s too early death in 2006.