The Legal Studies Forum 1999
Alan Stone

Copyright (c) 1999 American Legal Studies Association 
The Legal Studies Forum


24 Legal Stud. Forum 573

LENGTH: 10986 words


Alan A. Stone*

*Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry, Faculty of Law and Faculty of Medicine, Harvard University. I want to thank my research assistant Alex Barylski and my film review editor, Joshua Cohen.

... 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. ... I fear his thumb would point in the same direction were he to evaluate Law and Film. ... At its best "Law, Psychology and Morality: An Exploration Through Film" provides a forum in which students have that kind of discussion. ... Why film rather than Rylands v. Fletcher or Hadley v. Baxen- dale? The case method as I have observed it at Harvard Law School with its large first-year classes imposes a substantial psychological cost on many students. ... I must confess that to my mind the most interesting film and film criticism is literary. ... He is the spiritual catalyst of the film, and lives for beauty. ...  


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. However, students have a different reaction-"Law, Psychology and Morality: An Exploration Through Film" was one of the most oversubscribed seminars offered this year.

As its title suggests, the seminar is not exactly about film, nor is it about the rule against perpetuities, the uniform commercial code or any other law with a small "l" as I readily concede to my dubious colleagues. The no small "l" answer is one I have honed defensively to parry the daunting tone of the questioners. It mirrors the apt distinction drawn by Judge Posner (whose very name can sometimes provide instant evidence of one's seriousness) in his critique of the misunderstood relationship between law and literature. n1 His basic idea is that creative writers (for my purposes auteurs/filmmakers) are not interested in technical or narrow professional questions of law which I designate law with a small "l". Posner goes on, "Literature-especially great literature -deals with the permanent and general aspects of human nature and institutions. Law in a general sense is one of those aspects." (Law with a capital "L" in my designation.) Consider The Merchant of Venice which contains the most famous trial scene in English literature. A thorough knowledge of the sixteenth century law of Venice will not add much to our critical understanding or appreciation of Shakespeare's play. Small "l" law is used by Shakespeare not for its technical interest but as a lever to raise big "L" questions.

Judge Posner relying on his distinction between technical law and general law critically surveys the major published work in the Law and Literature genre and concludes that the technically trained legal mind has little to add to literary criticism. Although he concedes that some legal academics have a talent for literary criticism and that the subject matter can "provide a fresh angle," he also argues that literary criticism does not add much to legal scholarship, Judge Posner's dismissive  [*574]  conclusion is that the Law and Literature enterprise is misguided. n2 He hypothesizes that the field was buoyed by a glut of literature Ph.D.'s turning to law to make a living. n3 I fear his thumb would point in the same direction were he to evaluate Law and Film. Finding shelter behind Posner can only be a delaying action. n4

Having recently argued that the relationship between moral philosophy and law is also fruitless if not misguided, n5 Judge Posner found many distinguished scholars who were prepared to contest his dismissive judgments. I leave such debates to them. What I find more interesting in Posner's critique of the Law and Literature scholarship are his own counter-interpretations of the texts. Obviously Posner, like other serious intellectuals trained in law, is intrigued by "texts" which seem to require interpretation. Whatever the attainments of the Law and Literature scholarship may be, the enterprise is bottomed on that shared interest in the interpretation of texts. Literary texts, as Posner rightly concludes, deal with law as it touches on "basic, timeless features of human existence." The best of those texts are dense enough to challenge our settled understanding of justice-that is one measure of their hold over readers who think seriously about Law.

Look again at The Merchant of Venice. Demonstrating that even in Shakespeare's day a good lawyer could argue either side of a question, Portia first makes technical arguments that lead Shylock to believe his contract calling for a pound of flesh will be vindicated. Then, using equally technical arguments, she convincingly defeats the moneylender. In between her yes and no legal arguments Portia urges Shylock in her most famous lines to accept a higher Law of mercy which he obdurately rejects. Although it is often forgotten, Portia herself is less than merciful when she springs her legal trap on Shylock. Together with Antonio, who was to be Shylock's victim, she delivers a verdict worthy  [*575]  of the Spanish Inquisition, forcing the Jew (as Shylock is called in the courtroom) under penalty of death to forfeit his estate and convert to Christianity. During the Eighteenth Century this was one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. Contemporary audiences have a hard time seeing the humor or the justice of the play. Perhaps that is the reason so many legal scholars have attempted to interpret it. n6 Shakespeare's legal premise is that Venice's successful mercantilism requires that the contracts of foreigners and even Jews be upheld. But that utilitarian consideration is the only limit on the anti-Semitism which taints Shakespeare's justice and his mercy. Shylock's implacable demand for a pound of Christian flesh is the central conceit of the play. It summons up the most bizarre and odious beliefs of the anti-Semite, that the Passover feast is a Satanic ritual in which the blood or body of a Christian child is consumed. These are beliefs that caused anti-Semitic witch hunts in medieval England. Shylock was often portrayed as the redhaired/redbearded Judas Iscariot-the Jew who betrayed Jesus Christ. With such religious anti-Semitism as subtext the trial scene pits Jewish legalism against Christian forgiveness, law against equity, the vice of the moneylender Shylock's usury against the virtue of the merchant Antonio's generosity to his friends. Like the Spanish Inquisition, Shakespeare's imaginary court in Venice might even assume that Shylock's Hebrew soul has been saved from eternal damnation by his forced conversion - a happy ending. Religiously based anti-Semitism is reprised in the sub- plot of Jessica's elopement. Shylock's daughter steals her father's ducats and her dead mother's ring to find eternal salvation in the arms of a Christian husband who wastes Shylock's treasure. The play can be directed and the characters interpreted in many ways but the plot and every subplot is a tapestry of Law, Psychology, and Morality. Although one must bracket the anti-Semitism (some readers find this impossible, while others deny that it exists) to fathom Shakespeare's sense of justice, the problem is no different than bracketing slavery to think about "All Men Are Created Equal" in the Declaration of Independence. Law with a capital "L" in literature, as The Merchant of Venice demonstrates, is where law, morality, and psychology come together as a text to be interpreted and re-interpreted in the elusive and perhaps endless search for justice. n7


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: micro-economics, behavioral economics, public choice theory, hermeneutics, analytic philosophy, critical theory, and feminist theory. 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. At its best "Law, Psychology and Morality: An Exploration Through Film" provides a forum in which students have that kind of discussion.

