Thirteen Quotes

James R. Elkins

1. A "Lawyers and Film" Course? You Must Be Joking

"Teaching Film at Harvard Law School," Alan A. Stone, Harvard Law School, 24 Legal Stud. F. 573 (1999)

"Many of my colleagues are barely able to suppress their 'why are you teaching that at Harvard Law School' guffaws when they learn that I have been teaching a seminar 'on film' at this august institution. Incredulity and derision are by no means confined to Harvard Law School professors.
. . . .

Students are able to see the connections between their own moral adventure in life and that depicted in the films we watch and discuss. They make the link between the moral ambitions that brought them to law school and the narratives about law, psychology, and morality found in the film. They can then do exactly what I suggested typical legal education may prevent them from doing, reengage their moral passions by way of dialogue, debate and defend their own sense of justice. In the jargon of 1960's psychology, the student can experience self-actualization that confirms his individual identity within a larger community. This I take to be the best argument for the seminar; it engages students who have become alienated from the law school classroom. As a psychological-moral problem, this alienation is, in my experience, the greatest failing of my own law school and of legal education. The film seminar is one of many possible solutions to that alienation."

2. Lawyers For All the World To See

"The Cinematic Lawyer: The Magic Mirror and the Silver Screen," Rennard Strickland, 22 Okla. City U. L. Rev. 13 (1997) [online text]

"Lawyers have a great many varied images of themselves and of their enterprise, and like the blind man and the elephant, the image of the profession depends upon whether you are grasping the trunk or the tail. Lawyers live and work in a world of law, courtrooms, conferences and libraries, but the vast majority of America's non-lawyers do not learn about the law in the bright light of a line-up, from the jury box, or even standing before a judge. The average American's most continuous association with legal institutions is in the world of television and film. Most Americans know Perry Mason; fewer recognize the name of William Rehnquist.

If we are to comprehend the public view of the legal profession in our society, American film must be seen as more than a pleasant or even challenging diversion. Ours is a visual culture, and the image of law and lawyers--indeed even the behavior of lawyers themselves--has been influenced significantly by the magic of the great stereopticon, by the larger-than-life figures on the silver screen."

3. The Search for Discipline Blindspots

"What Legal Films Can Tell Us About Legal Method's Dirty Secrets," Rebecca Johnson & Ruth Buchanan, 20 Windsor Y.B. Access Just. 87, 88 (2001) [online text]

"[R]ather than dismissing movies about law for their lack of technical veracity (e.g.: the 'hearsay rule' did not work that way; a cross examining lawyer would never ask a question to which she didn't know the answer), we may look to films . . . for the insights they provide into our own disciplinary blindspots."

4. Getting Beyond What They Teach You in Law School

"Visual Literacy and the Legal Culture: Reading Film as Text," Philip N. Meyer, Vermont Law School, 17 Legal Stud. F. 73 (1993) [online text]

"Law students must effectively identify legal issues and correctly synthesize and articulate the legal rules necessary to resolve these issues. Students must learn to systematically apply these rules ("the law") to "the legally significant facts." Unfortunately, the legally significant facts embodied in law school hypotheticals, legal writing problems and examination fact patterns are simplified, desiccated and decontextualized; they are merely excuses for students to state and apply legal rules. The appellate opinions studied in law school are based on re-examinations of law; they accept the facts of the case as fixed at trial.

After graduation, however, most lawyers operate as storytellers, subjective and passionate voices advocating client stories in a predominantly narrative oral culture. Trial lawyers, for example, are "imagistic" storytellers operating in a factually indeterminate and interpretivist world far removed from the legally indeterminate world of the appellate court and the law school classroom."

5. The Carefully Guarded Entrance to the Law

"Teaching Film at Harvard Law School," Alan A. Stone, Harvard Law School, 24 Legal Stud. F. 573 (1999)

"It is an intellectually intriguing version of Law, one that challenges our settled notions of justice, that brings so many students to law school. But, as in Kafka’s famous fable in The Trial, the entrance to Law is carefully guarded. In modern legal curricula, the guards are theorists armed with an array of powerful methodologies . . . . Before the neophyte gains entry to the “Temple of Law” she must learn a set of new languages. Among those who become most fluent, there is sometimes a question about whether they are still working with the idea of justice at all. Many law students never fully master a meta-legal discourse and, as a consequence, like Kafka’s peasant, never reach Law’s inner sanctum. Rarely in their law school classes do students discuss in non-technical language the intriguing vision of law and justice that brought them to law school."

