30.8.20

Swimming Pool

The final scene in this film completely recontextualises everything we have observed prior to it. Basically, it was all a dream – and that can feel trite and unsatisfying, except it opens up rather than closes down the ambiguities of Charlotte Rampling's character. The film is a slow burn, with the first part setting up how solitary and self-contained Sarah Morton can be, her habit of eating yogurt and sugar echoing the auto-erotic nature of Travis Bickle eating mayonnaise out of a jar. 

The fabrication of Julie may be spurred by the arrival of a real Julia, but we only get to see what Sarah invents, which is a character through which she can dig into her own desire for affirmation from her distant, condescending publisher. By imagining a surrogate daughter with her own issues of abandonment, Sarah comes to recognise her own lack of personal and artistic fulfillment, repressed by the demands of churning out rote but popular detective novels.

The swimming pool is an obvious symbol of this imaginative flowering – slowly being uncovered, cleaned up and then inhabited by Sarah's muse Julie. Julie's sexualisation may hint at a repressed homosexuality in Sarah, but may just as much be down to the envy the old harbour for the beauty and freedom of the young. Through Julie, Sarah relives her own experiences during the sexually liberated swinging sixties. She is a conduit through which Sarah can explore her desire for the men around her – young, old, beautiful and ugly.

Julie concocts a murder in a strange reflection of Sarah's own sexual jealousy, but when confronted she says she did it for the good of Sarah's book. This is a retreat into the comforts of the genre Sarah is familiar with, which distance her from her actual personal tribulations. But instead of uncovering the murder, Sarah covers it up – she's no longer the detective but the criminal. She becomes an actor rather than the observer of events.

The film's blending of these ambiguous personal reevaluations with the trappings of a Hitchcock-style thriller plot goes to the heart of Sarah's ambivalence about her work – the demands of her audience and industry for sex, violence and murder set against the artistic demands for self-expression and earnest communication. Through Sarah, Ozon is laying bare his own anxieties about himself as a creator and filmmaker.

Swimming Pool may ultimately be an argument for the primacy of self-expression – it is the symbol of Sarah's imaginative emancipation and the title of her book. But at its best, the film shows how the demands of art and audience are not actually in conflict. Sarah is at her most prolific – furiously typing away with a cigarette drooping out of her mouth – when she becomes besotted with her invented daughter and her mysteries. We also understand Sarah better as a result of seeing the violent and sexual urges that underpin her creativity. Ozon's project may be to unearth the personal desires and frustrations that give birth to our collective storytelling conventions.

22.8.20

Deus Ex

The premise of the game is that all conspiracy theories are true, and the idea is treated with more seriousness than it probably deserves. Conspiracies are the product of a need to believe the world is less chaotic than it appears, where evil isn't random but has some shadowy force directing it. They are a mirror image of theodicies – instead of justifying the ways of a benevolent God to man, they explain how suffering and injustice are all the work of a great Satan.

Deus Ex is also a cyberpunk game, and it's at its most interesting when that sensibility interacts with the quasi-religious nature of conspiracist thinking. Towards the end of the game, the player comes across an AI called Morpheus, who plants the idea that the omniscient machines mankind has created are strivings towards godhood. The all-seeing AIs being assembled by these secret societies will appease people's desire for judgement, which in the past was provided by gods and governments. The villain of the story wants to merge with one of these AIs, become a god and rule the world. However the player decides to deal with him, it remains the case that as long as this technology exists, the temptation will be there to place it at the top of the pyramid and complete the conspiracy. Chance will be eliminated but so will human agency. Everything will be decided and directed for us by an authority we have made and must (perhaps willingly) submit to. Technology will finally allow Hobbes's Leviathan to be built. 

The player has a choice at the end of the game – to replace the villain and lend greater benevolence to the AI's decisions, or to blow it up and cause a collapse in global information networks, which will return humanity to a dark age but will guarantee freedom from the machines. Both are extreme scenarios – opposing poles in the D&D lawful-chaotic alignment spectrum. The middle path is probably the least favoured by the game – kill the villain but not allow the AI to rule the world either. Instead power will revert back to a more benign secret society, but the hierarchies that structure the world will endure. Instead of revolution or destruction, there is incremental improvement tempered by the dangers associated with the fallibility of human government. But at least this outcome shores up the benefits of civilisation while protecting a modicum of human freedom.

