Reading Lawyer Films

James R. Elkins

We spend much of our lives surrounded by moving photographic images. We are surrounded by an audio-visual form which first took shape in the cinema and became the common currency of modern television. Both materially and mentally they have a shaping impact on our lives. Yet few people make an effort to reflect back on film, thinking of movies solely as popular entertainment. My task is to take films seriously as thought and art. I want to think about how we think about films.

—Michael Bischoff
"The End of Philosophy and the Rise of Films" (1993)

Remember your first efforts in reading judicial opinions. You read the assigned cases, note that there were two parties involved in a dispute, that legal arguments were presented, and a judge decided that one party has won and another lost. But you may have also learned, perhaps to your dismay, that your reading of the cases was unsatisfactory. Perhaps you were told that your reading was superficial and that you missed many important aspects of the case. What you set out to do as a student is to learn again how to read and focus your attention on this new kind of text. Students who do this new kind of reading well will succeed in law school.

In Lawyers and Film, you're asked to read still a different kind of text—a film. You may find that reading films, like reading judicial opinions, takes some readjustment.

The most basic question you confront In Lawyers and Film is this: How am I to read this film? This question implicates still another: What kind of reader of lawyer films can I be?

My strategies for reading and teaching lawyer films have been both simple and straight-forward, although they provide no magic wand that can be waved at the film to produce something we can call meaning. Since there is no magic wand, nothing that will prove once and all that films are anything more than entertainment, I propose that we honestly confront the obstacles law-trained film viewers are likely to encounter, and that we find a way, to put the lawyer films we watch to use. To do this, I propose that we:

Look, first, to the film itself.

Think of the film as a text that might be instructive in and for one’s education as a lawyer.

Focus on the story found in the film.

When focusing on the story, be particularly attentive to the characters in the story. How do you identify with particular characters, and find yourself turned off by still others?

Try to isolate, identify, and ensure that you understand the conflict that drives the story.

Think of the film as a version of the myth of the hero with the lawyer/protagonist having set out upon a heroic journey.

Here are three comments that broaden the ideas I present here:

"[A] reader can make sense of a text in the same way he or she makes sense of anything else in the world: by applying a series of strategies to simplify itby highlighting, by making symbolic, and by otherwise patterning it." [Peter J. Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation 19 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987)]

"I watch a film in the way a psychoanalyst listens to a patient. I try to suspend judgment and understand what the auteur is saying and doing.36 I approach a film as an exercise in listening, and then make an effort to discover the underlying coherent structure and meaning of the film." [Alan A. Stone, Teaching Film at Harvard Law School]

What we might do with films, according to Kenny Hegland, is use them "[t]o place the law in a larger more humanistic tradition, to break down some academic barriers, to slowly erode the imprisoning wall of expertise." [Kenny Hegland, Law School Film Forums: Getting Some of the Mush Back In, 29 J. Legal Educ. 232, 233 (1978)]

Key Points & Assumptions

A Film is an Education. If you want to do something useful with a film, you might ask: What kind of education does this film make possible? What kind of knowledge of lawyers, the legal profession, and the world does the film offer? How does the film teach? Where does the film fit with what you know about yourself? How does this film help you understand the assumptions you've made about the legal profession and your place in it? How do fictional lawyers help us understand the relationship between our professional and personal lives? What do lawyers in film teach us about law?

A pedagogical approach to lawyer films has us asking whether these films might alter and expand our present “sphere of legal life.” I adopt the phrase, “sphere of legal life” from Austin Sarat’s observation that, “[i]n this age of the world as a ‘picture,’ the proliferation of law in film, on television, and in mass market publications, has altered and expanded the sphere of legal life.” [Austin Sarat, Exploring the Hidden Domains of Civil Justice: “Naming, Blaming, and Claiming” in Popular Culture, 50 DePaul L. Rev. 425, 429 (2000)]

Basically, I think it now rather obvious that:

Stories, real or fiction, provide a context that rules and case law often do not. Stories do not just report the events but also provide contextual information that may be useful to one’s analysis, such as relationships between the parties, personal motivations, social status, the importance of this conflict in the actor’s life, and sometimes even the origin of the dilemma.” [Alexander Scherr & Hillary Farber, Popular Culture as a Lens on Legal Professionalism, 55 S.C.L. Rev. 351, 361 (2003)]

A Film Tells a Story. You've been listening to stories, telling stories, and reading stories from the time you were a child. You must know a great deal about stories and how they work, how some become revered as classics. A film is, first and foremost, a story. If you know about stories and how they work, you can put that knowledge to work in your reading of lawyer films.

| tell me a story |

I have searched widely in the scholarly work on film theory, film criticism, and film studies for ways of working with lawyer films. The most relevant and useful source that I have found is the work of playwrights, screenwriters, and screenwriting consultants. Screenwriting people know something about stories and about how stories work. My recommendation: Read the literature on screenwriting.

| screenwriting |

Film Drama Emerges From Conflict. What kind of conflict is presented in the film? How do the film's characters represent the conflict? How is the conflict resolved?

There are some rather basic ways in which conflict is represented in film. For example, conflict between a protagonist and an enemy or antagonist. Protagonist and antagonist are characters in the film; they are also a representation and personification of the great opposites:

good & evil
order & disorder
progress & status quo
love & hate
modern & primitive
masculine & feminine
science & religion

Robert Scholes, in Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (Yale University Press, 1985) argues that "binary oppositions . . . organize the flow of value and power. . . ." [4] "[L]aying bare of basic oppositions" is, according to Scholes, "becoming a basic part of the critic's repertory. . . ." [4] "In getting from the said and read to the unsaid and interpreted . . . [t]he first things to look for are repetitions and oppositions that emerge at the obvious or manifest level of the text." [ 32]

We can, with some effort, "try to uncover the implications of the opposition by exploring all the relationships of similarity and difference that link the story's" oppositions. [33] We

must ask what these oppositions ‘represent,' . . . what they ‘symbolize.' This aspect of interpretation involves connecting the singular oppositions of the text to the generalized oppositions that structure our cultural systems of values. In other words, we are talking about ideology. Considered in this light, interpretation is not a pure skill but a discipline deeply dependent upon knowledge. It is not so much a matter of generating meanings out of a text as it is a matter of making connections between a particular verbal text and a larger cultural text, which is the matrix or master code that the literary text both depends upon and modifies. In order to teach the interpretation of a literary text, we must be prepared to teach the cultural text as well. [33]

If drama and life are shaped by the struggle to understand and resolve oppositional forces, you may find it instructive to map the oppositions you find in the films. Both screen writers and narrative theorists argue that stories, drama in particular, are driven by conflict, and it is this conflict that must be addressed by the story's protagonist.

Caring for and Identification with the Characters in the Film. Entertained by plot, you are educated by the film's characters. What brings you to care what happens to a character in the film? How is this sense of caring evoked? What happens when you watch a film and realize you just don't care about any of its characters?

There is something odd, peculiar and wonderful about the knowledge we come to possess about film characters. We know what the character looks like, often enough where she lives, what kind of furniture she has in her bedroom, what kind of car she drives, her marital and family situation, where she works, who she works with, what kind of work she does, how she is regarded by her coworkers, her relationship with her boss, how the boss is regarded by the workers, and the various tensions and conflicts in her work. We learn enough about film characters to become involved in their lives. We begin to care about the film's characters. We want things to turn out well for a particular character. We want a character to get what he or she wants or needs or desires. We want this for the character because of what we have learned about them and because we have learned to care. We want the characters with whom we identify to vanquish their foes and slay the demons that pursue them.

