I don’t like political documentaries. I find them self-righteous and am frankly at the point in my life where I’ve heard just about enough out of Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you very much. But I do like drugs and football, which means I’m a fan of local Jewish filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman and was willing to check out their new documentary “537 Votes,” despite its political subject matter. It was the biggest mistake of my entire life.
537 Votes is a horror film that recounts (get it?) how the Republicans stole the 2000 Presidenital election from Al Gore. As with most bad things, the trouble started (Elian) and ended (Palm Beach) in Florida, and the film makes the case that the ever-present political manipulations of the local Cuban diaspora community’s trauma resulted in George Bush’s election, as well as, extrapolating the consequences of his Presidency out: EVERYTHING THAT IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD TODAY.
It’s been three days since I watched the film and I can’t sleep. That isn’t an exaggeration, I literally can’t sleep because I just keep thinking about what the world would be like if Al Gore had won. Would we be further along in our fight against climate change? Would we have been thrown into an endless unjustified war in the middle east? Would Trump be President? Would my wife have left me?
Seven years ago I met Marissa in Seattle on the weekend of its annual FrasierCon. She had been raised in Kosovo, and as a little girl, took comfort from the war and economic uncertainty that ravished her Country in the 1990s by watching episodes of Frasier on her village’s only TV. Every night she’d sit with her father and watch for the list of the dead and wounded on the news and then would laugh at Frasier’s antics, Niles’s quips, and Roz’s unbridled sexuality before returning to her home for dinner of one bean split three ways with her father and family goat.
“One day, I’ll be in America,” she told her father, “like Dr. Frasier Crane, and you will live with me like his cop father Martin Crane,” she would say in between bites of her bean sliver. In 2014, she was able to join me in the United States after I purchased her through an online forum that connected eastern European women with men who had $700. When I took her out of her crate at the Port of Seattle, she was over the Daphne Moon to be in the United States. It happened to be the weekend of the City’s annual Frasier convention. “This was meant to be,” she told me, so we headed over to the convention center and were married by a Jane Leeves impersonator who turned out to actually be Jane Leeves.
“I love you,” she told me as we exchanged vows. “As much as Niles loves Daphne.” I told her I did too, although I didn’t understand the reference because I don’t like Frasier. The few episodes I remember seeing as a kid were pretentious and distractingly unfunny. That night, we flew to my home in Miami to start a life together.
The narrative around the 2000 election has always been one of Floridian incompetence, but that undermines the seriousness of the crimes that were committed against our democracy. George Bush was installed as President as a result of a concentrated effort to steal the election by making sure votes for his opponent were never counted. That’s a scary enough thought in normal times, let alone two weeks before another election in which Florida is once again responsible for safeguarding our democratic institutions and whose electoral votes will turn on the ability of Miami’s Cuban community to recognize a dictator asking for their support. God help us.
Since coming to the United States, Marissa had been joyfully disinterested in politics. After years spent living in an anti-Democratic regime, she relished that under Obama, it was possible to ignore what was happening day-to-day in Washington. Since 2016 though, like many of us, she started watching the discourse around national politics grow more and more divisive. “I don’t like where this is going,” she’d tell me after recanting whatever scandal of the day made its round on Twitter before finally tossing her phone to the side and putting on an episode of Frasier to clear her head.
“How many times can you watch that damn Ski Lodge episode?” I asked her a few nights ago, but all she could do was cry and mutter something about Russian bounties. After pressing the issue, I convinced her to turn off Frasier and put on the 537 Votes documentary instead. “It’s supposed to be funny,” I told her. “Probably a lot funnier than Frasier, at least.”
And 537 Votes is funny, at first. The editing is frenetic and the film is as weird and quirky as you would expect in a story about Miami fuckery. But as with the case with most stories about South Florida, behind its bizarre patina, 537 Votes offers something sinister and awful: The realization that our democracy is broken and has been for a long time.
After the movie, Marissa and I sat in silence thinking about what we just saw. “It’s all a lie,” she said. “American democracy is just a lie.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said.
“It’s all a fucking lie! They stole that election and they are trying to steal the next one too! This place is no better than Kosovo. It’s all just tossed salad and scrambled eggs!”
I tried to tell her that she was overreacting but she wouldn’t hear it. She just put on the Ski Lodge episode again, but unlike the hundreds of other times she watched it over the years, this time she didn’t laugh when Frasier storms out at the end after realizing no one wanted to have sex with him. She just stared at the TV, her mind very obviously somewhere else.
When I woke up the next morning, I found a note on her pillow that she was leaving, along with $700 in cash and her wedding ring. “I know what it’s like to grow up under an undemocratic regime. I won’t subject our child to that.”
In the letter she said she was returning to Kosovo, and told me that I should consider joining her and our son.
With a son?
In the three days since she left, I’ve been thinking about the future of the country and whether Marissa is right to want to leave it. As I did, and maybe in an effort to feel close to her, I put on Frasier and started watching it for the first time. As the episodes flowed into one another, I found myself able to push the disgusting grins of Republican operatives bragging about disenfranchising voters in 2000 that featured so heavily in the documentary out of my head.
After 72 hours of watching Frasier, I’ll acknowledge that it is a great show. But almost no episode is individually very remarkable. It’s dumber and more vulgar than how it’s marketed, and some of its episodes are bad. Just embarrassingly bad.
But you can’t judge Frasier by its worst episodes because the series gets, on a whole, better and better as it goes on.
And I think that’s true about America as well.
When I finally got a hold of Marissa in her village in Kosovo, no easy task since the nearest cell tower was knocked down recently by a sheep, I begged her not to give up on the United States.
“If Frasier teaches us anything, it’s that even the most arrogant and selfish of us can improve over time if we work on it,” I told her. She said she was doubtful about the U.S.’s ability to ever live up to its ideals and even whether its leaders even saw those classic-American principles of freedom and equality as worth striving for, but would nevertheless be returning to Miami, because she forgot how Kosovo was still massively underdeveloped, and she figured that if she is going to be in an undemocratic nation without fair and free elections, she should at least be in one with plenty of Targets and a Massage Envy.
537 Votes can be seen on HBO MAX.
Plantain Score: ★★★★★