ISSN 1062-7421
Vol. 10 No. 9 (September 2000) p. 514-516.

LAW IN FILM: RESONANCE AND REPRESENTATION by David A. Black. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. 192 pp. Cloth $39.95. ISBN 0-252-02459-1. Paper $17.95. ISBN 0-252-06765-7.

Reviewed by Howard Gillman, Department of Political Science, University of Southern California.

Maybe the publishers inadvertently switched the sub-title and title. In this book there is considerable discussion of resonance and representation, but not much analysis of the ways in which law is depicted in movies. Black is a professor of communication and film theory rather than a legal scholar, and in this work he spends most of his time engaging a theoretical literature on topics such as the nature of narrative, the characteristics of genre, the role of reflexivity in film, and the various
ways in which critics respond to film. He has strong opinions on all these topics, and he goes to great lengths to argue for the relative advantage of certain concepts (e.g., the fabula/syuzhet distinction) over others (the histoire/discours distinction). However, he does not ask the kinds of questions that traditional legal scholars typically ask about law movies, questions like whether courtroom depictions are accurate or whether certain movies provoke us to think harder about the role of law in society, the nature of judicial politics, or the depiction of law in popular culture. Because these questions suggest a "pedagogical agenda" that is unrelated to
"film scholarship" he is uninterested in them except as a foil against which he can offer a more serious "engagement with film history or the nature of film" (p. 123). Readers who are mostly interested in film as a way of engaging in legal scholarship are hereby forewarned.

Black's engagement with film theory is more elliptical, sprawling, and confessional than systematic and focused. The first sentence is a pretty good preview of coming attractions: "On offer in this book is a tour -- negotiated in advance, and guided, by a narrative theorist -- of a succession of stretches of confluence between and among the cultural, textual, and historical channels of film and law" (p. 1). Law is mentioned up front but we also learn very quickly that "this book is NOT a survey of films about law, nor of any significant subset of them. The films I discuss are chosen exclusively for their value as examples ... of how to talk about what I am
talking about in the way that I am suggesting it be talked about." What he is talking about is "narrative theory in engagement with the historical and operational premises of specific representation regimes" (p. 2).

Some efforts are made to link what he is talking about with law. For example, Black points out that narrative is important both in law and in film, and concludes that films about law are thus narratives about narratives, thus making the idea of narrative in this context "doubly determined" or even "overdetermined" (although the special meaning and significance of this language is not spelled out). He also suggests, appropriately enough, that "beyond narrative" in each of these "narrative
regimes" is "pleasure in film" and "power in

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law," although he admits that "film wields a kind of power, and law provides a certain kind of pleasure" (pp. 40, 43). He notices in passing that courtrooms are kinds of theaters just like movie houses, although ultimately he insists that we must be mindful of law's distinctive relationship to actual violence; after all, "suffering and death
themselves are not, per se, narrative" (p. 38). However, much of what he has to say about these connections between narrative and law is a reproduction of the
work of others (e.g., Bennett and Feldman 1981, Cover 1985), and as with most recent Hollywood remakes there are reasons to prefer the original.

Legal scholars might find themselves hopeful when Black moves to the discussion of "genre," since that topic suggests an effort to map out what should be the object of his analysis - films about law. But his "experiment in operating under a genre-theory compulsion" produces no useable results. He tries to apply Rick Altman's (1981) discussion of genre (from his book THE AMERICAN FILM MUSICAL) to the topic at hand but after the elements of genre are elaborated Black says simply that he will not use the discussion to define the "corpus" but "will let the preceding comments on the merits of various criteria ... suffice" (p. 67). While the reader/spectator is still reeling from this calculated anti-climax Black quickly moves on to further polish his conceptual apparatus, distinguishing reflexivity from
automatic reflexivity from elective reflexivity, exploring reflexivity as reflection and reflexivity as refraction, building on Altman's distinction between the semantic and the syntactic elements of a generic film, and combining these various projects to produce new terms like "syntactic reflexivity." What is the payoff of all this work?

"...It is precisely in their treatment of logomorphism that ideologically reflective courtroom scenes tend to differ from refractive ones: when the refractive potential in a courtroom scene encounters an opposing pull, that pull comes consistently from the principle of verbal recountability. Courtroom scenes can absorb what might otherwise be an effective onslaught of reflexivity, specifically by turning the signifiers of disruption into grist for the verbal mill; or they can allow reflexivity full play" (p. 75).

You get the picture.

In highlighting other arguments about representation and resonance he is much more likely to discuss the movie REAR WINDOW (a film about the experience of watching movies) than more familiar films about law, judges, and trials. When we finally get to some law films it is more likely that Black will choose to focus on the presence of movie projectors in law films (like FURY) than the presence of law in those films. Black mentions RASHOMON, but rather than focus on the movie we get a criticism of an essay by a law professor (Sokolow 1991) in which he discusses the difficulties of using the movie in a law class to make a point about reconstructing events from competing eyewitness accounts. Don't look here for discussions of TWELVE ANGRY MEN or ANATOMY OF A MURDER or A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS or THE PAPER CHASE. In this book Nicholas Ray's unsatisfying murder melodrama IN A LONELY PLACE gets almost a whole chapter because of the way in which it uses "ad hoc categories of reflexivity such as 'Hollywood' and 'narratological'" (p. 94).

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The only movie courtroom scene that gets any sustained attention in this book (about 3 pages) is from Woody Allen's BANANAS, and this because that scene "lends itself to a double traversal by a theory of reflexivity" (p. 79). Thankfully, though, the reader gets a brief opportunity to tune out the tour guide and derive some simple pleasure from a recounting of parts of that scene. Remember when the character witness for the Woody Allen character (Fielding Mellish) says, "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I've known Fielding Mellish for years and he's a warm, wonderful human being"? Remember when Mellish then asks the clerk to please read the statement back, and the clerk reads, "I've known Fielding Mellish for years and he is a rotten, conniving, dishonest little rat"? "O.K.," says Mellish, "I just wanted to make sure you were getting it." (I mention this scene because reviewers who get caught up in this theoretical netting might begin to worry that they are becoming the court clerk to Black's Mellish in an unanticipated example of refractive reflexivity.)

For all his talk about narrative Black is not very sensitive as a writer to the pleasures that narrative structure can offer a reader -- even a reader of theory. He describes his purpose as "an attempt to take a small number of generative insights, go forward with them, and renegotiate the field of inquiry -- if only to see what it will look like" (p. 6). But most readers take greater satisfaction from the sense of coherence that we associated with a presentation that is tied together with a clearer
sense of purpose. When Black writes at one point that "even a film that goes in heavily for reflexivity can do so in a manner that is not particularly probing or critical" (p. 72) it is too tempting to think that the same thing is true for some books.

While criticizing the projects that legal scholars bring to bear on film analysis Black says that "by studying film without putting it in the kind of context it finds in legal studies, we either demonstrate that studying film is a legitimate academic goal in itself or we fail, precisely, to do so" (p. 137). Precisely.


Altman, Rick. 1987. THE AMERICAN FILM MUSICAL. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bennett, W. Lance and Martha S. Feldman. 1981. RECONSTRUCTING REALITY IN THE COURTROOM: JUSTICE AND JUDGMENT IN AMERICAN CULTURE. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Cover, Robert. 1985. "Violence and the Word," YALE LAW JOURNAL 95: 1601-28.

Sokolow, David Simon. 1991. "From Kurosawa to (Duncan) Kennedy: The Lessons of RASHOMON for Current Legal Education," WISCONSIN LAW REVIEW 5: 969-86.

Copyright 2000 by the author, Howard Gillman.