Whether hero or anti-hero, if the movie is to succeed, the audience must find itself able to identify with the protagonist. How? The most compelling invitation to identify oneself with the screen character is offered when the protagonist is forced by the narrative to make hard choices and difficult decisions. This is the moment when the audience recalls the agony of minds we would rather not make up, and are generous with our sympathy for characters who cannot avoid doing so. [Suzanne Shale, The Conflicts of Law and the Character of Men: Writing Reversal of Fortune and Judgment at Nuremberg, 30 U.S.F.L. Rev. 991, 1001 (1996)]

Film Lawyers and Their Heroic Quest. What kind of heroes do we find in lawyer films?

| the hero archetype |

Prepare to be Unsettled. What films do, and sometimes do so powerfully well, is satisfy our need for a compelling story. They present and then immerse us in a narrative.

Narratives do not simply reflect expectations; they confront expectations with dangers and obstacles. They are about the Troubles people encounter while following scripts. So they introduce categories of unexpected outcomes (like comedies and tragedies) and categories of what precipitates trouble and of what redresses trouble. (The latter two categories are of particular interest to the law, of course.) Narratives are about “treachery” and “revenge” and “honor” and “reward” and “defeat” and “overcoming.” It is through narratives that we come to see people as heroes, villains, tricksters, stooges (and so forth), and that we come to see situations as victories, humiliations, career opportunities, tests of character, menaces to dignity (and so forth). [Anthony G. Amsterdam & Jerome Bruner, Minding the Law 46 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)

The bottom-line: "[F]ilm forces us to live in a most uncomfortable sort of world . . . ." [Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of film to Our Idea of History 236 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)]

The Round-Trip Ticket. Films present finely crafted, composed, fictional worlds to which we can retreat, and which allow us to explore, from a safe distance, the real world dilemmas and dramas in which we find our own lives, and our own world, enmeshed. A film viewer’s journey is a round-trip ticket from the real world to film world and then a return.

To put the point more pragmatically: Lawyer films serve as a link between professional life and life beyond law.

We might think of a pedagogical approach to lawyer films as a way to prepare ourselves for an imagined real world in which law is practiced by attending to both realities and fictions of that world. As the poet, Marianne Moore has demanded of a poetry, we need not only poets and lawyers who are "literalists of the imagination," who "can present for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Fictional film lawyers are, in a sense, real toads set in imaginary gardens of a real world.

Film is an a escape, it is also a venturing forth into mystery, into the unknown.

It's All About Meaning. Rennard Strickland, a longstanding student of film, argues that: “Films can and do ask important questions.” [Rennard Strickland, “The Hollywood Mouthpiece: An Illustrated Journey Through the Courtrooms and Back-Alleys of Screen Justice,” in The Lawyer and Popular Culture, id., 49-59, at 54]

And what are these important questions, and how do lawyer films address them?

At its best, a movie can take the shadow of justice and injustice and, with its enlarged images flickering across the screen, remind us that law in the final analysis is a human enterprise, that there is a human cost behind both our failures and our successes. Films can return us to occasions which have tested the law—and tested it in the most human of terms. [Strickland, at 58-59]

This idea that the film means something, and that it's the work of the student/critic to get at this meaning, is basically and ultimately related to the varied reasons that we teach film.

Reinventing Ourselves as Readers. We must invent ourselves as readers and student critics of lawyer films. To do so, we begin with a note of humility. David Slavitt puts the point most directly:

The critic is laughably impotent . . . has no suitable or adequate vocabulary with which to discuss the films for his putative reader, and, perhaps worst of all, has no position on which to stand, from which to formulate a general theory of what he is trying to do or wants to say, and no way of rationalizing his intellectual career. [David Slavitt, “Critics and Criticism,” in W.R. Robinson (ed.), Man and the Movies 335-344, at 337 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967)

There's a sweet note of humility in the reminder that we are still trying to figure out what it means to be a lawyer. The evidence of that humility is that we have turned to films for still another perspective on what it means to be a lawyer.