The Seminar

The structure of the seminar was modeled on a Law and Literature seminar I taught with Richard Parker. The seminar is limited to 22 students selected by lottery in which second, third year, and L.L.M. students rank their seminar and course preferences. Attendance is mandatory and those who cannot regularly attend the seminar meetings are asked not to take the seminar. Every student who enrolls in the seminar must submit a thousand word essay offering his or her ideas about the intersection of some legal, moral, psychological aspect of a film designated by the instructor, most recently, John Sayles' Lone Star. Each week after the first class 6- 8 students are required to write 4-6 page postviews of a film which we have viewed together (attendance at the group viewing is voluntary.)

The seminar meets from 4-6 p.m. on Thursday afternoons, a light dinner is then served, and the film is shown from 6:30 to its conclusion. The 6-8 student postviews must be e-mailed or delivered to my assistant by noon on the following Monday. The postviews are compiled, reproduced, and are available for the entire seminar by the next day. My own previously written postviews are usually added to the compilation. Students are required to sign and date the time when they pick up this material. The students are expected to read what their classmates and I have written and come prepared to discuss those ideas and their own. Thus the seminar generates its own reading material and the students perhaps for the first time in law school will spend two  [*577]  hours in class discussing each other's ideas. Four of the students who have written for the seminar lead the discussion, usually two in the first hour and two in the second. Having taught at Harvard Law School for more than thirty years I can say that in no other course or seminar that I have taught have my students been so enabled to demonstrate their intellectual talents and creative abilities. Somehow as I reach the end of my teaching career I have found an approach that empowers students to explore ideas that are important to them.

This past year the films were:

Lone Star (John Sayles) (1996)

Character (Mike van Diem) (1997)

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan) (1962)

The Nasty Girl (Michael Verhoeven) (1990)

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa) (1952)

Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov) (1994)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) (1979)

Antonia's Line (Marleen Gorris) (1995)

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee) (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen) (1989)

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco) (1985)

Henry Fool (Hal Hartley) (1997)

Un Coeur En Hiver (Claude Sautet) (1992)

Although film is a "popular" medium, this choice of films does not attempt to draw on the new work on law and popular culture and they undoubtedly do not reflect popular taste in Hollywood films. n8 These films were selected because they are ambitious, and they challenge settled expectations about Law, raise moral questions, and often de-center our sense of social reality. The choice of films, and the teacher's understanding and investment in them, is crucial. I had written about most of the films I selected for the seminar and the writing served me well.

The majority of these films are foreign (subtitled) and date from the past decade. John Sayles is a morally ambitious American filmmaker and his film Lone Star has proved to be good film with which to begin the seminar. The film explores the relation between Texas and Mexico  [*578]  as a matter of history, morality and law. It touches on ethnic and racial matters, and it questions our most basic psychological and moral assumptions about rules, law, and justice.

Following Lone Star, students plunge into a series of films set in a different historical and social reality meant to challenge their everyday sense of right and wrong:

Character-on the making of a lawyer in Rotterdam circa 1920s.

The Marriage of Maria Braun-what happened to ordinary Germans after WWII.

The Nasty Girl-a young German woman looks into the truth about the Holocaust.

Ikiru-a bureaucrat with cancer in post-war Japan seeks the purpose of life.

Antonia's Line-a feminist vision of what life might be.

Burnt by the Sun-family and politics during Stalin's reign of terror.

Do the Right Thing-black America choosing between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Kiss of the Spider Woman-homosexuality and revolutionary politics in an Argentinean prison.

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. A colleague commented, during a discussion about the seminar that "Law is found experience, and so is film" and people often "find" quite different experiences in film. n9

Sometimes the different findings can be sorted out and resolved simply by rerunning the film. There is for example a scene in Antonia's Line where a priest is caught in flagrante delicto. The scene is quite dark and very brief; many of my students felt sure that his victim was a young girl, others were confident they have seen some member of Antonia's extended family. Upon freezing the frame we learn the victim is neither. Both of these misperceptions are crucial to one's  [*579]  understanding of the narrative and to one's judgment about the moral stature of the main characters. Antonia and farmer Bas, her lover, have arranged the assignation to expose the hypocrisy of the priest, who has been denouncing Antonia's unwed, pregnant daughter. If they had supplied a child or a member of Antonia's own family for this purpose it would have damaged their moral credibility and the entire story. The student (and at times the teacher) has the opportunity in instances like this to be captured in his or her own flagrante delicto of the mind as one's (un)conscious expectations produce a meaningful misreading of the text. n10

We tend to be very confident about what we have seen with our own eyes and fact finders in law have much the same confidence about the narratives they construct but in reality all of us have the same limitations. This issue is dramatically reenacted in the classic film 12 Angry Men (1957) where eleven of the "jury members" misjudge the evidence, the character and the guilt of the defendant. That film allows us to be confirmed in our convictions about the prejudices and bias/perceptions of others-a lesson this generation of students knows full well. The seminar allows them and the teacher an experienced-based learning about our own biases.

However there are often ambiguities and disagreements in our findings of fact that cannot be resolved. n11 Disagreements about the moral character of Antonia and Farmer Bas can be based on value systems, such disagreements are not changed by recognizing them. The film is clearly hostile to the institutions of patriarchy, the Church, the University, traditional marriage, the father dominated family, even the male dominated pub. Students who are committed to those patriarchal institutions may see the characters as immoral and self-indulgent. Out of our discussion of these characters, we sometimes find disagreement that cannot be resolved, but in taking up the discussion we have, I think, done something worthwhile.

The ending of Verhoeven's The Nasty Girl, one of the course films, turns out to be a virtual Rorschach test for the way students interpret films. In the last scene, the young woman who insisted on telling the truth about what happened in her town during the Holocaust has climbed up a tree and is peering out of the branches. Some of my  [*580]  students either do not see or register this last scene, an omission that can be remedied by replaying the ending in class. Now we have all registered the same ending, but they still understand it quite differently than I do. I believe they want to find some affirmative conclusion to her relentless search for the truth. They point out that the tree is where the young people in the film made their wishes for the future and prayed for divine intervention. She is in the tree hoping for something better. That seems to me a very strained interpretation, particularly since in the preceding scene she has gone wild and slaps her mother. I would argue that the Nasty Girl's fate is a demonstration of what happens to a person committed to a truth in the face of group, community, and national denial, it becomes a form of madness. What we see in the tree at the end of the film is a madwoman-the fate of the lovable young girl who insisted on the truth that no one else in her defining community wanted to know. Although I am quite confident of this interpretation it is obvious that no matter how many times we view this film some of the students will not agree. 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.

