Originally when we looked ahead to election day, we thought we'd take the week off, and share some stuff that has been giving us life during this long, long year — and the even longer election cycle. But life happens, we took time off, and lo, here we are, coming at you with a special edition.
Today is about waiting. Possibly tomorrow, and maybe even this whole week, depending on how some key states go. Right now we can all light a prayer candle, take a breather, and wait these results out with a little bit of stress relief (emphasis on little — we're not miracle workers) in the form of some election movie thoughts! This is the "most consequential election of our time" etc etc, but it's also just another day that we have to get through in the middle of a pandemic, as we approach seasonal depression and the prospect of a lonely holiday season. So we're getting through the day!
First up we've got Cate on What The Constitution Means To Me, breaking her own rules as usual. Then we've got Zosha with The Candidate, and an apology for not being able to go lighter in these times. Hang in there loves; we made it to November 3. See you on the other side.
Cate on What The Constitution Means To Me
Written by: Heidi Schreck
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
We agreed that for this issue, we would each write about an election film. Ever the contrarian, I, of course, have chosen to rebel against the rules I came up with myself by writing about the play What The Constitution Means To Me. Currently available on Amazon Prime, What The Constitution Means To Me is not, in fact, about an election, but is instead primarily concerned with the American constitution.
I have a friend who recently ran for Congress. We met in college and became fast friends largely because I indulged his insistence that the American constitution was the greatest legal document the world had ever seen and was the best representation of democracy there ever was or ever could be.
He is a lawyer. I disagree.
I have spent much of my life watching, dissecting and generally being fascinated with the principles of law. In a parallel universe, I have followed in my mother’s footsteps and made the law my profession. But in this one, I am endlessly contrarian and have settled instead for a lifelong journey of autodidacticism in the American judicial system. The reason I am not a lawyer is because I cannot make the functional, moral leap between what is just and what is legal. The American constitution requires far too many leaps.
Enter Heidi Schreck.
What The Constitution Means To Me is a (largely) one-woman play based on Schrek’s teenaged participation in Constitutional debate competitions. In an extended pantomime, she guides her audience through the stages of the scholastic conflict, expounding on the revolutionary power of this singular founding document.
The play’s name might suggest that Schrek is a defender of the constitution and believes in its potential, and that is in fact true. But what the show does so movingly is to examine the moral leaps that this old, outdated set of rules requires us to make in the present moment. Shreck takes the holes left in the constitution and rips them wide open, calling attention to all of the people—especially women—who have been sacrificed because they were not able to cross the distance between what was just and what was legal. She tells of her own harrowing family history and the possibilities and freedoms that were denied to her matriarchal line simply because they were women.
Schreck is “unfailingly polite” and near gratingly enthusiastic, but she creates an affecting atmosphere. Traipsing through the constitutional amendments, legal history and a few cleverly deployed audio clips, she makes a case, not for or against the constitution as it exists, but for its impossible, limitless potential for improvement. She explains the difference between positive and negative rights and how the decisions as to which category a given claim may fall into can have material consequences for people’s lives. She walks through the statistics regarding femicide in the United States, and how slowly American law has moved to address epidemic levels of violence. She details the document’s failings, and how time and changing social attitudes have allowed for the expansion of presumptive rights, but also the denial of personhood.
But most importantly, she describes how the constitution contains the tools of its own improvement, and how it allows an informed electorate to move its founding document in the direction of progress. It was the first time in a long time that the prospect of political work didn’t feel impossible to me. It’s not a secret that I am an ex-pat (I’m reclaiming it for The Blacks™ don’t @ me) and cannot participate in an election that will materially affect what the next few years of my life will look like. Being black, and an immigrant, and engaged in this world means having a deep and enduring understanding of how much the country I have chosen to build my life in does not wish to share its freedoms with me. In fact, it is happy to actively justify my death if it means preserving those freedoms for itself.
But Shreck managed to find a way to reiterate that democracy is a verb. It is a plant that requires constant nurturing and attention. It is a process that must be refined and reworked constantly, forever because the lives we live are not static. The framers were, as the French say—dumb as fuck—and we are allowed to move on from the world view that they established 200 years ago when enslaving people was just a fun little side hustle. But doing that requires political will and political courage. It requires the belief that things can and should be more just and that we can find ways to create our own liberation in the very spirit of the same dead old men who thought they should be allowed to beat their wives as long as they didn’t leave a bruise.