More Ways of Thinking About Reading Films

Look to the Film Itself for Clues on How It Can be Read. Learn to make use of what is in the film: memorable scenes, crisp/provocative dialogue, recurring symbols, a long monologue. The point to remember is that "texts do, to some extent, give directions for their own decoding." [Peter J. Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation 37 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987)]

To read and work with a film carefully and thoughtfully requires that you take notes when you watch the films, or, in the alternative, view the film a second time. Try to capture as many snippets of dialogue as you can. You will find these fragments of dialogue extremely helpful when you begin to write about the films.

Look for Symbols. Films are full of symbols. Learn to make use of them.

| symbolism in film |

Read Films Like Chapters of a Book. Remember that you are watching an entire series of films. What kind of world do you enter with the first film you watch in the course? How does the progression of films in the series work? In what sense can each film in the course be viewed as chapters in a larger text? What common storylines, plots, motifs, character types, symbols, myths do you find emerging in the films? [Film Genre] When you finally watch all the films in the course and consider them as a whole, what can you say about them?

Listen to the Classroom Dialogue. We do far more rigorous work in the classroom when we discuss films than one might imagine. We may devise, in our work together, ways of talking about, interpreting, and understanding films that provide themes you can explore in your writing for the course.


N1. David Bordwell, a film studies scholar whose work I admire, notes in his masterful book Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989) that he does not favor the use of the term "reading" as a synonym for inferences about meaning.

N2. "No two viewers of these films will see exactly the same film; the mind imposes its own meanings and selects and constructs its own story from the flow of visual imagery and linguistic information. Thus we often end up interpreting different narratives. The differences are sometimes quite astonishing. Such discrepancies often go unrecognized but in a seminar engaged in a close textual reading they can yield invaluable insights." [Teaching Film at Harvard Law School -- Alan A. Stone, Harvard Law School] [Stone goes on to note that "We sometimes go beyond agreeing to disagree and reach the interesting question: what is the coherent textual basis of our differing understandings of the facts. This probing of one's personal fact finding process and the effort to convince others of one's understanding seems to me one of the quintessential tasks of people who think seriously about law and Law."]

N3. One of the founders of popular culture studies argues that it is inevitable that popular culture has a significant meaning. Ray B. Browne puts the point this way:

Popular culture is not only entertainment, not only the media. It covers 98-99 percent of American society today in one way or another. It is the life-scene, the life-action, the way of existence of nearly all Americans, and it creates the culture in which all must live, even the few among us who claim to hate and be unaffected by it. Popular culture is the way we live while we’re awake, how we sleep and what we dream. [Ray B. Browne, “Why Should Lawyers Study Popular Culture?” in David L. Gum (ed.), The Lawyer and Popular Culture: Proceedings of a Conference 7-21, at 7 (Littleton, Colorado: Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1993)

Browne’s point, overstated as one might expect of a founder of popular culture studies suggests in its more sober assessment a convention of virtually all legal film critics: Popular culture, including films, are sufficiently important that they deserve study. Austin Sarat notes that, “Today, law lives in images that saturate our culture and have a power all their own. Mass mediated images are as powerful, pervasive, and important . . . .” [Austin Sarat, Exploring the Hidden Domains of Civil Justice: “Naming, Blaming, and Claiming” in Popular Culture, 50 DePaul L. Rev. 425, 450 (2000)]

