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It’s Christmas, and Reel.com promises the ideal video for everyone on your shopping list — no insignificant pledge if you’re still undecided about which stocking stuffer best suits the five conservatives who sit on the Supreme Court. Moreover, the most appropriate option in Reel’s online inventory — “The Great Man Votes” (1939) — allows us to offer the justices something we know they don’t already have: an understanding of what was at issue in Bush v. Gore. “Votes” isn’t one of Hollywood’s best-known films. Its director, Garson Kanin, would accomplish more as a scriptwriter (“Adam’s Rib,” “Pat and Mike,” “Born Yesterday”) than as a film stylist. Its star, John Barrymore — with four wives and 40,000 cocktails behind him — would come to recognize “Votes” as the swan song of his screen career. Nevertheless, Kanin’s finished product is a genuinely charming film, and its singular plot — like last month’s extraordinary election — focuses on the value of a single vote. As in so many of the films that emerged during the 1930s, Gregory Vance (Barrymore), the protagonist in “Votes,” has seen better days. Devastated by his wife’s death, Vance has drunk his way down, from a Harvard professorship to a lowly night watchman’s post. But if Vance is a has-been in the eyes of the world, he remains a hero — albeit a dormant one — to his two terrifically smart and self-sufficient children. “There’s no use deceiving ourselves, Donald,” Joan (Virginia Weidler) tells her brother (Peter Holden). “What Pop could be and what he is are two different things.” That difference will dissolve at the polling place. Today, suffrage doesn’t invite screenplays. But the economic chaos of the Great Depression led Americans to reassess the relationship between people and their political institutions. Amid an increasingly polarized national discourse, reactionaries extolled the egoism of European fascists; disillusioned leftists embraced a Communist ethic that subsumed the individual within the state. Then, as now, America’s existence depended on the certainty that representative government could reconcile the individual with the indivisible whole. What Kanin’s film recognizes, as the Bush majority does not, is that we effectuate that reconciliation at the ballot box. As Kanin’s film opens, ballot-casting is less a right than a regimen for identifying the elected. The voter exists only as object: to be bullied with a veiled threat (“That’s an attitude unworthy of you, especially considering you’re blocking a public street with building materials,” a precinct chairman sneers); or bribed with a quick fix (“Gee, I wish I could get some of that candy,” Donald says when a political flunky offers election-week treats in the schoolyard); or bamboozled with an empty promise (“Why, that cheap ward-heeler couldn’t even deliver a garbage collector’s job,” an onlooker warns). Even Vance identifies voting as an act of resignation or rage: “Well, if it’s the job you lost, you’ll feel better when … ,” party hack “Iron Hat” McCarty (Donald McBride) begins. “Yes, when I get it off my chest tomorrow at the polls,” Vance interrupts. Then a unique occurrence revolutionizes everyone’s attitude toward elections. A pollster (William Demarest) discovers that the results of the national election depend on the city’s mayoral contest. And the mayor’s race depends on the balloting in an individual precinct. And the precinct consists of one registered voter, Gregory Vance. Like the unanticipated ambiguity in Florida’s election returns, the discovery allows us to explore what would happen if Americans began to believe that a single vote really counts. The revelation brings about a new relationship between Vance and his representatives. The result is that government immediately becomes more responsive to the family’s actual needs (“You’ll just have to find your brother-in-law a new job,” Joan insists when the mayor balks at the appointment Vance aspires to); more responsible for campaign promises (“Yes, yes, it must be in writing,” the mayor agrees); and more respectful of the private citizen — not the politician — as the proper subject of the balloting process. (“Pop’s the guy that’s voting, isn’t he?” Joan says, convincing McCarty to give up his suit for Vance’s tattered clothes.) Indeed, the most significant point in “Votes” is that the act of voting serves not one, but two objectives. It’s a point that eluded the five justices who voted together in Bush. For whatever end the ballot-casting in a particular election may serve, voting is ultimately performed by and for the individual elector. It is, and is intended to be, a transformative act: the transubstantiation of the individual into the body politic, to the diminution of neither and the aggrandizement of both. Kanin’s film understands the metamorphosis and makes it overt. Appropriately, Vance’s trip to the polls takes on the look of a wedding ceremony — sanctifying in voting the transformation of individual to citizen, a component of the state’s insoluble whole, in the same way that marriage converts individuals to indivisible couple. There is the preliminary affirmation of the ritual’s sanctity (“Someday you will be voting, Donald Ainsley Vance,” the protagonist tells his son. “With clear young eyes you’ll measure the honor of that privilege”); there is the joyful procession; there is the formal attire; and finally, there is the address from the steps at ritual’s end. “Tomorrow I will be quite forgotten, a [man] who left his mark only in a ballot box,” Vance tells the crowd. “But I will be no less a part of that total greatness by being the least in a land where strength and generosity are greatness in itself.” In opinions that focus on counting — on the adequacy of warnings and the accuracy of machines, on the rules for tabulating and the timeline for certifying the computations — the five justices address Florida’s uncounted ballots in the context of their meaning for the populace: “Was the ballot read?” they ask. But their opinions ignore the significance of suffrage to the individual: “Was the ballot marked?” There is no answer. The effect is disenfranchisement in its oldest form: the severance of the one from the greater entity; the denial of transformation through ritual; the prohibition of self-identification with the nation’s long history and rich heritage; the negation of the pride and purposefulness that come from citizenship. Non-voting Americans typically explain that they feel cut off from our sense of shared experience: In Bush, five justices endorsed that alienation. Kanin understands that the importance of the vote is its effect on the individual. “He’s a charming man,” Vance says of the mayor in the film’s final dialogue. “I almost wish I had voted for him.” Then Vance smiles. His fancy suit and his inflated status will evaporate with the ballot count. But the larger political effect of his vote is not the significant one: Who presides in America will never be as important as who participates. At film’s end, Vance collects his family and walks into a better America. We walk toward something entirely different. Terry Diggs is a San Francisco appellate attorney who teaches courses on law and film at San Francisco, Calif.’s Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University School of Law. Her e-mail address is tkdiggs aol.com.

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