In "Law, Psychology and Morality: An Exploration Through Film," the student, drawing on textual interpretation both akin to and different from that found in the traditional law school classroom, explores the nexus between psychology and morality, and works with the conflicts between human nature, rules and justice. As with other seminars, there are ups and downs, but the film seminar students are galvanized, eager to join the dialogue, and ready to offer their own ideas. In this response I find 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 the law school and of legal education. I believe my film seminar is one of many solutions that need to be found. The alienation of students is, in some fashion, related to the disjointed way we try to deal with concerns about justice.


The Film Seminar in Perspective

The search for justice is not just an intellectual pursuit; the failure to deal with justice concerns has profound psychological importance. Our "sense of humanity" requires a moral order that will not give way to skepticism. There are conflicting theories about the origins and significance of these moral impulses, but no student of the human psyche would deny they exist. And certainly for many young people drawn to the study of law, there is an intellectual interest in justice driven by a moral passion. Technical law is not enough to satisfy this higher impulse. Idealism is more often tested than strengthened by legal education.

Although it may seem odd to say so, I believe seminars like Law and Literature and my own film seminar are actually a return to traditional legal pedagogy. Much has been written about the teaching of law through the case method and Socratic dialogue. Legendary teachers of the past are said to have been able to impart the fundamental principles of the common law through one or two cases. An overlooked psychosocial value of such virtuoso teaching is that their students became an intellectual community by repeated discussions of a shared text and responding to each other's arguments. If civilization is in any sense an intellectual community it is so because of such discussions of shared texts, e.g., the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the works of Shakespeare, the Western Canon, etc. The case method brought the same intellectual sustenance to the law school classroom. This premise that dialogue about a shared text is the constitutive element of intellectual community is central to the film seminar. At a moment when legal academics have begun to lose faith in the "Socratic method," the seminar is a return to the past with a modern text-film.

Why film rather than Rylands v. Fletcher n12 or Hadley v. Baxen- dale? n13 The case method as I have observed it at Harvard Law School with its large first-year classes imposes a substantial psychological cost on many students. Law professors have already worked through every possible argument that can be made about the cases they teach. Instead of being a joint enterprise, the Socratic dialogue can take the form of 150 beginners playing chess with a master who knows every possible move. The intellectual engagement can degenerate into an ego-tripping professor, a few eager students (also known as "gunners" or "turkeys"), and a majority of the class who are reticent or refuse to play a game  [*582]  they know they cannot win. This is something of a caricature, but it suggests one psychologically important issue: the intellectual disempowerment and disengagement of too many students in the law school classrooms. It often seems that very little of what students have learned before coming to law school is applicable to the chess game that the "Socratic dialogue" can become.

Although there are many other factors, including peer pressure, that influence law students, n14 one thing has been obvious-students are reluctant to enter the classroom dialogue. They know there is little to gain and many feel vulnerable. In contrast, film is the medium of the young; law students enter that dialogue from a position of strength, more certain of their knowledge. I belonged to a generation of intellectuals whose secret ambition was to write a novel. This generation would like to be filmmakers; they are confident about their understanding of film. It is the professor's expertise that is in question, and this helps create a sense of joint enterprise and possibility of intellectual community.

Film and Literary Texts

I have talked about the teaching of film and drew comparisons to the teaching of a great literary text (associated with the Western Canon). The underlying assumption was that readers of this journal would be familiar with Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Kafka's The Trial and see immediately how these texts might touch on "basic timeless features of human existence." One reason that great literature has been prescribed for lawyers is that is raises the profession's moral horizons. I suspect that my film seminar grew out of teaching texts in the Law and Literature seminar that allowed us to discuss our moral horizons.

During the 1960s I edited, with Sue Smart Stone, a kind of psychiatric casebook, The Abnormal Personality Through Literature. n15 The literary examples, drawn mostly from the Western Canon, illustrated various psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses. Unlike standard psychiatric case histories, these literary excerpts did not reduce the troubled human being to his psychopathology and the book proved a useful and popular way to introduce students to diagnostic constructs. The prolonged search through great literature for portraits  [*583]  of mental disturbance was a useful propaedeutic, but I would not have been secure enough to teach Law and Literature had not my colleague Richard Parker gotten me started by allowing me to co-teach his Law and Literature seminar with him. He viewed the seminar as a kind of spiritual hygiene for lawyers and he selected readings accordingly. The intensity of the students' engagement was impressive.

When I took up the Law and Literature seminar on my own, I selected texts for my own course which had been the focus of intellectual inquiry by Law and Literature scholars. As it turned out, most of these were terra incognita to students. They were, for example, quite unfamiliar with the works of Thomas Mann and his "Mario and the Magician," n16 the short story which Professor Parker interpreted in his essay, Here the People Rule. n17 When I asked about Mann's better-known Death in Venice, two students said they had seen the movie. I got a similar response for Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. None had read The Heart of Darkness but almost all of them had seen Apocalypse Now (1979) (roughly based on the Conrad novel). More troubling, when the students read the literary texts I had selected and discussed them, it turned out that they (with notable exceptions) lacked confidence in their own understanding (at times with good reason). For example, James Boyd White, a leading figure in the field of Law and Literature, has written a marvelous essay on Sophocles' Philoctetes , n18 so I assigned the play. But the students lacked the necessary familiarity with the text-or Greek drama in general-to discuss it competently. They did no better discussing a Shakespeare sonnet whose meaning and constancy of meaning had been addressed by Charles Fried n19 and Posner. n20 Posner apparently has had a similar experience, "Most law students today, even at the best law schools, have little acquaintance with the classics of Western literature. . . . A law teacher cannot assume that his students have any literary background at all." n21 While the Law and Literature seminar was well received by students, I did not feel they had contributed to the dialogue with any assurance or enthusiasm. We had, or so it seemed, simply replicated the typical "speak at your peril"  [*584]  atmosphere of the Harvard Law School classroom. I decided to experiment with film when I realized that film might constitute a more widely shared text for establishing intellectual community with a generation of students who were rooted in Western cinema rather than the Western Canon.

