The Legal Studies Forum 1999
Copyright (c) 1999 American Legal Studies Association
The Legal Studies Forum
24 Legal Stud. Forum 573
LENGTH: 10986 words
& Film: TEACHING FILM AT HARVARD LAW SCHOOL
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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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
Kiss of the Spider Woman-homosexuality and revolutionary politics in an
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.
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.
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
"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, 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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
[*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
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
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.
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
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
[*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
"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
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 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.
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
Appendix: Film Commentary
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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
[*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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
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).
"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.
L.R. 3 H.L. 330 (1868).
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
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
"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:
"themes and concepts," the world of images, stories and allegories, and (iconology)
"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,
n33 Letter from D.H. Lawrence to Barbara Low (Sept. 16, 1916), in George J.
& 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
"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
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
Philosophy of Law