Doing the kind of scholarship that I do, I am often asked by colleagues who are interested in writing about film as it relates to law (or doesn’t relate, as the case may be), “how does one do an analysis of film?”
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the question. I did, however, spend many years as a doctoral student thinking about the question and I have spent the bulk of my still-abbreviated scholarly life performing the answer in my writing. That being said, I’m not sure I know how to make the answer explicit. For at least two reasons, I would like to try (or at least begin) here. One, because if I take seriously (and I do) the interdisciplinary endeavor of law and film, it should be as a teachable endeavor, that is, something that can be reproduced and evaluated according to certain expectations and standards. Two, I believe that film and law are central motors in our culture, by which I mean, they are dominant vehicles through which meaning in our daily life is created, regulated and sustained. Being explicit as to how film makes meaning about law is crucial to better understand how film and law – central features of our culture – maintain social relations of power.
Film studies, generally speaking, asks three questions of the film. How is the film produced (who made it, with what technology, under what conditions, with what purposes)? How was the film received (who was its audience and what did they think of the film, under what historical, social and political circumstances was it viewed)? And what does the film represent (what are its images, how are they put together, what does it sound like)? Broadly, these questions mobilize the subspecialties in film studies of, respectively, film history, film criticism and film theory. Any one analysis of film need not (nor could it, I think) address all three questions thoroughly. Instead, it has been my impression that scholars often focus predominantly on one of these three categories by drawing on one of the subspecialties and only mention by way of a caveat the others.
Each question engenders its own methodology. Film historians tend to assess a film’s significance based on its place in time, its relations to previous works and its role as (or as not) exemplary of a historical context. Film critics may collect and assess popular reviews, locate and evaluate films in light of a particular ideological or political climate (which may or may not concern the role of film in politics generally), or they may write about filmmakers or film schools rather than films themselves in these terms. Film theorists write about film language in a formal sense, mainly against the backdrop of semiotics, structuralism or post-structuralism. They develop conceptual frameworks through which the formal features of film (the shot, the frame, types of movement, color, angles, lenses, cuts etc.) can be analyzed as small pieces of a larger system of making meaning. These frameworks are then tested in terms of a film or a set of films. As with any categories, these three categories are easily blurred and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, I set them out to be instructive, as a baseline to help explain what, I think, many of us start out to do when we interpret film.
Excluded from the above synopsis is the analysis of film as it solely exists in screen play form. I am hard-pressed to find any film scholarship that, when analyzing film, predominately uses the spoken words of the actors, or the film’s plot, as the motor that drives the film’s significance as a cultural object. Importantly, all three categories above concern an assessment of a film (or a set of films) as film, that is, as an art form that is different from others.
I will stop here, for now, and ask some questions. I wonder, with the growing number of legal scholars who are serious about (or who simply enjoy to dabble in) the “law and film” domain, does the above account rings true? Or, instead, does it take the “law and film” project farther from a legitimate place in the legal academy?