These grand questions of political philosophy are sidebars for most of the game – occurring in stilted dialogue exchanges which are optional and entirely skippable. What's more impressive is the way Deus Ex integrates moral questions into the gameplay. This is confined to the first third of the game before the big reveal that the peacekeeping organisation you are working for is just a front for the bad guys. But that dawning "are we the baddies?" realisation leads to the sort of conflicted feelings that are difficult to find in other games. Your boss and your fellow agents want you to kill the terrorists, but your idealist brother pressures you to be a policeman rather than a soldier and use your riot prod, pepper spray and baton, which merely knock enemies unconscious. In the very first level, you start overhearing conversations between the terrorists that humanise their struggle and make you feel bad about murdering their brethren.

There is no mechanical difference between a dead or an unconscious enemy. But how you approach the first missions in the game will draw contrasting reactions from NPCs – some praising you for wiping out terrorist scum and others disappointed by your bloodthirsty nature. An intriguing detail in RPS's recent oral history of the game's development is that human enemies were designed to run after taking a certain amount of damage, with the player getting to decide whether to finish them off for good or let them flee (there is no mechanical difference between the two that I could see). Deus Ex forces a conflict between the demands of the shooter genre to clear the map and the moral status of the player if they follow through with those prompts. It's a game that urges you to question everything, including yourself.

At least at the beginning. Once the conspiracy is revealed the incentive to play non-lethally is massively watered down, and I ended up mowing down hordes of MJ12 goons pretty much as soon as they became the default enemy. A little bit of nuance is applied very late in the game, where you meet a father who disowns his son for enlisting with the group, and you get the sense that for some people joining the bad guys is just materially easier than resisting them. But these moments of doubt and discomfort are few and far between.

Instead the game devolves into a supremely accomplished stealth shooter where you work your way across a series of secret bases to fulfil different objectives radioed to you by a variety of handlers. It all starts to bleed together and would get tedious if the level design wasn't so uniformly excellent. The role-playing element in the game is muted – JC Denton's dialogue won't change much depending on the choices you make. However, the player has a spectrum of options and choices in approaching a situation. Every level may have the same start and end-point, but there is never only one way to get from one to the other, and there's a great deal of care put into ensuring that sneaking is always as much of an option as fighting.

Moreover, the game rewards you for exploring it – you get experience not from killing more enemies but uncovering hidden areas of the map, and valuable augmentations that improve your build are only found by being on the lookout for them. Rigorous devotion to mission objectives won't reveal the full richness of the game. This was uppermost in the priorities of the designers, who aimed for about 30% of the content to be unique to each playthrough. There are emotional as well as mechanical rewards – fewer of your friends die if you are meticulous about following up every lead. Your trusty pilot only survives if you take the time to investigate a plot to blow up his helicopter. A merchant who provides you with some decent weapons upgrades won't be killed if you take a detour to warn him of an incoming raid.

The game is 20 years old and there's some wear and tear. The AI can be a little silly, with troopers blithely ignoring fallen comrades while doing their rounds. Alarms don't count for as much as you would think. It's very easy to die, particularly when you start having to go against bots and cyborgs. That said, the difficulty curve is pretty satisfying once you understand the basics, and I never had to attempt an encounter more than three or four times before working out a way through. The graphics (if you care about such things) are ugly, and I had to do a little bit of fiddling to make the game bright enough to play properly. But these wrinkles don't detract from the overall experience of playing the game. And at its best – in the first third and in the final stretch – the moral and political dilemmas you face are like nothing else in gaming.

3.8.20

Girlhood (Band of Girls)

A case study used to illuminate the intersecting restrictions race, class and gender place on young people, and for me the gender dynamics feel the most well-observed. The film starts off with a celebration of female physical prowess and solidarity on a sports field, and then contrasts that with the way the chattering girls fall silent as they walk back to their estate and encounter the boys idling outside. As usual, Sciamma's male characters are an external source of menace which the female characters have to navigate around, while still yearning for their recognition and approval. Men are black holes of attraction that are dangerous to go near.