A Turn to Film

My scholarly interest in film began serendipitously a few years ago when my colleague Randall Kennedy asked me to write an article about white racism for the second issue of his journal, Reconstruction. For many years I had been teaching about white racism in another exotic seminar, "Psychoanalytic Theory and Legal Assumptions." The most thoughtful psychoanalytic book on that subject, Joel Kovel's White Racism, n22 contained a marvelous interpretation of William Faulkner's novel Light in August. Rather than paraphrase Kovel's Marxist-psychoanalytic insights, I impulsively proposed to my colleague that I would try my hand at the recently released film, Glory. Telling the story of the first brigade of African- American soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War, the film bore the stamp of America's white racist (un)consciousness and proved an interesting text for interpretation. Not that what I eventually wrote met with uniform agreement. A number of letters to the editor complained that as a white man I did not adequately appreciate just how racist the film was. n23 Nonetheless what had been established to the editor's satisfaction and mine was that film could provide the text for a serious and provocative discussion of race, a matter with deep human and legal significance.

Over the past ten years I have continued to write and publish reviews of films n24 which touch on what I describe as the moral adventure of life. That phrase and the ideas behind it were introduced to me by my colleague, Roberto Unger, during our discussions of his book, Passion: An Essay on Personality. n25 Although most films are meant to be entertaining, almost all portray some sense of good and evil, and they reflect a moral adventure even if a commonplace and banal one. Serious films may not arise to the level of Shakespeare, but  [*585]  they can have a significant impact on students, especially when they raise questions about our settled beliefs and offer a challenging perspective on the moral adventure of life.

The usual function of film reviews is to help movie-goers decide which films are worth their time and money. Such reviews, which take pains not to give away too much of the plot and certainly not the ending, might better be called previews, while my own interpretive essays might more properly be called "postviews." n26 Usually it is essential to discuss the ending if one is to appreciate the moral significance of a film. The experience of writing such interpretations of films is the only specialized film expertise I bring to the law school film seminar.

After my presentation on 8 (1963) at a Harvard Film symposium on Fellini, n27 a discussant characterized me as a moralist who had rediscovered the New Criticism of the 1950s. Whatever else he may have meant by this less than flattering comment he was correct to emphasize that my interest was in moral themes and a textualist approach-a close reading of the text as a coherent work. This approach may be contrasted with a variety of other critical methods. Pauline Kael, the doyenne of American film critics, popularized the "my reaction" approach. n28 Though trained in philosophy at Berkeley she wrote against the "East Coast pundits" and became the master of the biting one-liner, (Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975)-"a three hour slide show for art history majors" n29). She specialized in the connoisseur's personal opinions: her likes and dislikes. European and academic film critics generally take a more systematic theoretical approach- Marxism, structuralism, Freudism, Jungism, Lacanism, deconstruc-tionism, post- modernism, Derridaism, and various combinations thereof. The aforementioned discussant in assigning me to the "New Criticism" school of literary criticism was placing me in relationship to these other "isms." Although the line between literary criticism and film criticism is less than distinct, New Criticism obviously belongs on the literature side.

Academic specialists in film may object to my approach to film as literary text and to my lack of film training and credentials. One irate film academic, resentful that I invaded his turf, challenged me to publish music criticism as well as film criticism, the obvious point being  [*586]  that that I was a presumptuous impostor. Academic film critics doubtless possess a much deeper understanding of the methods of filmmaking than I can claim. They are like art historians who can demonstrate where Rembrandt used the wooden tip of his brush to finish the beard in his self-portrait. With their deep and broad film erudition they can trace the influence of earlier filmmakers and situate a picture in the history of film. My response to the credentials challenge is to acknowledge the obvious limitations of my expertise and to encourage student "experts" in the seminar to add whatever they can to the dialogue. n30

There are, of course, valid efforts to distinguish the visual medium from literature. Throughout the history of film, the avant garde have struggled against what they saw as the collapse of a unique art form-film-into narrative. The visual medium, they insist, is and ought to be distinct from story-telling, but for most of this century they have fought a losing battle. n31 I must confess that to my mind the most interesting film and film criticism is literary.

Because I was trained as a psychoanalyst, students expect me to psychoanalyze the characters in the film-or even better the filmmakers-especially since I primarily choose films made by auteurs (i.e. filmmakers who write and direct their own films). Although it is true that all creative work is in some sense autobiographical and that Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and Woody Allen are everywhere in their films, the measure of their talent is that what they have created cannot be reduced to mere autobiography. The psychoanalytic interpretation of literary texts has a long and checkered history. Freud's influence on  [*587]  liberal arts academia is profound even among those who eschew his jargon and "New Age" psychobabble. n32 However, there are many pitfalls in an effort to apply a psychoanalytic method to literary texts and films. At its worst the scholar applies reified cookie-cutter psychoanalytic concepts to the text and the result is invariably reductionistic. D.H. Lawrence complained bitterly that psychoanalysts were telling "half-lies" about him. n33 Ernest Jones' famous interpretation of Hamlet is the best example of this unfortunate method that quickly loses its apparent explanatory power. He suggested that Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius because of his unconscious identification with the man who killed his father and slept with his mother. Each new school of psychoanalysis- Jung, Horney, Klein, Laing, Kohut, Lacan- has produced a new inter-pretive framework capable of being applied to texts. At its best the analytic method and the text creatively accommodate to each other in the process of interpreting a work of art-just as in a good analytic session with a patient. This I think may be true of all good interpretive methods, they are shaped and reformed by application to a particular text.

Psychoanalytic insights have been assimilated into broader interpretations of film and literature, most artfully to my mind, by Stanley Cavell, a philosopher trained in psychoanalysis who avoids the cookie-cutter interpretations, and brings a deeper and broader understanding to the text-stretching it out until it says something about the human condition. n34 His mixture of philosophical and psychological insight into film is easy to admire but difficult to duplicate. The difficulty is not just a matter of erudition; it is a demonstration of the inescapable truth that even the best interpretation of a text says something about the interpreter. That truth is easier to acknowledge when one is discussing film than when one is discussing Supreme Court opinions-though I believe it may apply to both. So my published film essays do not analyze auteurs, or the characters in the film, as though they were patients on the couch, and much as I might aspire to, I do not try to imitate Cavell.