6. The Familiar and Beyond.

Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies 2 (England: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

"Cassavetes understood that his films offered new forms of experience. When we watch them, we are asked to participate in new intellectual and emotional structures of understanding. At least for the time of the viewing experience (and to the extent we yield ourselves to it rather than defending ourselves against it), our consciousnesses are altered. Our nervous systems are reprogrammed. Our range of sensitivities is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) shifted. We are made to notice and feel things we wouldn’t otherwise. But one doesn’t get to a new place without leaving old positions behind, and, as the anecdote takes for granted, the process of being exposed to new ways of knowing can present a bit of shock to the system. The films can only teach us new understandings by forcibly denying us old ones, and that can be bewildering. They can only freshen and quicken our responses by altering our habitual modes of perception, and that can be disorienting. Their stylistic defamiliarizations and assaults are their way of doing this, and it is only to be expected that they should make us more than a little uncomfortable at moments."

7. It's All About Stories and The Characters We Find in Them.

"Conflicts of Law and the Character of Men: Writing Reversal of Fortune and Judgment at Nuremberg," Suzanne Shale, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 991 (1996)

"Hollywood movies are stories about 'character' and how character determines the outcome of life events. 'Character' is the sum of a human being's personhood: biography, memory, virtues and vice, reactions, capabilities, potentiality, and weakness. In movies, we learn about such character when it is expressed in the actions which emerge from human conflict: conflicts between people, conflicts within a person, and conflicts between persons and their environments. Human lives and, perhaps even more so, movie lives, are littered with incompatible goals and incommensurate values. In the movies, it is the task of 'character' to resolve the human conflicts that our goals and values create. It is always a character who takes steps, a character who makes choices, a character's responses that drive the story forward or spin it around in new directions. It is a character who overcomes, a character who changes or learns.

It is the film's protagonist whose life lies at the epicenter of the narrative. His or her character and experiences power the narrative forward, and his or her observable beliefs and value judgements make manifest the meaning of the story. But for the protagonist to be a truly interesting character, there must be a demanding foe. Where the film's core conflict is a conflict between persons, it will be another character--the opposing antagonist--who will properly test the protagonist's mettle and provide the measure of his or her worth."

8. Lawyers are Storytellers; They Tells Stories the Way Films Tell Stories.

"Visual Literacy and the Legal Culture: Reading Film as Text," Philip N. Meyer, 17 Legal Stud. F. 73 (1993) [online text]

"Trial storytelling . . . is a deeply mythic enterprise: "stock" trial lawyer stories are obvious compilations and transliterations of popular mythology. Fact-finders identify with and respond to these collective aural story-structures as the mechanisms for organizing complex stories into coherent meanings.
. . . .
Lawyers tell imagistic narratives constructed upon aesthetic principles that are closely akin to the structural principles that control the for- mulation of plot-structure in commercial cinema. We tell stories with hard driving plot-lines and clear themes that are readily distilled. We shoot our films from the fixed perspective of protagonist-clients. We are simple realists who construct our stories to hook the sympathy and capture the imagination of audiences who think in pictures. We sequence shots on imaginal storyboards until we establish the patterns that ultimately suit our purposes. We speak and think filmically, We have much to learn from visual storytellers working the same popular cultural turf."

9. It's All About Fiction & Reality, Reality & Fiction.

"Get Off the Screen," Lisa Scottoline, 24 Nova L. Rev. 653 (2000) [online text]

"What is happening? Well, in my view, the line between the reality of lawyering and its fictional representation on television and in books has gone well beyond blurred. It isn't really a question anymore of how lawyers and law are portrayed on television and in books, because that depiction is merging daily with reality. It's a symbiotic relationship at this point between fiction and reality, not a separate relationship that can be compared and contrasted, like a law school exam. At this point, the wall between fiction and reality is as thin and porous as a cell membrane, with reality passing through it to fiction and fiction flowing backwards to reality, in constant flux."