The film makes an exception in the love interest for the main character Vic – who is pliant enough to let himself be sexualised by her, rather than the other way around. Their relationship is sweet, but it is conducted under the shadow of patriarchal assumptions, in which Vic's brother feels able to control and punish her sexual activity. At the end of the film, the boyfriend proposes marriage as a way for Vic to escape her reputation as a 'slut' and her life as a pusher for the local drug baron, which Vic is flattered by but ultimately turns down, perhaps because she sees marriage and children as another confinement and she wants to make her own way in the world. 


The film's portrayal of the girl gang Vic falls in with after dropping out of school feels almost anthropological. Its most famous scene is the girls dancing to Rihanna's 'Diamonds' – a bonding ritual that cements their friendship. Sciamma is an acute observer of the hierarchies that structure even these tight-knit groups. Lady is the alpha, but gets humiliated in a fight with another girl gang, which Vic avenges, but that then becomes a challenge to Lady's status. Lady draws in Vic by her ability to get noticed by boys, and also by gifts of clothes and a phone – huge status symbols for Vic, whose mother works a low-paying job and whose brother refuses to share the spoils from his criminal activity. Sciamma's detached stance is typical of her style, and also probably inevitable given that her personal background is very different from that of the characters in her film.

Girlhood ends with a beautiful piece of visual storytelling, in which Vic breaks down in sobs after deciding not to return to her family, and the camera keeps pushing in leaving her out of frame. Sciamma sets up the expectation that the film will end on this downbeat, but then at the last second Vic steps back into frame, with her tears gone and a determined look on her face. Despite losing everything – friends, family, boyfriend, income – the film suggests that she is resourceful enough to survive, and that we should admire her rather than simply condescend to pity her.

26.7.20

Fallout 2

A post-nuclear role-playing game, although it's not so much about the nasty, brutish and short life you live when civilisation is stripped away, as it is about the myriad ways civilisation can be reconstructed from the rubble. The game has a classic science fiction feel, in that it contains thought experiments about the alternative social and political structures that can emerge when the slate is wiped clean. The fun of the game is in how your choices impact the history of these different places. Your actions literally determine whether a town thrives or dies.

The best example is Vault City – which is the first big urban hub you come across. Its design is clearly inspired by the Athens of classical Greece. It's a democracy in the ancient rather than the modern sense, where citizens have an active role in government, but citizenship is tightly circumscribed (in the game the 'citizenship test' is almost impossible to pass), and there is a large slave population that have no rights whatsoever. Athenian democracy had a very well-developed sense of its own superiority, which the game embodies in the character of First Citizen Joanne Lynette, who quickly becomes hostile if you disparage Vault City's institutions. The city's distinctiveness is reinforced by a strongly held prejudice against the barbarians beyond its walls, who are perceived as sub-human. Through your actions, you can try to establish trading relationships with a neighbouring town populated by irradiated "ghouls", but you run the risk of empowering the city to expand and enslave the surrounding area, much like the armies of ancient Athens would do.


Other parts of Fallout 2 reference other bits of history. The mining town of Redding is caught between the lawless casino capital New Reno and the bland but stable New California Republic to the east. This is where the game gets closest to the western genre. You can swing the balance in favour of one or the other, and while the NCR may appear to be the better option, the game counter-weighs that by evoking a sense of the freedoms of the wild west. New Reno may pump the town full of drugs, but it has no police force, and in the clash of competing crime families a degree of independence can be maintained. It's a choice between the chaotic and lawful spectrum of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system – anarchism with all its dangers and liberties versus a safe but restricted life under the rule of law.