Finally in the list of things I am not doing, I am not interested in the modern courtroom drama or the contemporary lawyer as portrayed  [*588]  in film or television n35-what one might describe as images of the lawyer in popular culture-"L.A. Law," "The Practice," "The Verdict," i.e. the lawyer as America's last cowboy.

It is easier to say what I am not doing in my film essays than what I am. Unlike Pauline Kael, I have no confidence in my personal taste; indeed people's likes and dislikes in film are to me an incorrigible mystery. I choose films to review (and to work with in the film seminar) which present complex ideas, interesting moral questions, ambiguous and subtle psychological themes, challenges to settled beliefs, and creative ambition-films that explore the nexus between psychology and morality, character and context.

Although mine is not a psychoanalytic method I watch a film in the way a psychoanalyst listens to a patient. I try to suspend judgement and understand what the auteur is saying and doing. n36. 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. n37

Law teachers interested in this approach should keep in mind the procedural features of the seminar which help to overcome alienation. We eat and drink together- a time honored means of bringing strangers into community. We have a shared experience watching the films together-an experience captured on film in Cinema Paradiso (1988). We read each others ideas and discuss our differences, creating a community around dialogue. When the experience works, it becomes easier for students to express support and to give approval to each other, and to welcome and offer eccentric opinion. Moreover, at a  [*589]  psychological level something more important happens. 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.  [*590] 

Appendix: Film Commentary

American Beauty n38


When I went to see American Beauty, a young man seated behind me kept explaining the film to his companion in urgent whispers as he tried to follow its many twists and turns. At a particularly important moment in the film-the moment of what I take to be aesthetic revelation-he burst out, "that weirdo is actually enjoying looking at the dead guy." His reaction seems to be fairly common. Most critics and filmgoers apparently see American Beauty as a black-comic, ironic caricature of dysfunctional suburbia, which culminates in a weirdo looking at a dead guy, and (apparently) enjoying it. Even at that level, the film has been a critical and popular success- although there are some whose moral sensibilities are so rankled they go away confused or repelled by the characters.

It's easy to see how this movie could produce such reactions. The only "decent" people in it are a couple of gay men-a tax attorney and an anesthesiologist, who seem comfortably at home in their suburban identities. Virtually everyone else lacks a sense of authenticity and pretends to some quality-self-control, self-confidence, worldly sophistication-that they lack. American Beauty unmasks all these pathological deceptions and exposes the hypocrisy of middle class morality.

But there is more to American Beauty than meets the eye. Indeed the movie suggests that if you look in unexpected places for beauty you may even see God looking back. In exploring the meaning and importance of beauty, the film in effect enacts the views about beauty and ethics advanced by Harvard literature professor Elaine Scarry in her recent book On Beauty and Being Just (1999). I do not mean to suggest that the filmmakers attended her lectures, read her new book, or drew directly on Scarry's ideas. But the resonances are so uncanny they suggest something more than mere coincidence. Perhaps in parallel, Scarry and American Beauty have touched a chord of mass consciousness-a millennial search for spiritual meaning in beauty.

Scarry has two sets of ideas. One is about the felt experience of beauty: the "surfeit of aliveness," the "decentering of the self in consciousness" and the flicker from the mind to the body that validates  [*591]  the sentient moment. This is beauty as a "wake-up call" to the plenitude of life. Here is Scarry, presenting the insight of Homer, Augustine, and Proust: "Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living." American Beauty presents a similar message. We hear it from Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a teen-age "weirdo" who compulsively videotapes everything he sees. He is the spiritual catalyst of the film, and lives for beauty. And we hear it at the end of the film in a voice over by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) who has died for it, thankfully not before he got his wake-up call and enjoyed a few moments of moral enlightenment.

Scarry's other set of ideas is about the connection between beauty and moral enlightenment. Beauty, she says, "ignites one's desire for truth," and is deeply connected to symmetry, fairness, and justice itself. American Beauty makes similar connections and goes further, suggest-ing that spiritual redemption begins with the experience of beauty.

Scarry writes about beauty as if she had to convince an audience of skeptics in literary theory. But a new spiritual call to beauty seems to have converts everywhere. How else can one explain the retreats outside San Francisco where a rabbi who is no longer sure he believes in God preaches to the throng that the Burning Bush is about the miracle of beauty; or the secular self-actualizing gurus who enthuse to their flocks about discovering beauty in unexpected places; or the hordes of elderly people who have descended on the museums of the world determined to witness beauty before they die? Seeing beauty is like seeing angels: both are divine messengers from a possible hereafter.

Scarry describes, as the centerpiece of her own "sentient" experience, discovering the beauty of a palm tree, a possibility she had mistakenly "ruled out" before. A challenging example for me because it is a mistake I have been unable to correct. She goes on, "I gradually realized it was looking back down at me." The careful reader knows she is now describing an illusion-almost an hallucination-"woven into" the fronds "was a large owl." Still the concept is unmistakable-look at beauty and something looks back: perhaps an owl, perhaps God Himself. n39

Stuart Hampshire, a philosopher who doubts that Scarry's connections between beauty and justice are more than analogies, places Scarry's aesthetic approach in the line of Ruskin, Pater, and Proust: all three found beauty in unexpected places. It has as much to do with the way one looked as what one saw. Hampshire describes it aptly as the  [*592]  "arts of attending." Scarry believes that the human ability to respond to beauty suggests that the aesthetic experience is more than mere convention. Although she writes only about the particular experience of beauty, not some platonic ideal, she believes the experience is universal. American Beauty makes a further leap. It wants us to believe that a kind of Zen God cares about beauty, indeed that being open to beauty is a religious experience and the "arts of attending" reveal the sacred text of everyday life in which God is immanent.

American Beauty's paradigm of beauty is neither the young girl who is the eponymous American Beauty, nor anything else that is conventionally beautiful. It is, improbably enough, a plastic bag. Ricky has a videotape of a bit of trash and dead leaves caught in a wind dance, a miracle of nature-is it God's hand?-that choreographs inanimate litter into beauty. Ricky tells us it is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. New York Times critic Steven Holden reports that American Beauty "borrows an image (and an entire esthetic of beauty) from Nathaniel Dorsky's Variations in which the camera admired a plastic shopping bag being blown about by the wind." Variations is an avante-garde silent film about unconventional and unexpected glimpses of beauty. The central idea is that behind the ugly and the prosaic something else is happening that arrests our attention and draws us out of our mundane experiences. Scarry makes her case for beauty with moths and Matisse's palm trees rather than plastic bags, but there is a common message.

