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What America Gets Wrong About Tracy Flick

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A.O. Scott has a convincing take on the movie Election:

Even if you’ve never seen “Election,” Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy about high school politics run amok, you probably know something about Tracy Flick. She is, after all, a pop-culture archetype. In the 20 years since the movie, adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta, was released to critical praise and disappointing ticket sales, Tracy’s name has become a synonym for relentless drive and obnoxious self-confidence. Her image — sending her hand skyward in class when she knows the answer, which is always; passing out cupcakes frosted with her own name; haranguing her schoolmates at Carver High to “Pick Flick” for student body president — has been immortalized in countless memes. Reese Witherspoon may have gone on to win an Oscar and run with the mean moms on “Big Little Lies,” but Tracy remains (along with Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde”) her defining role.

Even if you have seen “Election,” you may have trouble remembering the name of Tracy’s antagonist, the social studies teacher played by Matthew Broderick. “Jim McAllister” rings no particular pop-cultural bells. The guy is too bland, too ordinary in both his virtues and his shortcomings, to stand as an archetype of anything. He lingers in the collective memory as Tracy’s foil, a flawed fellow whose modest aspirations and pathetic lapses are all but obliterated by the locomotive of her ambition.

It’s not that anyone thinks of Mr. M — as his students call him — as the hero of the story. Just as Reese Witherspoon’s perkiness scores a few points in Tracy’s favor, so does Broderick’s affability make it hard to hate Jim. This was even truer in 1999, when we knew him primarily as Ferris Bueller, the voice of Simba in “The Lion King” and the kid who saved the world from nuclear destruction by playing tic-tac-toe with a computer. How can you not root for this guy, even if he makes some pretty outrageous mistakes?

That’s more or less how I remembered “Election” until I watched it again recently, and 20 years of accumulated criticism suggests that I’m not alone. Here I should issue a spoiler warning, both for readers who haven’t seen “Election” — who should stop reading and stream it right now — and for those who think they know what it’s all about: 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.

But it’s trickier than that, because the movie’s moral structure is hidden. Maybe the apt literary analogy is to Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” — a narrator whose vileness is camouflaged by self-delusion and charm. “Lolita” invites misreading in a way that puts the reader’s soul at risk, and “Election” poses a similar test for its audience. How despicably does a man have to behave before he forfeits our sympathy? How much does a woman — a teenage girl — have to suffer before she earns it? The results, as enshrined in Tracy’s status as a near-universal object of contempt (and Mr. M’s as an afterthought) aren’t especially edifying. Nor are they surprising.

A recent article by Charles Bramesco in The Guardian affirms the conventional wisdom about how “smug and annoying” Tracy is, and cites the fact that she ultimately goes to work for a Republican congressman as further proof of her “unslakable thirst for power.” Pieces published during the 2016 presidential campaign emphasized Tracy’s similarity to Hillary Clinton, rarely in ways that complimented either one.

But let’s review the tape. One of the very first things we learn about Tracy Flick is a graphically sexual description of her anatomy, offered by Jim’s colleague, Dave Novotny. Dave’s words, delivered straight to the camera, come out of nowhere, one of a number of jarring plot transitions and tonal shifts that Payne throws in to keep us alert and off balance.

Jim fills in the tawdry back story for the audience, detailing what most accounts of the movie characterize as an affair between a student and a teacher. Really, though, it’s a textbook case of predatory grooming. Dave undermines Tracy’s self-esteem and separates her from her peers by telling her how lonely she seems to him, and offering himself as a special friend, someone who understands her in a way nobody else can. He swears her to secrecy, takes her to his house, puts “Three Times a Lady” on the stereo and drags her into the bedroom. Right before that happens, she’s shown sitting on his sofa sipping root beer from a can, her posture and facial expressions decidedly childlike.

The consequences of Dave’s transgression — he’s fired from his teaching job, divorced by his wife and exiled from the modern-day Eden of Omaha, Neb. — leave Jim in an uncomfortable spot. His festering grudge against Tracy grows from his unstated, unmistakable conviction that she ruined Dave’s life and made his own less fulfilling. The loss of his best friend is one of a series of grievances lurking behind Jim’s cheerful Midwestern demeanor. His self-pity is the engine that drives the plot.

