Film frames the courts and the king

Law's Moving Image Edited
February 11, 2005

The authors of this highly multidisciplinary collection, a product of Birkbeck College, London, have stepped into a realm in which cinema and the law meet in a drama of mutual fascination. Cinema, and television too, has become the means by which the public registers its chief encounters with the law, with its exclusive and arcane practices, and its private locations, police stations, prison cells, courtrooms and law offices. All these are staples of popular culture as well as of high and high-minded culture. But there is also the legal nature of film itself, all the issues of ownership, obscenity, disorder, libel, rights and freedoms, not to speak of contractual and copyright law and the whole raft of considerations that apply to intellectual property delivered by modern technologies. Such is the waterfront covered by these 16 short studies.

There is an interesting history of classical Hollywood that begins by asking how cinema turned into the harmless escapist entertainment we are familiar with. Lee Grieveson tackles the question by telling us about the opening of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, when police in Boston sat with the audience to prevent the blacks venting their anger at the racist content. Men from the private Pinkerton Detective Agency were scattered through the house.

Gradually, police and other regulatory authorities set up schemes of censorship that came to mark out the boundaries of what was acceptable. In achieving this, they marked out the public sphere - Charles Taylor's "metatopical common" - within which society can discuss issues of general interest without breaching the terms of liberal democratic discourse. In Europe and the US, great events came to shift the boundaries of what was acceptable in cinema, but the purists of the First Amendment rapidly lost.

The Second World War brought about the breaking down of moral boundaries on both sides of the Atlantic as it became urgent to marshal opinion in support of war. Cinema evolved within institutional constraints and conventions.

By comparison, M. Madhava Prasad has researched the reactions of the British in India to the arrival of cinema; the colonial power's concern was to discover how films were being viewed by Indian audiences and in particular what forms of representation offended Indian moral sensibilities. Extensive surveys were carried out as far back as the 1920s to find out what various communities would tolerate in narrative depiction of human relations. The Indian Empire contained a social order built on a consensus among the elite leaderships of a wide variety of communities, all nervous about the impact of a non-denominational culture. "The gaze of the film spectator comes to haunt the conservative desire for closed community spaces." But American globalising capital will not abide the very question, and a tension endures in India today. Nationalist opinion still shelters behind a communal conservatism (which it once eschewed) informed by a lingering colonial logic, and has resisted the attempt to inveigle Indian communal leaders into abandoning their accepted codes.

For UK readers, the most intriguing (and controversial) piece is by Eugene McNamee about Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in relation to Tony Blair's recourse to war. Because Britain's constitutional law is not based on a written document, it is not distinguished in substance or method from any other law-making and is therefore extremely permeable to any shift in cultural climate, such as those brought about by cinema.

In his Henry , Branagh presents a young king torn by the dilemma of whether to go to war, weighing the terrible human suffering it would bring against whether his claim to the French throne is just. Branagh's Henry does not like war, though he is good at it. We identify with his dignity in response to the hard questions that the life of a king imposes. The image of the strong leader who takes his people into battle, the essay hypothesises, is a live one in British culture, which accepts the circular argument that because we fight well the fight must be good since we are fighting it.

McNamee points to the wars in the Falklands and in Iraq and argues that Branagh's film and Blair's conduct in war offer a mutual commentary, presenting the possibility of a legitimisation convention by which, in times of emergency, a single heroic figure is permitted to draw on a reserve of military acceptability. The constitution allows for power to be located in an individual who can replace Cabinet colleagues at will, while the Parliamentary system ensures that government policy will prevail. Just a tad farfetched an analogy, but, like much in this book, stimulatingly put.

Anthony Smith is president of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Law's Moving Image Edited

Editor - Edited by Leslie J. Moran, Emma Sandon, Elena Loizidou and Ian Christie
Publisher - Cavendish
Pages - 255
Price - £28.00
ISBN - 1 904385 01 X

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