Ricky Fitts is the prophet of this religion of beauty. He has survived two years in a mental hospital where he was incarcerated by his insane father, an ex-Marine Colonel, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), who makes George Patton seem like a teddy bear. All his militaristic manliness is fueled by his repressed homosexuality which explodes and destroys. He is the most pathological example of an American conventional-type. His wife has been driven into catatonia and his son, Ricky, has escaped into the bliss of beauty.

Like many of his predecessors in film and literature, Ricky, the weirdo, provides the glimmer of sanity that exposes the madness of normal life. Drugged into zombie-hood by psychiatrists, he now "parties" on the best marijuana and sells it to support his vocation-capturing the world and its unexpected beauty in his video camera. Ricky has seen God's eye looking back when he peered into the eye of a homeless woman who had frozen to death; he can see beauty in the dead bird that he captures in his camera; and he recognizes the beauty in Lester's daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who is unattractive by conventional standards. This beauty transcends the quotidian world, aesthetic conventions, the ugliness of the common place, and even the horror of  [*593]  death-if you have the art of attending. Beauty has driven fear out of Ricky's world. He is the "weirdo" who looks into the eye of the murdered Lester Burnham, with a strange smile of pleasure signalling the "surfeit of aliveness" in the face of death, the validating flicker from the mind to the body as he saw God looking back. The film's script carefully prepares us for this epiphanous moment. Ricky has told Jane, with whom he is in love, that beauty grounds the world and his own being. Sometimes, he tells her, when he is aware of all the beauty in the world he is overwhelmed and feels as though his heart will cave in. Jane loves him but his only real convert is Lester.

Lester's conversion is the black comedy that foregrounds American Beauty. The film begins as it will end with a voice over by Lester's spirit: "My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. In less than a year I'll be dead. Of course I don't know that yet. In a way I'm dead already." Lester is a man whose moral adventure in life seems to have been a failure. Neither in love nor in work can he find meaning. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is a real estate agent desperately trying to climb the ladder of commercial success. Feeling inadequate and vulnerable she has become a control freak whose compulsions-to be prompt and self-controlled, and to listen to "elevator music" at dinner-rule her family and make intimacy impossible. Jane, their only child, despises them both.

If ever a man needed a strong dose of "aliveness," Lester Burnham does. Dragged by his wife to the high school basketball game to show support for Jane who is one of the cheerleaders, he finds his "owl" in Angela (Mena Suvari), a traditonal "American Beauty" and his daughter's best friend. Lester's reaction to this unbeautiful girl is as mysterious to me as Scarry's response to her palm tree. But what happens is exactly as if Scarry blocked out the scene. She writes, "At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you-as though the object were designed to 'fit' your perception." Just so we enter Lester's mind and watch as all the other cheerleaders disappear and a spotlight falls on Angela. And his "angel" seems to welcome him as rose petals pour out of her bosom toward Lester. This moment of course is less innocent than the beauty of a palm tree; it is more like Gustave von Aschenbach catching his first glimpse of Thadzio, or Humbert Humbert's pedophile dream coming true, when he catches sight of Lolita. The middle-aged father smitten by his daughter's high school friend is the nightmare of suburbia and the movie builds tension on the possibility of its consummation.

As a personality, the American Beauty is as dysfunctional as everyone else in the movie. Angela thinks that sophistication is  [*594]  conveyed by the ease with which you mouth foul language and speak about sexual experiences. Her coarse and cynical manner is meant to conceal her child-like immaturity and utter lack of self-confidence. She presents herself as an aspiring model, and feigns a worldly willingness to sleep her way to the top, but is terrified that her fate is to be plain and ordinary. Her friend Jane accepts all of Angela's pretenses until Ricky comes into the picture and with his discerning eye and his non- stop video taping reveals the truth about which is the beauty. Jane becomes the swan, Angela the ugly duckling. Agreeing with Ricky's judgment makes it even more difficult to understand Lester's swoon.

Still, he is certainly decentered and he goes back in time to earlier moments of beauty and the plenitude of life. Beauty "ignites (his) desire for truth" and higher values. He quits his job, thumbs his nose at his wife's compulsions and retreats to his last remembered time of happiness, even aliveness-adolescence, in the sixties. Ricky helps him along by introducing him to the best weed on the planet. He gets high, works out to build muscles that will appeal to the American Beauty, buys a red Pontiac, finds a job in a fast food drive-through, and generally chills. All this animation outrages his wife, who goes off to have an affair charged with excitement but devoid of love or beauty. Lester finds out, ruins it for her, and now feels justified in his own attempts to hit on his daughter's friend.

Her father's behavior and her mother's cynical advice-in life you can only count on yourself-drives Jane into the arms of Ricky Fitts. When Jane wishes her father dead Ricky offers to kill him. Is he bluffing? Meanwhile Lester's wife Carolyn who has learned the ecstasy of firing a gun from her partner in adultery has mastered a motivational tape mantra, "I will not be a victim." She too is thinking of killing Lester. Can she make herself do it? Colonel Fitts has similar thoughts. Struggling against his repressed homosexuality he sees with his own eyes what he takes to be a homosexual encounter between Ricky and Lester (really, it is an "innocent" drug transaction). After battering his son in a homophobic rage the Colonel succumbs to his own homosexual urges. The extraordinary moment when he embraces and kisses Lester on the lips is a scene that will be difficult to forget. When Lester, now as chilled out as a man can get, gently refuses his sexual advances the Colonel suffers the kind of humiliation that engenders homicidal thoughts.