Disgusted by Tracy’s apparently uncontested path to the presidency — she wants the job, takes it seriously and is willing to work hard to get it — Jim recruits Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Paul, a popular football player sidelined by a skiing injury, might be a worthier target for his teacher’s scorn than Tracy, but that’s not how the world works.

Even though he’s not all that bright or studious, Paul has the air of a born winner. He’s a jock, the son of a wealthy businessman and, it’s important to note, a genuinely nice person. Tracy, in contrast, is a striver, the only daughter of a single mother who works as a paralegal and has raised Tracy in a regimen of up-by-the-bootstraps positive thinking. More often than not, a mediocrity like Jim will choose privilege over merit, even as he persuades himself he’s doing the opposite — leveling the playing field, giving everyone a fair shot and a free choice, upholding the principles of democracy.

What he does, by the end, goes far beyond meddling, and also beyond the confines of the campaign. Jim, who is married, pursues an affair with Dave’s ex-wife, Linda, using some of the same passive-aggressive pickup-artist tactics with her that Dave did with Tracy. When Tracy wins the election — there’s an asterisk here that I’ll return to shortly — Jim destroys the ballot that would have given her a one-vote victory over Paul, reversing the outcome. (And also, curiously enough, canceling his protégé’s vote, since Paul didn’t feel right about checking the box next to his own name.)

What precipitates this final, outrageous act of cheating isn’t any fresh treachery on Tracy’s part. Jim, humiliated by Linda and nursing a bee sting on his eyelid, is pushed over the edge by Tracy’s pure and spontaneous expression of joy. She peeks into the room where the ballots are being tallied and gets a discreet thumbs-up from one of the student counters. The sight of her jumping up and down in the hall — having fought hard and won fairly, the way you’re supposed to — is too much for Jim to bear.

To be sure, that kind of gloating, even when nobody seems to be watching, isn’t the best etiquette. And Tracy isn’t perfect. She can play hardball in a way that seems a little intense for high school. We know that after accidentally damaging one of her campaign posters, she lost control and tore them all down, covering up her rampage and letting someone else take the fall for it.

Still, when measured against Mr. M’s sins, Tracy’s peccadilloes look pretty trivial. Or so “Election” tells us, whether or not we absorb the lesson. A recurring theme — first explored in Mr. M’s class — is the difference between ethics and morals. The distinction is fuzzy in most of the characters’ minds, but Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, hone it to a very sharp point. Some of what Tracy does is surely unethical. But Jim McAllister is thoroughly immoral.

Does anybody care? When “Election” was first released, it was recognized as a clever satire of American life. Twenty years later, the satire, and the political allegory, seem much darker and deeper. Maybe this is because the movie has been misunderstood for so long. Or maybe it springs from of a deeper set of misunderstandings and collective delusions.

More than Perrotta’s novel, which highlights Tracy’s sexual agency in the whole Dave Novotny business, Payne’s film exposes the casual misogyny baked into the structures of civic and scholastic life. But two years after what was then commonly called the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the public was perhaps disinclined to see it that way. Nor, a year before the Florida recount and Bush vs. Gore, was anyone prepared to listen to Payne and Taylor’s prescient warnings about the fragility of democratic norms or to acknowledge their diagnosis of the rot afflicting the whole system.

When he first presses Paul to throw his hat into the ring against Tracy, Mr. M offers up a pretty weak defense of democracy, belaboring a shaky metaphor about apples and oranges and freedom of choice. Paul buys the idea even though he’s unable to decide on a favorite fruit of his own. Since he’s accustomed to getting what he wants — sex, friends, attention — before he even knows he wants it, he doesn’t have much stake in a system designed to allocate imaginary goods. But he’s happy to go along with it.

For Tracy, though, the stakes are utterly real — her identity and her future depend on succeeding in every competition she enters — and her faith in the system is correspondingly fervent. She has made herself (with her mother’s encouragement) into the living embodiment of everything we say we value, in ordinary citizens as well as in our leaders. She cares. She participates. She works hard. She refuses to see herself as a victim. She’s everything America celebrates in theory and, as often as not, despises in practice.

