Election [1999)

Life really sucks sometimes.

You try to do the right thing.

You try to do a good thing.

And you mess up somehow.

Films, then, are a great comfort when they can show us lives more fucked up than our own.

I must say early on:  this is a great film!

A great, great film!

Maybe I heard about it long ago.

In one ear and out the other.

And what brought me to visit this piece of cinema at this particular time?

That is a long, complex story which (mercifully) pales in comparison to the misadventures presented in Election.

Alexander Payne turned in a masterpiece here.

He had approximately the resources which a Nicholas Ray would have had.

And, presumably, the same pressures to somehow connect with teen audiences.

But make no mistake (as our woeful president is so wont to repeat):  Election is an extremely smart film.

Matthew Broderick is stellar as high school teacher Jim McAllister.

Reese Witherspoon is really damned good in this flick as well.

It’s a comedy, but there are tears.

There are a couple of actors who really bring this one home with their small roles.

Mark Harelik is essential to the story.

He plays a poor, pathetic bastard who’s hopelessly clueless.  I can relate.

Dave Novotny (Harelik) really sets things in motion.

Truth be told, all of the characters in this film make poor choices.

That’s what makes it real.

It’s hard to judge some of these people.  Any of these people.  All of them.

That’s what director Payne makes so masterfully clear.

What’s the difference between ethics and morals?

The first to answer might have the least idea.

Election is very much a film about America.

Payne uses a trite camera trick to express something truly sublime.

Dolly up.  Way up.  Crane shot.  God perspective.  Hearing the selfish prayers of a motley bunch.

Most lovable is Jessica Campbell.  She is the lesbian rebel whose short-lived student government campaign parallels that of Monty Brewster’s “None of the Above” run in Brewster’s Millions (1985).

Campbell’s character Tammy has a soul.  She is the gem of this picture.

But we see so much true soul from Matthew Broderick as well (and true acting talent).

In case you were wondering, only Chris Klein’s prayer rings true.  It’s hilarious.  But it has heart.

Klein’s initial campaign speech is a coup of non-acting.  Frankly brilliant!

And, as I intimated earlier, even Witherspoon has soul.

Her character might be ostensibly soulless, but it’s there.

Sitting on the school bus.  And crying before a Valium and milk.

Ms. Witherspoon is brilliant as the villain.

But she’s only the villain because the story is told from the perspective of Broderick’s character (more or less).

The narrative voiceover must have really been en vogue in 1999 (the same year as the whisper-happy American Beauty).

And though these films be seemingly ignorant of the master of the medium (whisper king Jean-Luc Godard), they are still cinema.

I would venture to guess that Election is the better of the two films (or at least the one most able to handle the scrutiny of accolades).

Which is to say, Election might not be a terribly well-known film, but it deserves to be widely seen and appreciated.

 

-PD

Jamaica Inn [1939)

This film is even more disgusting than Psycho.  Disgust.  Fear.  Anxiety.  Moral ambiguity.

This is what made Hitchcock great.  Like Dostoyevsky, Hitchcock brought to life those personages who were between good and evil.

In the words of Henry Miller, “They were alive and they spoke to me.”

Authors.  Real authors.  Blood and guts authors.  Authors who left everything on the page.  Every shred of emotion.

Samuel Fuller would have been proud of such authors.

We must remember Fuller’s cameo from Pierrot le Fou.  His words are instructive:

“Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion.”

And though Hitchcock was perhaps the greatest film auteur to ever live, we must not neglect the source material.

Though auteur theory would argue otherwise, it was indeed Daphne du Maurier who concocted this perfect story.

And, as another affront to the politique des auteurs, we must acknowledge that this film would be far less powerful were it not for the all-world talents of actors Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.

For those wishing a parallel to Ian Fleming’s Dr. No (set in Jamaica), this film has absolutely nothing to do with Jamaica.

Jamaica Inn is merely the name of the roadside lodging in this period piece set in 1819 Cornwall.

But like a good James Bond film, a believable villain makes all the difference in sustaining the dramatic tension.

Laughton is just that villain.

Though Jamaica Inn is not as powerful and iconic as Hitchcock’s The Birds, it is (in my opinion) a strong competitor against his film Rebecca.  And why focus on these three films exclusively?  Because they were all from du Maurier stories.

What is more, I would argue that Jamaica Inn is every bit as good as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).  Why that comparison?  Because it featured the same duo (in the same year):  Laughton and O’Hara.

As for O’Hara, this was for all practical purposes her true film debut (in a starring role while assuming the screen name with which she would become famous).  For all of my effusive praising of Saoirse Ronan, it should be noted that Maureen O’Hara was a sort of Irish prototype for the panache Ronan would bring to the screen these many years later.

But nothing tops Laughton here.  Hitchcock was still honing his skills towards a mature style.  Laughton creates a character both laughable and hideous.  It is not the visceral aversion of the Hunchback, but rather an elite, condescending, corrupt local squire (and justice of the peace).  Laughton is the law.  He relishes his position as he savors his victuals.

Life and simulation.  In real life, Laughton fought for O’Hara…insisting she be given the lead role (and her first, as noted earlier).

It should be noted that past critics have eviscerated this film.  Let it be noted that their pretensions are largely unfounded.

-PD