Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Luther on Lawyers.

Martin Luther: "Every lawyer is either a good-for-nothing or a know-nothing. If a lawyer wants to dispute this, tell him, 'You hear? A lawyer shouldn't talk until a sow breaks wind!' Then he should say 'Thank you, dear grandmother, I haven't heard a sermon in a long time!'..."

(J. Pelikan and H. Lehman, eds., Luther's Works: American Edition, Vol. 54, no. 5663.)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Take this job and....

"Two weeks ago, newly minted young Boston attorney Dianna Abdala e-mailed a prospective employer, William Korman.
"'The pay you are offering would neither fulfill me nor support the lifestyle I am living,' she wrote, turning down his job offer.
"Korman was not happy.
"'You had two interviews, were offered and accepted the job (indeed, you had a definite start date).'
"He'd already ordered her stationery and business cards, and set up her office computer and was amazed she conveyed her second thoughts by e-mail.
"'It smacks of immaturity and is quite unprofessional,' he wrote.
"Abdala's response? 'A real lawyer would have put the contract into writing and not exercised any such reliance until he did so,' she wrote.
"'This is a very small legal community,' Korman responded. 'Do you really want to start pissing off more experienced lawyers at this early stage of your career?'
"Abdala finally answered, 'Bla bla bla.'
"An ordinary office spat? Nope. Korman forwarded the exchange to a friend … and it spread throughout the Boston legal community -- and then to the Boston Globe, to the International Herald Tribune, to ABC News' 'Nightline.'
"It was the 'bla bla bla' heard round the world -- making Abdala the most famous, perhaps notorious, 24-year-old lawyer in America." (HT: ABCNews/AOL News.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Book Review: Making Movies Work.

Jon Boorstin's Making Movies Work: Thinking Like A Filmmaker brings to mind Justice Antonin Scalia's lament about the tyranny of the experts. Although in a different context, Justice Scalia’s critique is that often too much reliance is placed on experts.

Here, Boorstin’s book has characterized an art-form as an academic exercise, where rules are formed and applied. Further, this emphasis suggests that those that can know the rules can master their activity. With films, I don’t think that’s true. Notably, Boorstin’s book raves about Hitchcock’s technical expertise. There's no denying that. However, I don’t think that the best directors are necessarily those that have the highest knowledge of their craft. Sometimes it is instinctual. This fact is borne out by the reality that many are tapped to direct films with little or no prior movie-directing experience, and the best directors are not necessarily those that have formally studied the craft in film-school or are the most technically proficient.

Nevertheless, Boorstin’s book fulfils the promise of the subtitle. The book enables the reader to “think[ ] like a filmmaker” by drawing back the curtain on the complex process behind films. As a basic summary, Boorstin posits that films operate on three (3) levels: voyeuristically, viscerally, and vicariously. By voyeuristically, the author means that the viewer is judging the movie for credibility. Regarding the visceral dimension, this aspect pertains to how the movie impacts the “gut”. However, the vicarious aspect has been suggested to be the most crucial for a film—it is the film’s ability to cause the viewer’s identification with the film. When successful, this identification is achieved through the actor and the plot.

Boorstin (who associate produced All the President's Men) explains how each craft supports the voyeuristic, visceral, and vicarious dimensions, such as editing, acting, sound and cinematography. If nothing else, the reader will be impressed as to the complexity and intentionality of filmmaking.

However, taken to an extreme the book may fall into the danger of over-intellectualizing movies. It (unduly) emphasizes the technical aspects of movie-making, but even Boorstin inconsistently concedes the bottom line—does it work, i.e. was it enjoyable? A movie can be technically proficient (or even genius), but this does not necessarily carry over to a movie that works. Coming at it differently, some films work precisely because they break the conventions of the trade. For example, I just watched (for the second time) Elephant by Gus Van Sant. This film does not follow Hitchcockian conventions or rules (especially as to editing), but still works on its own, as an innovative film.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Wise guy.

I often train in the foothills of Saddleback Mountain in South Orange County. You can't beat the inclines and vistas for a vigorous, visually satisfying workout. One drawback, however, is that mountain lions are known to populate parts of the area. I'm aware of the general risk, and hence, try to avoid their feeding times.

One morning, a few months back, I was jogging along one of the trails, and encountered a long-haired young gentleman on a horse. He waived me down to ask me if I knew about the mountain lion risk. I thought he was joking, and I gave a good-natured response. His next question was a little more pointed--he sarcastically said, "What are you going to do, kill the lion with your cd player?" I thanked him for his concern, jokingly conceded that was the plan, and went about my way with a smile.

Later, I thought about his interrogation. Specifically, I questioned whether it was sort of hypocritical for the horseman to think he was any safer than I was. The lion could, after all, just as easily attack the horse--and later him.