The truth — here comes that asterisk — is that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. And I’m going to rewatch the movie.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2019 at 6:39 pm

Cool-looking chess set

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This set appears in the opening scene of the movie The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and it’s quite striking, as you see. And it’s not terribly pricey, especially if you live in the UK.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 July 2019 at 11:40 am

10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki

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Hayao Myazaki’s animated films are amazing and wonderful. This four-part documentary shows their creation. Scroll down on this page.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2019 at 5:17 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Christopher Walken’s great dance scene in “Pennies from Heaven”

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Christopher Walken started as a professional dancer, I believe. He certainly knows the moves:

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2019 at 6:42 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Wow! This looks like a movie to see!

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From One Green Planet, by Sharon Vega:

More than a year ago, James Cameron’s Game Changers was announced. It’s an exciting documentary directed by Oscar winner Louie Psihoyos about some of the strongest and fastest athletes in the world, who credit much of their strength and health to their plant-based diets! Well now the official trailer is out, and so is the global premiere date.

The producers of this movie include more big names than just Cameron: Jackie Chan, Chris Paul, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, and Arnold Schwarzenegger who is also seen in the trailer explaining what made him begin eating plant-based.

As the athletes are heard saying in the trailer, protein is always the biggest concern when it comes to eating meat-free. But some of the world’s strongest animals and people have proven that meat is not necessary at all to be strong. They reference oxen and gladiators as two examples. Not only do the athletes say eating plant-based keeps them stronger than ever, but their health has benefitted tremendously.

The documentary will go into detail about how their cholesterol and blood pressure levels have improved since eating plant-based. And for athletes, even more importantly, their performance has been better than ever.

On September 16, there will be a one-night global theatrical event and tickets are already available for purchase. Over 1,000 theaters will be screening the Game Changers. You can also enter to win tickets for the red carpet premiere in Hollywood.

For more Vegan Food, Health, Recipe, Animal, and Life content published daily, don’t forget to subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter!

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Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2019 at 6:37 pm

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with

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The BBC has an amazing production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring John Hannah and Maxine Peake. The link is to the streaming version, so if you have Amazon Prime, do watch it. Wow! It’s also on, in case you subscribe to that.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 June 2019 at 8:09 am

Posted in Movies & TV

Darkfall and Fresh Vetiver

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I really like Declaration Grooming’s Icarus formulation:

Stearic Acid, Water, Castor Oil, Avocado Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Mango Seed Butter, Potassium Hydroxide, Sodium Hydroxide, Fragrance, Bison Tallow, Lamb Tallow, Colloidal Oatmeal, Goat’s Milk, Lanolin, Bentonite Clay, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hippophae Rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn) Fruit Extract, Salix Alba L. (White Willow) Bark Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Tetrasodium EDTA, Tussah Silk

Darkfall was a seasonal soap that came out in autumn 2018. t’s currently out of stock but may return. The comment at Maggard Razors at the link:

Darkfall is a spicy oriental designed to capture the spirit of fall in the rural south.  Agarwood, amber, and benzoin provide a deep, warm base for the cinnamon and clove top notes.  Birch tar adds a slight smokiness that represents the ever-present smell of burning leaves that heralds the arrival of fall in Georgia.

It’s a very nice soap, and I easily got a fine lather with the RazoRock Bruce brush, not even having to add water despite the Bentonite clay the soap contains.

Three passes with Fine’s Marvel razor (here mounted on a bronze UFO handle) left my face perfectly smooth and ready for the splash of Fine’s Fresh Vetiver. A very nice beginning to the day.

Last month I switched to a vegan diet, which I’m finding quite enjoyable. (I really like to enjoy my pursuits.) I mention that (a) because I’m liking it so much and (b) to demonstrate that one can have a vegan diet without embracing the full vegan idea: note the soap ingredients in boldface above: not a vegan formula. But the vegan diet is great. Watch Forks Over Knives on Netflix for some reasons.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 June 2019 at 7:47 am

Posted in Food, Movies & TV, Shaving

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