The game is sprawling not only geographically but tonally – mixing together poverty, drug addiction and prostitution alongside crass schoolboy humour, pop culture references and in-jokes. Different designers were responsible for different areas, which explains some of the inconsistencies. The game also had a tough deadline, which meant that a lot of areas have an unfinished feel, particularly the final city San Fransisco, which is full of empty containers and has an entire map of the docks with no content whatsoever. There are some irritating bugs as well, most notably with some of the endings, which didn't marry up to the decisions I made in the game itself.


The biggest problem with the game, however, is that the central narrative is weak, and doesn't provide enough motivation to push you through to the next area. The mystery of the Enclave isn't revealed until the very end of the game, and a lot of the time you are left wondering what to do and where to go next, with only the enticement of exploring a new area to keep you interested. Despite some attempts to interweave quests between cities, the game remains quite modular, and at several points I was tempted to drop off once I had completed the quests in a particular region. The main campaign in Baldur's Gate – a CRPG from the same era and studio – introduces the outlines of its conspiracy from the very start and is therefore much better at hooking you into the narrative. 

The Enclave itself presents a simple inversion, turning the remnants of the US government into a fascist secret society that has developed genocidal tendencies. The diverse cultures that have bubbled up on the west coast are perceived as irredeemably irradiated or mutated and therefore to be purged by an airborne virus to create living space for the only 'real' humans left on the planet. Not many games lead you to assassinate the President of the United States, but in doing so, you defend the rich variety emerging out of the wreckage of the apocalypse against the regime that caused it. But the game is subtle enough to include wrinkles in that victory – as factions like the Shi, NCR and Vault City have their own totalitarian tendencies.


Fallout 2's role-playing and combat systems are complex but robust, and there are few ways to break your build. That said, some skills and perks are definitely better than others, and as I wanted a relatively painless experience, I relied on a guide to get the most out of the game. There is a bewildering variety of weapons and ammo available, and the details of how armour works remained somewhat mysterious to me. That said, combat is very fun, particularly when you are at the very edge of being able to survive encounters, as I was when I faced the geckos in the Toxic Caves and the xenomorphs in the Redding mines. Money and experience pile up to ridiculous heights, and it was very satisfying to be able to mow down enemies that had previously given me nightmares with my endgame equipment. UX is awful, particularly the inventory, but you get used to it. Party NPCs are outside your direct control – which can lead to them doing ridiculous and infuriating things, but you can fiddle with their AI to get better results, so all-in-all the game is still very playable, and worth persevering with. Few RPGs give you so much scope to affect the world created around you.

6.7.20

Beetlejuice

The original script was much darker, and traces remain underneath the finished product's goofy slapstick. Keaton's Betelgeuse is a perv as well as a prankster – harassing Geena Davies at every opportunity and setting his sights on hooking up with an unwilling Winona Ryder, who is just a child. So lurking behind the cartoonish wedding ceremony, which provides the final moments of tension in the film, is the spectre of sexual violence and paedophilia.


That makes the film quite strange tonally. For the most part, it looks like Caspar the Friendly Ghost given the Tim Burton design treatment. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are wholesome, unadventurous nerds happiest when at home in their rural townhouse. The Deetz family are absurd caricatures of metropolitan bourgeois values, while their daughter is the most ridiculous goth on screen. There are little shadings of tragedy underneath the fairytale portrayal though. Baldwin and Davis's domestic bliss is marred by their inability to have children. Ryder finds her parents repulsive and considers suicide as a way to escape their clutches and join Baldwin and Davis in the afterlife.


If the film is about anything, it's about Ryder finding happiness in a surrogate all-American family structure that leaves her real parents compartmentalised in the attic – free of the responsibility of trying to understand or look after their daughter. In their way, they also find contentment – Charles finally escapes the rat race, and Delia pursues her hideous art projects as a form of private expression (much like Baldwin and his model-building). Betelgeuse is a degenerate wastrel completely alien to the small town middle class community Baldwin and Davis belong to, and the Deetz family join by rejecting their urban attachments and attitudes. While Burton's design sensibilities are outlandish and bizarre, his film is ultimately a tribute to conformism – championing the containment and domestication of deviant urges so that family and society are preserved.

