' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting the Opening Scene of Election

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Dissecting the Opening Scene of Election

Though I generally appreciate A.O. Scott, film critic at The New York Times, his piece a few weeks back supposedly detailing What America Gets Wrong About Tracy Flick left me more than a bit baffled. He writes: “The movie has been persistently and egregiously misunderstood, and I count myself among the many admirers who got it wrong. Because somehow I didn’t remember — or didn’t see — what has been right there onscreen the whole time. Which is that Mr. M is a monster — a distillation of human moral squalor with few equals in modern American cinema — and that Tracy Flick is the heroine who bravely, if imperfectly, resists his efforts to destroy her. She’s not Moby-Dick to his Ahab so much as Jean Valjean to his Inspector Javert.”


In 1999 I was pretty much at the peak of my idiot young white maleness, and while there were myriad things undoubtedly passing me by, as they do with idiot young white males, Matthew Broderick’s Social Studies teacher Jim McAllister being the villain of “Election” despite being its most predominant character did not pass me by. I saw that pretty clearly. And so I found myself revisiting the title sequence to “Election”, which has always been one of my favorite opening scenes, because, as I remembered it, Mr. McCallister’s impending monstrousness was semi-evident straight away.

Maybe I’m misremembering, but I have prominent echoic memories of lawn sprinklers, which seemed to be a frequent sound in my small town Middle-West, and why I have always thought it was pretty ingenious of Alexander Payne to use that sound in his very first shot and skewer it by using it to symbolize Mr. McAllister’s brewing sexual frustration.

From there we segue into a brief montage of Mr. McAllister’s morning exercise routine. And maybe it’s just that, a morning exercise routine, or maybe it’s like that scene in “Shame” when Michael Fassbender has to go for the nighttime run to clear his mind.

The shot of him showering is set up for later when he goes off the deep end, unable to cleanse the sin from his body-

-but I’ve always especially loved this shot getting ready for the work day in gym locker room, the small dimensions of the teenage bathroom casting a harsh light on the smallness of his own existence.

This is how we meet Tracy, not by seeing her but by seeing her yanking out all the legs of a card table, shown in a series of quick insert shots where Payne and his sound design team accentuate the cacophonous thwack of each one, which is as effective an introduction to her insistent personality as any line of dialogue.

And then we see these clipboards from above, to collect signatures to become eligible to run for student body president, cluing us into the film’s overriding dramatic arc.

Back to Mr. M-

-as he enters the teacher cafeteria and takes out his lunch-

-and opens the refrigerator to stow it.

Alas, there he is confronted by this, mounds of trash standing in stark contrast to the clear lines of Tracy’s card table.

So Mr. M sets his lunch back on the counter-

-examines the refuse-

-and goes about pitching it. And as he does, you can see in the background where a custodial cart begins moving into the view-

-and reveals the Custodian who pauses.

He pauses just in time to see Mr. M try to toss away some leftover Chinese food only to miss the trash can and wind up on the floor.

And Loren Nelson, playing the Custodian, in his small moment on screen, invests that one look with the miserable weight of every high school janitor who has frittered away his days here on Earth cleaning up thousands of inconsiderate messes just like this one.

Then, he moves on. And while this is setting up Mr. M’s eventual downfall much later in the movie, it is also setting up a moment just around the corner.

Because then we cut back to Tracy, finally seeing her in profile-

-as the camera pulls back to show her sitting at the table, aspiring presidential candidate.

Ah, and so we come to this shot. And this is the shot I was thinking of while reading Scott’s piece. Because this is a horror movie shot. Not so much for us, necessarily, because the angle makes us omniscient, but seemingly for Mr. M who is destined to be startled by Tracy, tucked deliberately behind that brick wall.

That, though, is not quite what happens. As he moves past the corner, he seems to sense her, and he turns to face her before she speaks, erasing the seemingly inevitable Tracy-Makes-Mr.-M-Jump Scare. And when he then comments about how she’s not wasting any time getting started on the presidential race-

-and she mentions the ol’ early-bird-and-the-worm idiom-

-Mr. M responds with this face. Oh, this face. Broderick has long excelled at the slightest turns of the emotional dial and here he takes a pleased smile, goes one click to the right, and instead ends on positively classic condescending smirk.

Then he directs that smirk at Tracy’s poster on the wall like he wants to rip that thing right the hell down.

Then he turns and walks away, clearly carrying whatever pent-up animosity he has toward Tracy in his very air.

But as he does, he notices a piece of trash on the floor, stops, picks it up-

-and throws it away, turning to look at her as he does, right after, of course, he has left that Chinese food sitting there on the kitchen floor. He does not care about the trash mucking up the hallway, in other words, but to be seen caring about it, demonstrating in a flash the performative priggishness that will eventually run aground on the rocks of his own arrogance.

**Bonus Cut**

A couple shots later we see the front page of the newspaper that Mr. M is reading, establishing place (Omaha) and undoubtedly the blood pressure trouble Mr. M suffers in relation to Tracy. But also...how about that “Starship Troopers” stock photo up top? Holla if ya hear me, 1997!

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