While everyone is thinking about killing him, Lester finally gets his chance with the American Beauty. He is in a kind of rose-petal ecstasy when the seduction begins. Then the girl of his dreams lets him know that she is in truth a virgin. If seeing her was a wake-up call, this is his moment of grace and moral enlightenment. He has an even more  [*595]  powerful decentering experience-he becomes aware of his own instinctive goodness. He refuses to take the young girl's virginity and this virtuous act opens another world to him. Suddenly he is alive to the beauty of life, to truth, to justice, and to his love of his own family. Beauty has not distracted him from the world, but made him more attentive to it. He reassures Angela that she is far from ordinary-that she is, in fact, beautiful-and allows her a moment of human intimacy when she sets aside her pretenses. He is now able to think about his daughter Jane as a real person and is delighted to learn she is in love with Ricky. He picks up a picture of his family and we see him enthusing about beauty and having that ecstatic flicker from the mind to the body.

In that instant, he is shot. As Ricky peers into the dead man's eye, Lester's conversion to the aesthetic of redemptive beauty is revealed to us. The moment before you die, Lester tells us in his spirit's final voice over, is not an instant in which your whole life passes before you-the moment goes on and on. Out of this infinitude Lester speaks about the beauty of life, and with "the arts of attending" now at his command, he describes how every moment of his life was filled with beauty. Like Ricky he now speaks of seeing the beauty behind everything. He reprises Ricky's version of the world's overflowing beauty in a more hopeful way: there is so much beauty in the world he feels his heart will burst and then instead there is rain everywhere. As the ultimate proof of his conversion he shows us, as his own, Ricky's paradigm of beauty- Dorsky's litter caught in a wind dance choreographed by that Zen God.

Tolstoy said that unlike happy families who are all the same, unhappy families are unhappy in different ways. That is the opening sentence of his famous Anna Karenina, a novel about failed love, a search for self fulfillment in adultery, and children caught in the cross-fire between vengeful parents. Tolstoy's novel proves him wrong by giving us a formula for a lot of unhappy families whose unhappiness follows a common pattern. That formula applies just as well to millennial America as it did to 19th century Russia. It is played out in American Beauty as it has been in many great films of this century. What eludes filmmakers today, as it did Tolstoy, is the elusive formula for a believably happy family. American Beauty does not have a formula but it offers the possibility of something better if only for one redemptive moment that might go on forever in a possible hereafter.

Now a central problem for the film, or for my interpretation of it, is that most of the audience, like the noisy man behind me, does not see beauty in the miracle of the trash dance. Garbage is garbage, leaves are leaves, Angela is a wannabe- sophisticate, pretend-hot-to-trot cheer-leader, and Ricky is a wacked out drug- dealer. They cannot correct their  [*596]  aesthetic mistake, any more than I can correct mine about palm trees. Scarry tells us she rectified her error by realizing she was thinking about composite palm trees and not looking at a particular palm tree. Art and beauty have always been about finding the universal in the particular but sometimes it is not easily found. It seems to me no accident that Scarry is in the line of Ruskin, Pater, and Proust. They, she and Ricky Fitts are artists in the arts of attending; in that sense beauty is in the praxis of the beholder. It takes an effort of the will, the heart and the mind to experience the "wake-up call" of American Beauty.

Although American Beauty enacts Scarry's theories, it also contributes to the questions we have about the connections between beauty and moral enlightenment. Beauty can "ignite" all sorts of desires but American Beauty suggests that Stuart Hampshire has a point: some other alchemy of human nature, something more than beauty itself, is needed to draw virtue from the flames.

American Beauty was directed by Sam Mendes, who has been on the fast track to success in England since graduating from Cambridge in 1987: the Chichester Festival, Royal Shakespeare Company, Donmar Warehouse, then the West End and Broadway. He has directed Judi Dench in Chekhov, Ralph Fiennes in Shakespeare and he convinced Nicole Kidman to appear naked on the stage in Blue Room-a sell out in London and New York. Directing his first film, Mendes has managed to reach an American mass audience without dumbing down his British theatrical sophistication and substance. One is tempted to think of him as a modern day deTocqueville, the outsider who sees American realities better than we natives can.

But much of the devastating insight of this film comes from the American playwright Alan Ball. This is also Ball's first film; previously, he had written for Broadway theater and done TV situation comedy. In fact he wrote American Beauty on the side to maintain his sanity and his creative standards while being ground down by his television work, and he concedes that a lot of rage went into the writing. Although he sees himself in all the characters, he thinks his play transcends his own personality and reports that the actual experience of writing was as though he were "channeling." Channeling is the new age psychology description of what used to be described less superstitiously as those moments when the author's muse was speaking and the creative impulse seemed centered outside his conscious self. One of Ball's channels must have been broadcasting "L.A. Law" or "The Practice," because the original screenplay emphasized the whodunnit murder plot framed by a courthouse scene that Mendes actually filmed but in an editorial stroke of genius left on the cutting- room floor. Stephen  [*597]  Spielberg, the favorite whipping boy of high-minded cineastes, seems to have his finger in every commercially successful pie. He was one of the people at DreamWorks who recognized Mendes' potential as a film director after attending his Broadway remake of Cabaret. DreamWorks already had Ball's script and they sent it to Mendes who rose to the bait.

There is no one secret to Mendes' creative sensibility (his range is impressive, all the way from "Richard the III" to "Little Voices"), but his choice of Cabaret for a new production was fascinating and I think instructive. London's West End and Broadway have seen a whole series of musical remakes filled with nostalgia for the good old days. But, Cabaret summons up Germany before Hitler, where pleasure is desperate and perverse, cynicism reigns, and moral ambition seems impossible-it is a Doomsday celebration. There is something like Cabaret in the American millennial consciousness and raised against it a search for meaning. American Beauty holds a mirror up to that struggle. Francis Ford Coppolla said his unachieved ambition was to make a film that would say something important to his contemporaries about their situation. He spoke of Fellini, and no doubt was also thinking of Bergman. Sam Mendes has made the kind of film that does what Coppolla wanted to do and he has done it on his very first try. His 73 year-old cinematographer, Conrad Hall, says he is the new Orson Welles. American Beauty is no Citizen Kane, but Mendes is off to a running start.

n1 Richard A. Posner, Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation (1988).

n2 However, Posner readily acknowledges "the variety of educational objectives that a law-school course in law and literature can serve: providing perspective by viewing law from the outside as well as from the inside . . . introducing the student to interdisciplinary legal studies in general and the law and literature movement in particular . . . providing a fresh angle on topics traditionally studied in courses on jurisprudence and legal process. . . ." See id., at 18.