19.6.20

Lady Bird

The intention behind the film was to make the equivalent of a Boyhood-style coming-of-age movie, but from a female perspective. Thankfully it doesn't stretch into three hours but is quite tightly edited. Scenes are like snapshots, with hard cuts moving you drastically forward in time before you can linger on how a moment develops or resolves. That makes for some discordant effects – Lady Bird and her mother are screaming at each other in one scene and then back on speaking terms the next. But I think that's to the film's purpose, which is to highlight the complexity of their relationship. This is encapsulated by an exchange towards the end of the film where Lady Bird gets her mother to admit that while she may love her daughter, she doesn't necessarily like her.


Although the film has an unvarnished style (Saoirse Ronan didn't want to cover up her acne with makeup, for example), there are still references to genre staples, although they are given a twist. There's the slightly less conventionally attractive best friend, but in one of the sweet moment in the film she becomes the prom date rather than the entitled, pretty dude in a band. And the traditional race for your love trope in an airport is not romantic but involves the mother realising that she wants to have a proper goodbye with her daughter, and it doesn't resolve as it normally would. These subversions show that real life isn't as neat and tidy as films make out, even if you sometimes need to use filmic short cuts to communicate meaning and emotion.


It's very good – and reminded me of stupid things I did when I was in school. It's a Bildungsroman in the style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where flight is necessary in order to develop as a creative and as a person, but that distance reinforces the impact of the place where you grew up. Joyce never stopped writing about Dublin even though all of his books were written in mainland Europe. Greta Gerwig seems to have the same conflicted feelings about Sacramento. In another pivotal scene, the ability to really observe her surroundings is reinterpreted as a kind of love. That applies as much to the mother-daughter relationship as it does to the city.

12.6.20

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

The cruel trick Bloodlines pulls is to make the thing you are pursuing, built up like the Ark in Raiders, into a meaningless McGuffin. Your boss doesn’t use his wealth and influence to achieve anything substantial but just has you chasing baubles. The most satisfying ending is therefore seeing how his dreams of world domination are subverted and destroyed, leading to the triumph of the Anarchs – a sect with barely any political organisation championing the dispersal of power.


Although you become a formidable vampire by the end, you are always a pawn, as some of your more mysterious emails testify. The chessmaster knows all the moves before the game starts, and the beginning tutorial with Smiling Jack takes on a new significance with that hindsight. The implication is that without his guidance you wouldn’t have made it out of Santa Monica, but he trains you up to be the perfect sleeper agent – one who doesn’t even know who is pulling the strings. And if you decide to become a prince yourself, you end up sharing the fate of your erstwhile employer. The game tempts you with power and punishes you if you seize it. 

It’s an interesting move to have the game telegraph the player’s lack of agency in this way. At the very beginning, a fortune-teller basically tells you what is going to happen, and if you play as a Malkavian (a vampire who sees the future at the cost of going mad) you get voices in your head revealing upcoming events. RPGs are supposed to be about player choice, but Bloodlines is acutely aware of the limits of that, not just in the game itself but in the format generally. You are never as free as you might wish. At some point, the game will find a way to railroad you to where you need to go. Bloodlines hangs a lantern on that manipulation. You are a puppet of the other characters in the game, and ultimately of the developers who made it.


It’s a vampire game, so it’s very sexy. But it’s also a noir set in LA, so the sex is sordid and gross, and the developers don’t quite distance themselves from the exploitative and objectifying nature of what they are portraying. The most glaring example of this is the cheat code for inflating the breasts of female character models to ludicrous proportions, but even without enabling the console, you have the optional fetch quests which reward you with nothing but risqué posters of the female characters in the game, literally reducing their complexity to two dimensions.

While you do spend a lot of time in porn shops and peep shows, and can observe blow jobs in alleys and lap dances in strip clubs, as a vampire you are nonetheless cut off from participating in the game’s sexual economy, at least in the normal 'human' way. Vampire society finds sex distasteful and vampires who have sex are perceived as degenerates. So although you can seduce girls in clubs or pay hookers, it’s not their bodies you get, but their blood. That has an interesting distancing effect from the seediness all around you. You move in a world where sex is available everywhere but for you it's mediated by a need to fuel your vampiric powers. In most playthroughs, you don't actually get to sleep with anyone. You are a bloodsucker, not a sybarite. You’re there to use people, not enjoy them.


