Finally, A Worthy Election (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people write Election off as being a "teen movie," like Clueless, or at best one with slightly more edge like Mean Girls.  And then they don't watch it for the same reason they don't browse the YA section of their local library.  And it's certainly understandable why anyone would walk away from the marketing feeling that way.  Not only are more than half the stars break-out teenage actors making their early marks, most of the story takes place in a high school, and it was distributed by MTV Productions, who don't exactly have a strong track record of mature output.  So I don't knock anyone who got that impression; but I'm hoping now that Criterion's putting it out, more grown-up film watchers will discover it.
There's a reason this is an R-rated movie, which probably took a nasty bite out of this film's box office returns.  Strictly financially, at least in the short term, letting it go out R was probably a bad decision.  But thankfully they looked at the long-tail view of artistic credibility.  Because Alexander Payne has some very adult sensibilities that are on full view here; and I mean that both in the high-minded, sentiments-too-complex-for-developing-young-viewers-to-appreciate sense, and in the more guttural naughty-stuff-younger-audiences-shouldn't-be-exposed-to-yet sense.  I mean, this story is set in the aftermath of a teacher forced to resign because he was having sex with an underage student.  So hopefully that alone signals potential viewers that maybe this isn't one to put on the TV in front of their kids and walk out of the room, but also a hand-wave to more serious cinephiles to suggest, hey maybe something is going on in this film besides just the formulaic platitudes of the typical Hollywood fodder this film initially appears to be.
A lot of the extras talk about what a keen political satire this film is, and how the microcosm of the high school election this film centers around is such a great send-up of our country's parties and candidates.  And I guess that's here to some degree.  But I really think this film is so much stronger on a genuine, human story.  Election is based (on an then unpublished novel by Tom Perrotta about) a real life incident where a school principal wound up fired and disgraced because he a pregnant girl was elected prom queen and he tried to deny it and cover it up, even to the point of setting all the ballots on fire.  Like wow, how does a man get to that stage in his life?  Sure, it might be fun to extrapolate that Chris Klein's character might have a bit of a George Bush hot take in it.  But it's utterly fascinating to explore the utterly unromantic desperate lives in small town Omaha.  The sociopathic ambition of student Reese Witherspoon crossing paths with the spiraling surrender of teacher Matthew Broderick at the absurd crossroads of an utterly meaningless student council.  It's brilliant.
Paramount originally released on DVD in 1999, the rather early days of DVD and when this film was brand new to home video.  But it still holds up fairly well as an anamorphic, widescreen edition with a commentary.  I've still got it, so we'll delve further into it below.  In 2009, Paramount reissued it on blu; but since I was fine with the DVD and utterly convinced this film deserved a proper special edition that would one day come, I held out.  And finally, just last month, Criterion brought that vision to life with a proper special edition blu-ray with an all new 4k scan of the original 35mm camera negatives and some great extras.
1999 Paramount US DVD on top; 2017 Criterion US blu-ray below.
So, like I said, even the old DVD is anamorphic (and no, not interlaced), giving us just a slightly window-boxed 2.29:1 picture.  Criterion makes the minor correction of re-framing it to exactly 2.35:1, revealing slivers more around the edges, especially the top and left.  Nice start, but the real improvement naturally comes down to the fine picture quality.  The Paramount DVD really shows its age when you get in close and see all those ugly compression artifacts, which are made perfectly crisp and clear in Criterion's new scan, which clarifies every speck of film grain.  The one flaw, which I'll preface by saying is not really all that bad, and only obvious in a side-by-side comparison like this, is the color timing.  It's Criterion, so say it with me, "it has a green push."  Now, to be fair, Paramount's DVD here has a bit of a red push, so making the colors absolutely perfect would result in the film leaning a little more towards the green side.  But the pendulum has swung too far, and the fact that Criterion keeps making all of their films green these days makes me think their colorist needs to get his eyes checked, and that's not me being snarky.  I sincerely believe that.  I mean, look at the second set of shots above.  I'll concede that the principal (right)'s shirt is up for debate, but surely Matt Malloy (of In the Company of Men fame, on the left)'s shirt is meant to be white, not cyan.  Anyway, it's a small flaw of an otherwise fantastic transfer... but come on, Criterion.

The DVD gave us a choice between a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo Surround mix and a 5.1, plus optional English subtitles.  Interestingly, Criterion only gives us the 5.1, now in DTS-HD, with optional English subtitles.
The DVD gave us a great audio commentary by director Payne.  He has a lot to say, on everything from the locations to the terrific soundtrack, and only occasionally pausing briefly towards the end of the film.  But that's all Paramount ever gave us (this is true of their 2009 blu, too); no trailer, no nothin'.  Well, Criterion really picks up the slack here.  First of all, yes, they carry over Paramount's commentary.  Then they add a terrific 40+ minute documentary, which shows behind-the-scenes footage, an original alternate ending, and interviews everybody from the cast and crew, drawing in the experiences of the big stars, the novelist, some of the teens who only had bit parts, and even several different critics.  Only one key person is really missing: Reese Witherspoon.  But then, hey, the next thing they give us is a nice, on-screen interview with Reese Witherspoon!  So really, we get everything you could want.  They even include a local newscast about the film shoot taking place in their operational high school (yes, shooting went on as real classes were taking place).  And yes, finally the trailer.
But that's still not all, because Criterion has also remastered and included Payne's student film, The Passion of Martin (a 4k scan of the original 16mm negatives, presented in 1.32:1).  Now, it's a student film, so it's definitely flawed and unpolished compared to a professional production like Election.  But once you get past that, it gets pretty compelling and genuinely funny, thanks in no small part to being based on a strong novel.  An on-screen text director's statement addresses most of the issues I had initially had with it, so I recommend doing what I didn't and reading that first.  Then Payne also gives a good on-camera interview talking about the early days of his career, the making of Martin, and how it all lead and connects to Election.  Also included is a 10-page fold-out insert with notes by Slate film critic Dana Stevens.
Alexander Payne's gone on to become pretty well recognized as a quality filmmaker, regularly working with people like George Clooney these days.  But I still don't think he's ever topped this, his masterpiece, which certainly has its devotees but ironically, is still broadly overlooked.  We all know that entrance into the Criterion Collection isn't 100% purely an artistic meritocracy (cough cough, Armageddon), but Election lives up to the every definition that a Criterion title is and should be.  And at the same time, it's accessible and funny enough to play right alongside something like Christmas Vacation or Raising Arizona.  So you should absolutely own this one, and the Criterion blu is unquestionably the one you should own.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I also rant when I see Criterion color-timing these days...