I got the answer to my query this weekend. I saw the same rider for the first time since our encounter. However, this time, I saw him from behind.

Strapped across his back were a bow and arrows. Wise guy.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Book Review: Cinema & Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology.

1. Introduction

At the outset, Clive Marsh's Cinema & Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology (2005) states that it “explores what films do to people and what people do with films.” (p. ix.) As such, it sets out a two-way exploration. Marsh argues that theology and film are in dialogue, where each discipline can learn from each other. This review provides a summary of the material and then concludes with a critique.

2. Summary of Material

In the initial chapter, Marsh compares going to the cinema with going to church/cathedral or practicing religion. He cites four parallels including (a) pattern; (b) acknowledgment of a need for rest and relaxation; (c) shared experience; and (d) architecture. (pp. 1-4.) Observing these religious-like activities of cinema-going, he questions whether it is operating as a sort of replacement for religion in Western culture and whether it is ultimately a satisfactory substitute. (p. 9.) Marsh argues that film cannot fully supplant religion or theology, but his key point here is to ask how theology is to be done “given that film…is getting the supposedly ‘non-religious’ to do a theology-like thing…” (p. 12.)

After a case-study, the second chapter extends the first by examining film’s role in worship, and as a competitor to worship. Noting a relationship between worship and entertainment, Marsh argues that film may be used in worship in three fashions: (a) film as text; (b) liturgical enhancement; and (c) mood-setting. (pp. 23-27.)

Chapters three and four further look at how films affect people through the examples of The Shawshank Redemption and Titanic. In the first example, Marsh explores understandings of salvation in Shawshank and how this operates as a challenge to Christian theology. In the later example, Marsh explores the reverse direction; “theology has a contribution to make here”, such as its interaction with emotion and sentimentality in a theological framework. (pp. 71-74.)

In the fifth chapter, Marsh discusses the aspects of film-watching experience: illusion, emotion, embodiment, visuality, and attentiveness. (pp. 83-103.) In this discussion, he notes the analogous ways that theology/religion and film work in these arenas, and how they can illuminate each other in the dialogue. For example, “[t]heology is one important conversation partner in the task of structuring emotional responses by viewers to film.” (p. 94.)

In the sixth chapter, Marsh explores the critical function of theology in culture generally and movie-viewing viewing specifically. (p. 112.) He argues that theology has an analytical-evaluative role that must go beyond simply positing a religious “response to what ‘the world’ believes as presented through film.” (Ibid.) He observes that theology can offer much as it is “a multi-dimensional habit” encompassing the “aesthetic, affective, cognitive and ethnical.” (p. 118.)

Finally, Marsh concludes with fourteen conclusions about the link between theology’s culture role and the practice of film-watching. (p. 132). Ultimately, he concludes with his basic thesis, that theology can critique films in a culturally beneficial way and also theology can gain much from film. As such, Marsh concludes where he began—namely, theology and film is a two-way proposition.

3. Critique of Material

Marsh’s book has much to commend it. Its focus on the two-way exchange between theology and films deftly challenges the conceit that those with theology have all the answers and need not consult the “world” for betterment. This lack of hubris and openness to learning from the power of film is refreshing and well-done. Conversely, Marsh does not denigrate his theology’s salient role in the discussion, as many would find it irrelevant. Nevertheless, I have at least two fundamental critiques of the work. Marsh continues with two internal inconsistencies, and in so doing, suggests that some of his analysis is incomplete or not completely baked (as its typos also suggest).

First, Marsh does not seem to reconcile fully the role of community in film-viewing. In reaching for a connection between film and theology he asserts that movie-watching is communal, as is going to church. (pp. 2-4.) This “communal” theme is interspersed throughout the book, and he revisits it often whether the topic is salvation (p. 52) or otherwise. However, if one were to examine the numbers, going to the cinema, at least in North America, is in decline. The advent of DVD, on-demand, and cable movie channels enable the consumption of films to be a commonly individual or familial exercise. And, even if one were to go to the cinema, in the darkened environment and among strangers, there is no meaningful interaction. In fact, I see little difference between consuming a book and watching a movie as it relates to the individualized experience. Marsh later inconsistently seems to concede this point. (p. 122.) It becomes practically communal or shared only if it is dialogued about—an assumption Marsh makes that is probably more exception than rule. (p. 139.)

Second, Marsh does not establish a consistent view of the viewer’s interpretive role in film-viewing. He claims that the director’s intent should be eschewed or minimized (p. 138), and hence, the viewer operates with his or her own rubric (p. 129). However, Marsh argues that the film is a text, which should be interpreted as with other texts. (p. 127.) Then, Marsh wonderfully puts his finger on a major issue interrupting the “shared” experience of film, thusly, “A dialogue demands the question …which, or whose theology.” (p. 128; emphasis added.) Accordingly, if the writer’s or director’s intent has no bearing on meaning, and if the viewer is free to interpret it as he or she wishes, and no interpretive framework can be agreed upon, how effective will the dialogue ultimately be? Marsh does not answer these crucial dangling queries, and hence, his work leaves much unresolved.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Book Review: Reel Spirituality.