Sexuality in Bloodlines is structured by the heterosexual male gaze and caters to the whims of the perceived audience for the game. But while the female characters may be designed with fan service in mind, the writing is strong enough to make them interesting nonetheless. A minor example is Velvet Velour, who may embody the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, but who is also very aware of how she is perceived and patronised by the people around her. If the player completes her side quests she will start emailing you bad romantic poetry, but in doing so she also comments on how her creativity might be dismissed because she is (or at least used to be) a sex-worker.

Therese and Jeanette are more complex, and this piece by Cara Ellison is a good articulation of how they represent the Madonna-whore complex, and how society rewards one and punishes the other. Even then, the game is quite clever in subverting this dynamic – showing that Jeanette’s voraciousness is ultimately a healthier expression of sexuality than her sister’s, which is the product of patriarchy in a really quite dark and disturbing way. The player can pick which character to save, or they can save both, in which case the sisters learn to manipulate their contrasting images and gain a new kind of interiority beneath the masks they wear. That outcome underlines the impossibility of building a self outside of the expectations of the world around you. The only freedom to be found is in understanding and mastering the roles you have learned, and discovering how to slip between them.


A still more fraught moral dilemma is presented by the fate of Heather Poe. Arguably the game fridges her to provide some extra motivation in taking down the Sabbat, but you could also read this as a way to actively punish the player for engaging in what is clearly a toxic relationship. Heather is your ghoul – a human dependent on your blood – and she becomes emotionally obsessed with you even if you treat her like dirt. The ickiest expression of her submissiveness is how the player (in another blatant bit of fan service) can tell her to change her outfits, either into to something "dark and gothy" or into her underwear. The ethical thing to do is to release Heather from her blood bond, not only because it removes her from danger but because it allows her to escape an unhealthy relationship that can easily turn into an abusive one. The twist is that mechanically the game rewards you for keeping her around – she drops out of college and gives you her money, she's a dependable source of blood, and finally just before her death she'll get you the best armour in the game. It's like you are being given a perfect girlfriend that gives you presents and does everything you say, but the game will kill her if you don't do the right thing and let her go to become her own person.


The writing and the characters are Bloodlines's strong suits. There are problems with the gameplay that are only partially addressed by the decades-long fan community project of fixing the game's bugs. Although missions were intended to allow for different playstyles (combat, stealth, social skills), in fact the game guides you towards using stealth in the middle portion of the game and combat at the end, and if your build isn't versatile you will struggle. I rolled as a gunslinging Toreador and found the majority of the game pretty well-balanced. I even had fun shooting my way through the Sabbat stronghold, although other players tend to experience it as a grind. Having the flamethrower made the fight with Andrei trivial (and enjoyably so) but the other boss fights were too much for me and I ended up partially cheating my way through them. Ming Xiao has far too much health, making the fight a tedious war of attrition, and the final fight on the rooftop had too many things going on at the same time for me to really try and engage with it. That said, given its reputation I found the game a lot more playable than I expected. Only the very final couple of missions were troublesome.


The game does better when it comes to environmental design. There is a justly famous haunted house level early on which remains a masterclass in how a game can freak you out – all the more impressive in that the ghost can't actually hurt you very much. A later level in what is effectively a private insane asylum also does a good job in building mood, while also serving as a character study for one of the vampire barons that you never actually end up meeting (the sound design for the level also purposefully drives you a little bit unhinged). The developers licenced an early version of Valve's Source engine to make the game, and it all still looks pretty great. The decision wasn't so much about taking advantage of the engine's physics as it was about utilising its unbeatable facial animation, which alongside some solid voice-acting makes a typical pitfall of action RPGs into a strength. The visuals are there to make interacting with the characters as immersive as possible. Those characters are ultimately what makes Bloodlines such a joy.