n3 Id. at 12. See also Charles Rothfeld, What Do Law Schools Teach? Almost Anything, N.Y. Times, Dec. 23, 1988, at B8.

n4 But Posner's argument seems premised on the interesting assumption (I would readily concede that it is implicit) that law professors bring little to the discussion of "Law." One might note without irony that just as there are no Professors of "care" at the Medical School, there are no Professors of "Law" at the Law School.

n5 Richard A. Posner, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, 111 Harv. L. Rev. 1637 (1998).

n6 For a recent brilliant interpretation see Kenji Yoshino, The Lawyer of Belmont, 9 Yale J.L. & Human. 182 (1997).

n7 In literature, law is sometimes portrayed as a negation of life, a potentially inhuman, unnatural, and destructive force (as in Kafka's The Trial, Melville's Billy Budd, or Dickens' Bleak House).

n8 Unlike "law and film" offerings at other institutions, my films are not primarily drawn from mainstream popular culture. See C. Klein, Legal Reelism-Is Learning Law and Ethics from Flicks a Farce?, National L. J., Feb. 17, 1997, at A17.

n9 David Simon Sokolow has written about the divergent reactions of his students to a showing of Rashomon. See D. S. Sokolow, From Kurosawa to (Duncan) Kennedy: The Lessons of Rashomon for Current Legal Education, 1991 Wis. L. Rev. 969 (1991).

n10 There is of course a great deal of psychological research on such misperception- misremembering-and for almost a century the limitations of eye-witnesses has been an important intersection of law and psychology. John Monahan and Laurens Walker, Social Science in Law 411-441 (4th ed., 1998).

n11 The ambiguities themselves may or may not be purposeful, i.e. intended by the director or non-purposefully produced in the cutting room.

n12 L.R. 3 H.L. 330 (1868).

n13 156 Eng. Rep. 145 (Court of Exchequer, 1854).

n14 Alan A. Stone, Legal Education on the Couch, 83 Harv. L. Rev. 392 (1971).

n15 Alan A. Stone & Sue Smart Stone (eds.), The Abnormal Personality Through Literature (1966).

n16 Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (H.T. Lowe-Porter trans., Vintage International, 1989).

n17 Richard D. Parker, "Here, the People Rule": A Constitutional Populist Manifesto, 27 Val. U. L. Rev. 531 (1993).

n18 James B. White, Hercules' Bow: Essays on the Rhetoric and Poetics of the Law (1985).

n19 Charles Fried, Sonnet LXV and the "Black Ink" of the Framers' Intention, 100 Harv. L. Rev. 751 (1987).

n20 See Posner, supra note 1, at 266-268.

n21 Id. at 360-361.

n22 Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970).

n23 Years later the Harvard Black Law Student Association selected "Glory" to show to the Harvard Law School community for Afro-American History Month.

n24 Most of my film reviews are available on the Web: <http:// bostonreview.mit.edu/onfilm.html>. The reviews have been published in the Boston Review, fort da, Psychiatric Times, and Reconstruction.

n25 Roberto Unger, Passion: An Essay On Personality (1984).

n26 For an example of what I call a postview, see Appendix A, my review of Sam Mendes' American Beauty.

n27 Fellini Symposium, Carpenter Center, 1998.

n28 Louis Menand, "Finding It At The Movies," N.Y. Rev. Books, March 23, 1995 (reviewing Pauline Kael, For Keeps (1994)).

n29 Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights At The Movies 218 (1991).

n30 An even more stringent criticism of my interpretive approach might build on Panofsky's conception of how one goes about interpreting "meaning in the Visual Arts." His schematic outline describes the necessary "equipment for interpretation." The foundation is "practical experience" and as a corrective principle, familiarity with the history of style over time. Such knowledge was essential to the first level of interpretation of Renaissance Art; particularly in trying to understand the relationship between classical motifs and Christian images: e.g. Christ as Hercules, St. John the Evangelist as Atlas. With that foundation one went on to iconographic analysis which required "knowledge of literary sources: and iconological interpretation which required 'synthetic intuition.'" The problem then is that without an adequate grounding in the history of film style and visual "forms" I have attempted iconographic and iconological interpretations. Panofsky, in fact, very well describes my interpretive ambitions and interests: (iconography) "themes and concepts," the world of images, stories and allegories, and (iconology) "synthetic intuition," "essential tendencies of the human mind." However, the lack of practical experience suggests undeniable limitations, most critically if my interpretations led me to render aesthetic judgments about the artistic merits of film.

n31 Peter Greenaway, lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 1996. Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is the classic example of film as visual art.

n32 Alan A. Stone, Where Will Psychoanalysis Survive?, Harv. Mag., Jan/Feb. 1997, at 34.

n33 Letter from D.H. Lawrence to Barbara Low (Sept. 16, 1916), in George J. Zytarub & James T. Boulton (eds.), 2 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence 655 (1981).

n34 Stanley Cavell, "On The Avoidance of Love," in Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (New York, 1969); Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (1996).

n35 See, e.g., Paul Bergman & Michael Asimow, Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996); John Denvir (ed.), Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (1996).

n36 I try to understand the film as the auteur might. This concern with the auteur's intentions links me to old- fashioned "new criticism." It also links me to the Nouvelle Vague school of French critics and filmmakers. They were concerned that Hollywood studios produced a commercial product and that audiences should be presented with the work of the creative artist, the "auteur." See Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (3rd ed., 1998). The real-life auteur, in my experience, will sometimes be impressed with one's grasp of his intentions and at other times mystified. Occasionally, he has no idea what his intentions were.

n37 Of course, film is inevitably a communal enterprise; an actor improvises, the editor pastes and cuts, the auteur changes direction as his/her idea moves from screenplay to film. Yet my method of interpretation is premised on a conventional illusion-that the text is the product of a single mind, and has sufficient coherence to stand as a "text" that can be interpreted. My textualist approach and appeal to coherence should be familiar to lawyers and judges, who are basically involved in efforts to interpret law and the intentions of law- makers. Obviously many texts-like statutes-are the work of several people and reflect compromises among them.

n38 This review first appeared in the Boston Review (Vol. 25, 2000).

n39 Professor Scary has subsequently informed me that the "owl" was in fact quite real-a reality she has memorialized on film.

Prepared: June 16, 2003 - 5:02:29 PM
Edited and Updated, June 17, 2003

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