This is a special issue and also I make the rules so I am breaking them once more to say this: The United States of America has never been great. The distance between the myth it tells itself about itself and the truth of its own history is a gulf no man can traverse. It is a nation rife with violent corrections back toward white patriarchal power. It is a country that claims victories where they do not exist, and refuses to admit defeat.
But it is also a country full of people who need only the will and the drive to improve their lives, beat back the slow creep of fascism, and imagine truly liberated futures wherein everyone has access to the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The work is hard, but it is doable. Go bully your elected officials. Bullying works.
Zosha on The Candidate
Written by: Jeremy Larner
Directed by: Michael Ritchie
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Let us, for just a moment, on this day, bask in the calm that is The Candidate. Here is a film that presents politics as many of us understand it — a power grab, maybe, but an earnest one. Something that slowly asks more and more of your soul until finally you’re not sure what’s left. For just a second, let’s remember what it felt like to have a political landscape so simple and nakedly demanding as that.
That’s not to say The Candidate is optimistic. Even against our pitch black 2020 landscape, The Candidate is world-weary. As we follow Bill McKay (1972 Robert Redford, in one of the most astounding plays on the public’s face association I’ve ever seen!) in his bid for California senator, we see him grow from a grassroots candidate into something much more hollow, and much more familiar.
I would say that the crux of the film is captured in Redford’s performance, which I took to be remarkably blank, and mean that as a genuine compliment. I was struck by how fast (and how repeatedly) I had no idea what was going on in McKay’s head, as he wades deeper and deeper into the muck of politics. It’s fun when a film gets away from you like that — you can speculate, maybe even make an educated guess. But in the case of McKay it almost always felt like projection, not unlike one you make on an actual candidate, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
McKay laughs, he bucks convention and he’s increasingly willing to compromise his vision. But it’s only sometimes that you can actually ferret out how he feels about all that — or rather, there’s only parts of the film where Redford and script let us in to all that. He’s stuck somewhere between over his head and underwater, but it might not be the worst thing. Even as he's faced with the labor leader whom he professes —with extreme disgust — to have nothing in common with, he (and the room) simply break out into a tense laugh. Then we see him on stage, accepting the endorsement.
The reason I would describe this film as “calm” is the reason so much of the hindsight granted by election culture past feels quaint. Remember when the hanging chad decided our future and our partisan levels were vitriolic at less than half of what they are now? Remember when shows could feel so removed from politics that they’d end with a stinger requiring Zooey Deschanel to dress up as Trump (even if no one on the show would vote for him)? Remember eight months ago?
Those worlds seem eons away, like a star millions of lightyears away whose light is just reaching us even though it’s already gone out. The world of The Candidate is something unrecognizable to me, because politics as any usual is a pipe dream at this point, no matter how the election goes. Where The Candidate can bilk dry comedy from Redford’s earnest politicking and public persona, everything right now feels incredibly high stakes and exhausting even with a weird wave of zen from the “wait and see” camp we now find ourselves in.
What’s more, it feels like a fantasy version of the chaos we’re breathing in through our masks this year — for every film I’ve found about “(relative) average Joe gets into politics and just says what we’re all thinking; people love it,” this has felt like the one that somehow straddles both flight of fancy and grounded realism. Because on the one hand: we have now seen a dark horse, no-one-takes-him-seriously-except-the-voters candidate, and we halfway impeached him. On the other, of course it’s harder for a liberal — and a liberal deeply concerned with the consequences and impacts of his every move — to actually make that schtick work.
For all its bits of black comedy (if you can even call it that) this is not really a good, funny, distraction election film. It’s no Shampoo, or American President, or even The West Wing, where politics is the backbone but also the background of what we’re here for. This is mainlining the campaign trail. But look at it this way: we are sick to death of campaigning, and yet 2024’s cycle will probably start tomorrow next week (ish). Why not close out this era with The Candidate? If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that you can do worse than a bit of cynicism from the left. Politics are dead; long live politics.
And with that, we're out. This week in issue #24 we're back on regularly scheduled programming, coming into your inboxes on Friday morning. See you in The Great Beyond™
Harris And That Other One 2020!
Watching those delegate trackers and yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3