29.5.20

Water Lilies

Céline Sciamma's debut is shot in a minimalist, realist style, but there are occasional flourishes which reveal the influence of David Lynch. At the party at the end of the film, the boys from the swimming team have their trunks on their heads and are rowdily jumping around in slow motion. They are dehumanised – the film treating them as equivalent to a brood of xenomorphs on the prowl for female flesh. Meanwhile, the beautiful Floriane dances provocatively trying to grab their attention. Her beauty means she is constantly harassed by men, and she has been conditioned to accept her fate and respond to their advances, although she doesn't actually want to sleep with any of them. Both Floriane and the boy François (the mirrored names feel significant) end up using two younger girls for their own sexual purposes. Their influence is ultimately toxic, and the film reads like a warning against becoming a victim of your own adolescent sexual desires.


Events revolve around the swimming pool, where Floriane is the captain of a synchronised swimming team. The sport is physically demanding and the routines are impressive, but there is a rigidity to the beauty ideals it embodies. It requires a lot of work and a lot of make-up. The film closes with the two younger girls rekindling their friendship in the pool – they jump in with their clothes on and float peacefully together, revealing the film's title to be a metaphor for that end-state. The swimming pool becomes not a site of conquest and competition, but serenity and companionship away from the predatory nature of patriarchal heterosexual society.

22.5.20

Election

What is the motivation behind Jim McAllister's resentment of Tracy Flick? Surely a civics teacher would be delighted that one of his students takes such an interest in his subject, and is so driven to succeed. The answer isn't as simple as it might appear. Jim's own explanation is that Flick ruthlessness needs to be countered otherwise her life will be spent crushing the voices of the people around her, although that's based on a partial and unfair view of Flick's affair with his friend and colleague – which destroyed his career and marriage. The irony (in a film full of ironies) is that McAllister's intervention against Flick destroys his own career as well (his marriage he manages to destroy himself).


So there's something else going on as well – the resentment of a mentor who can see that his charge will go on to far greater success than he managed. He's just a civics teacher, but Flick will end up being a politician for real. McAllister might try to comfort himself with the notion that his life is ultimately more rewarding, even after he's lost his job and has to move to New York, but that's just cover for the envy he must feel.

And there is definitely a gendered quality to this antagonism as well, which the film brings out in its darkest moments. McAllister doesn't actually understand women – not his wife, nor the woman he tries to have an affair with. His best friend has related his sexual experiences with Flick, and she becomes sexualised by him as a result – drawn out by the fact that his first move against her is inspired by a porno film, and her face keeps popping into his mind when he's having sex. McAllister's irritation may be that he's not used to "uppity women" telling him what to do, and working with Student Council President Flick for a year presents a sufficient challenge to his authority for him to want to avoid it. But the film suggests that these feelings are curdled by a deeper annoyance that this powerful woman is not sexually available to him.


Although Election is supposed to reflect and satirise in microcosm the American political system, the parallels only go so far. The fundamental tension of politics between the rule of the specialised few and the rule of the many, and the way our system of representative government comes to an uneasy accommodation between the two, is only hinted at in McAllister's lecture about the importance of political choice. Tammy's kamikaze run at the presidency may be a nod to the attractions and dangers of political populism – she is right that in some sense the system prevents genuine change, but her (wildly popular) solution to dissolve the meagre democratic elements of that system would just make the problem worse. These are asides in a film ultimately more interested in dissecting the ways men can have mid-life crises, and drawing out the grim comedy inherent in such situations. It's a subject that becomes a through-line in Alexander Payne's work, and unfortunately it's not one I'm particularly interested in.

The film makes liberal use of voiceover to highlight the characters' feelings, and also their inability to fully understand themselves. It's probably just personal preference, but I do find that the way the technique is deployed tends to trivialise its subjects, reducing them to caricatures. The depths in the film are revealed through the characters' actions and interactions, and gaining access to their thoughts paradoxically puts us at a distance from them. We are given the opportunity to rise above the events we are watching, and feel a smug satisfaction in observing these strange, unsatisfied people and what they get up to. The more confrontational approach would be to eliminate such avenues of escape, so we are truly in the moment when McAllister or Flick lose their minds.