10. Kinds of Reading: Literal and Beyond.

Film Interpretation Revisited
David Bordwell revisits his arguments and observations in David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989)

"[S]ome beliefs or talk about a film postulates something concretely there--say, the characters represented, the action of the story, and the dramatic point or significance of it all. Comprehension grasps the meanings denoted by the text and its world. . . . Interpretation, by contrast, ascribes abstract and nonliteral meanings to the film and its world. It ascribes a broader significance, going beyond the denoted world and any denoted message to posit implicit or symptomatic meanings at work in the text.

. . . .

What the critic brings to this engagement [with the film] is human perceptual equipment, cultural experience and values, tacit norms of comprehension, and a repertory of knowledge structures and critical procedures for building an interpretation out of cues which she or he discriminates in the film. We don't just see meanings, literal or interpretive; the critic constructs meaning through a complex process of assumption, testing, projection, inferential trial and error, and comparable activities. Both comprehension and interpretation are inferential activities. Meaning is made, not found.

. . . [I]t might seem that the critic can only see what s/he is primed and prepared to see. But to say that people perceive and understand through mental constructs--categories, assumptions, and the like--is not to say that they don't expand their cognitive repertoire through encounter with the world. Our cognitive resources are not cookie cutters, and the world is not soft dough; we do not stamp out the same shape in every transaction with reality. When we learn anything, on this account, we start with rough and approximate constructs. We increase them in number or expand their scope or refine them in delicacy as we find that they do not discriminate sufficiently among the data we encounter. Thus the critic confronts . . . 'recalcitrant data,' which forces her or him to adjust or revise or reject overly simple frames of reference. The institution of criticism, by insisting on nuance and comprehensiveness as criteria of good criticism, likewise exercises some pressure not to treat films too reductively.

. . . Film undeniably provoke us to create new interpretations . . . ."

11. When the Guide Gets in the Way

Film as Text, Jo Flack, 1997 [website no longer online]

"There are lots of ways of approaching the teaching of film, most of you will have experienced some of the worst ways at university. You know what I mean. The 'lets do it to death and then kick over the corpse for a bit' method of film study. The perpetrator of such a film study crime usually 'knows' a great deal (always more than us) and lets this knowledge either drip out water torture style or engulfs us in a tidal wave of Freudian, Marxist, feminist semiotic mumbo jumbo. At the end of such 'learning' we know a lot about a particular film but usually do not feel empowered to apply this knowledge to our Sunday night viewing of The Fearless Vampire Killers. We remain pretty much clueless."

12. The Means of that Power (and Our Reticence to Come to Grips With It).

Strange Encounters: Exploring Law and Film in the Affective Register
Ruth Buchanan & Rebecca Johnson, Austin Sarat (ed.), Studies in Law, Politics, and Society 33-60 (2009)(vol.46)

"[O]ur experience of being film viewers is that movies do much more than tell stories, however powerful those stories are. We have been drawn to work at the intersection of law and film in large measure because of films that have disturbed, irritated, or intrigued us. And yet, we have remained uncomfortably conscious of the lack of (legal) vocabulary to talk about these affects. Law-and-Film scholarship appears to be uncharacteristically tongue-tied about the fact that, as viewers, many are profoundly moved by film, as well as about the related questions of how film does this to us, and how one might write about it."

13. What Do Movies Do?

The Difference between Fake and Real Emotions in Life and Art
Ray Carney

"The mistake is to look to movies for any answers at all. All movies can really do is point out problems, pose questions, set us tasks to do. They can remind us that we need to work on our lives. They can ask us to open our consciousness to new ways of knowing and feeling. They can inspire us to try harder. But they can’t give us answers. They can’t do the work for us. We have to do it all. Nothing can lift that burden from our shoulders. And that takes time and work and thought. It’s not quick and painless."