N4. We don’t expect to find humility in the study of law. We know that: "Conventionally in jurisprudential and political theory, law has been taken for granted as a ‘given’—we assume that we know what it is and where to find it, and also what it does. We know, further, in this particular mythology what its objects and subjects are and what they look like . . . .” [Alan Hunt, The Role of Law in the Civilizing Process and the Reform of Popular Culture, 10 Can. J.L. & Soc. 5, 10 (1995)] This conventional, settled view of law, is displaced by legal films. “[F]ilm, as a medium, always highlights the contingencies of our legal and social conditions.” [Austin Sarat, Exploring the Hidden Domains of Civil Justice: “Naming, Blaming, and Claiming” in Popular Culture, 50 DePaul L. Rev. 425, 429 (2000)] Film “attunes us to the ‘might-have-beens’ that have shaped our worlds, as well as the ‘might-bes’ against which our worlds can be judged and toward which they might be pointed. In so doing, film images contribute to both greater analytic clarity and political sensibility in our treatments of law, whether they are in the hidden domains of civil justice or elsewhere.” [Id. at 430] I might note that Sarat’s “reading” of the Atom Egoyan film, "The Sweet Hereafter," is an exemplar of the kind of pedagogical-focused film criticism I have advanced here. [ “The Sweet Hereafter addresses a complex array of fears, desires, needs, and demands in our culture’s imagining of law and litigation. The film shows the appeal as well as the distasteful quality of litigation, the desires that move some toward the law and others away from law. The film illustrates the fantasies of law’s remedial power that sit alongside our fears of the power that law exerts. ” Id. at 431.]

In a remark that is relevant to both the theme of the Loyola conference and to the exploration of legal film criticism, Sarat find it possible that:

[R]eading film may lead us to new places in our understanding of law. Film may open up new possibilities for engagement with some of the most pervasive myths about civil justice and civil litigation. . . . [W]e may find that the resources for critique of, and critical engagement with, those myths are already present in popular culture. [Id. at 450]

N5. What we want of a study of law and popular culture, at its best, is “the merging of disciplinary boundaries . . . .” [Cassandra Sharp, The “Extreme Makeover” Effect of Law School: Students Being Transformed by Stories, 12 Tex. Wesleyan L. Rev. 233 (2005)(relating popular culture to identify formation)]

One reason for this “merging of disciplinary boundaries” lies in the fact that, “the many products and images that comprise popular culture are infinitely fertile in suggestions and contain both a manifest existence and a latent, but nonetheless potent symbolic state.” [Jarret S. Lovell, Crime and Popular Culture in the Classroom: Approaches and Resources for Interrogating the Obvious, 12 J. Crim. Just. Educ. 229 (2001)]

Robert Rosenstone, an historian, observes in his book on the place of films in the teaching of history that: “With film the cat of our meaning cannot be placed back into the bag of discipline. If we are honest we can never again deny the arbitrary nature of that discipline. And thus of the meanings we insist it must carry.” [Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History 236 (Harvard University Press, 1995)(Rosenstone is, of course, talking about history as a discipline here, but he could, as well, be talking about law.)]

N6. We don’t, perhaps, need to be reminded that lawyer films, whatever educational value they may have, were developed and produced as entertainment. One commentator notes that, “[t]he motion picture has become the most influential and compelling form of mass entertainment ever created.” [John Marini, Western Justice: John Ford and Sam Peckinpah on the Defense of the Heroic, 6 Nexus: J. of Opinion 57 (Spring, 2001)] This observation is most certainly true if we include television within the definition of “motion picture.” We need not shy away from the further realization that, “cinema can be the most vulgar, escapist medium,” and that even trashy films may provide meaningful pleasure. [The quote is from Yvette Biró, Profane Mythology: The Savage Mind of the Cinema vii (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)(Imre Goldstein trans.). On the pleasures and value of trashy movies, see Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in Phillip Lopate (ed.), American Movie Critics An Anthology From the Silents Until Now 337-367 (New York: Library of America, 2006); J. Hoberman, “Bad Movies,” in id. at 517-528.]

N7. In working our way through the paradox of films–entertainment as art, art as entertainment—we might consider Robert Warshaw’s observations:

The movies—and American movies in particular—stand at the center of that unresolved problem of “popular culture” which has come to a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism, intruding itself on all our efforts to understand the special qualities of our culture and to define our own relation to it. That this relation should require definition at all is the heart of the problem. We are all “self-made men” culturally, establishing ourselves in terms of the particular choices we make from among the confusing multitude of stimuli that present themselves to us. . . . There is great need, I think, for a criticism of “popular culture” which can acknowledge its pervasive and disturbing power without ceasing to be aware of the superior claims of the higher arts, and yet without a bad conscience. Such a criticism finds its best opportunity in the movies, which are the most highly developed and most engrossing of the popular arts, and which seem to have an almost unlimited power to absorb and transform the discordant elements of our fragmented culture.

[Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre & Other Aspects of Popular Culture 23-24 (New York: Atheneum, 1979)(Warshow’s observations are from a 1954 preface to the book)]

N8. Films rely upon the power of image and narrative to make life in the film more compelling, while helping us to appreciate both the ordinariness of day-to-day life and our efforts to transcend it. “Movies are very powerful and can, through the use of provocative images, explore controversial themes and evoke passions that can affect even the most tightly closed minds.” [Melvin Gutterman, “Failure to Communicate” The Reel Prison Experience, 55 SMU L. Rev. 1 (2002)]

Film stories, like the stories we find in literature, “matter, and matter deeply,” argues Frank McConnell, “because they are the best way to save our lives.” [Frank McConnell, Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images From Film and Literature 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)] One way that films may help us save our lives, is that we see in films, “ways of living and judging.” [Richard K. Sherwin, Nomos and Cinema, 48 UCLA L. Rev. 1519, 1541 (2001)] I assume that Sherwin means that lawyers must figure out how to live, most especially, how to live as lawyers. In part, our “way of living” follows from the way we judge the practices of others, indeed, the insight we have into our own practices.

N9. "Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities—work, play, eating, exercise—for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep—and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories?” [Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting 11 (New York: ReganBooks, 1997)

The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience. [12]

A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. [13]

The art of the story is the dominant cultural force in the world, and the art of film is the dominant medium of this grand enterprise. [15]

N10. We must fundamentally rethink what it means to be a reader of film as we try to write about the film. Maybe we need to admit that being a film critic requires everything we’ve got. David Kennedy, in a different context, notes: “I try to remember to think of myself as coming to the law with everything I’ve got, which is some knowledge of a variety of different texts from different places. My job is to mobilize them in a project.” Pauline Kael, in a 1963 essay, argued that our greatest critics—she names André Bazin and James Agee—“may have something to do with their using their full range of intelligence and intuition, rather than relying on formulas.” [David Kennedy, “Critical Legal Theory” (a conversation), in Susan Tiefenbrun (ed.), Law and the Arts 130-131, at 130 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999); Pauline Kael, “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” in David Denby (ed.), Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present 146-168, at 148 (New York: Vintage Books, 1977)]

Reading Film :: Web Resources

Reading a film is simply a way of thinking about the film, about what it might mean, and about how we might use the film as part of our education as lawyers.

Studying Cinema
David Bordwell has been described as the most well-known film scholar of our time. He is the author of Film Art: An Introduction (2009), Film History: An Introduction (2009), Poetics of Cinema (2007), The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996)(an anthology co-edited with Noel Carroll), Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989), Narration in the Fiction Film (1985).

Bordwell's work is theoretical in nature but it is theory that can be put to use. My recommendation for students in Lawyers and Film from the various Bordwell books on film is Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989). For a review of the themes and arguments in Making Meaning, see Bordwell's Film Interpretation Revisited. Bordwell notes that throughout his career as a film scholar he has been interested in how viewers "make sense" of films and "how they try to ascribe broader significance to the films that they see." Bordwell on Bordwell. [For an introduction, to Bordwell's view of how we "make sense" of films, see Cognition and Comprehension: Viewing and Forgetting in Mildred Pierce.]

Bordwell has noted that "Film criticism lies at the centre of nearly all intellectual discourse about the cinema, and if we take criticism to be an effort to know particular moves more intimately, it probably deserves its prime place." [For a review of Bordwell's Making Meaning (1989), see Noel King, Critical Occasions: David Bordwell's Making Meaning and the Institution of Film Criticism]

Understanding Meaning
James MacDowell, Beneath the Surface of Things