Readers of this blog observe a healthy dollop of both movie reviews and theology. The fact is I enjoy both. Weaving them together is even more enjoyable. In this regard, I have studied formally the relationship between theology and films. One of my theology professors, Dr. Robert Johnston, has written a book on this topic called, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue.

In Reel Spirituality, Johnston recognizes the power and pervasiveness of film. Nothing in our culture has the reach and impact of modern movies. Accordingly, he has written Reel Spirituality in an effort to bring theology, generally, and the Church, specifically, into dialogue with this powerful medium of messages and images.

1. Summary of Material.

After building the case for the power of film, he explores the Church's reactions to films. He positions them on a timeline beginning with "avoidance" and ending with "divine encounter". (pp. 41-42.) The stages between include: caution, dialogue, and appropriation, respectively. (Id.)

Dr. Johnston then generally argues that the later stages are more appropriate theological responses to film for several reasons. He contends that Christians can learn through nonChristians' art through the doctrine of common grace and the Spirit's pervasive role through Creation. He posits that viewers can encounter God through the images and truth put up on the screen.

The core point here is that theology is not, and should not be isolated. Theology derives from five (5) general sources, according to Dr. Johnston. They are: the Bible (at the center), the local church, tradition, experience and culture. (p. 84.) Explaining this process, he writes: "We read the authoritative biblical text from out of a worshiping community, in light of centuries of Christian thought and practice, as people embedded in a particular culture, who have a unique set of experiences." (p. 85). Movies, obviously, play a large role in this culture and these experiences, he observes.

Dr. Johnston explains that the heart of movie-making is storytelling. However, in view of its uniqueness, he analyzes the components of film-making. These components, which serve the larger story-telling purpose, are editing, framing, sound and special effects. These tools can be brought to bear so that movies have even more impact on the viewer, at least viscerally, than the printed page.

Further, Dr. Johnston explores the critical circle that exists between film's storytellers and audiences. He argues that"[a]n adequate critical theory of film takes into account (1) the movie, (2) the filmmakers, (3) the viewers with their own life stories that help interpret it, and (4) the movie's worldview. (pp. 115, 120.) Similarly, he also posits four aspects of film criticism: genre, auteur, cultural and thematic. (p. 126.) Understanding these components and perspectives will aid the viewer to unpack a movie's meaning and to meaningfully interact with it.

2. Critique of Material.

While I generally thought the book contributed significantly to a theological approach to movies, I had three general criticisms. First, the book seems content to have the Church as consumers of films. The thrust of the book is how to watch movies and then interact with them. I don't think it goes far enough. Given the inscrutable truth of the power of film (pp. 19-30, 57, 70-78), I think it's essential that Christians not only consume or view them, but make them. As Dr. Johnston concedes that the auteur's worldview colors the film, it necessarily follows that those with a biblical worldview should want to explore it through film.

Second, and related to the first, I would have preferred that the book's conclusion explored the view that, prescriptively, movie-viewing should be a means to an end. Much like studying books and viewing art, it makes for the well-fed and well-educated, but is that the chief end? As Billy in The Year of Living Dangerously (d. Weir, 1982) quoted from Luke 3, "What shall we then do?" What shall we then do, other than talking about how the movie spoke to us or even how we encountered God through it? I would have liked to have seen some exploration of this action step. For example, this could have been a call to make films as discussed above, or other tangible acts inspired from film-viewing.

Third, I disagreed with Johnston's placing of entertainment and education on opposite ends of the axis or spectrum (p. 88). While it's true that films are most often combinations of the two, it does not follow that the more a film is entertaining the less it is educational or vice versa, as the axis represents. It's not a zero-sum or mutually exclusive analysis. For example, The Insider (d. Mann, 1999) educates, but also entertains just about as well as any blockbuster, especially since the skillful (and entertaining) Michael Mann directed and two of the finest actors, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, starred.

In sum, the book is worthy of your time, as it is one of the better basic tomes on the integration of theology and film.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Win some, lose some, Part II.

Analyzing the accountings, I observed discrepancies between what was received and what was distributed. I won't bore you with the details, but when I pressed the trustee for documentary backup, he said he couldn't produce them because his apartment was burglarized the night before. How coincidental!

So, when I cross-examined him regarding whether he called the police or had a police report, he insisted that he had. In a maneuver I hadn't seen before, the witness got off the stand--during the cross--and walked to his place at the counsel table and began fumbling through papers. The witness handed me a document as he bounded back to the witness chair.

I looked at it and said, "Let the record reflect that the witness has handed me a document entitled 'Warning' from the XYZ City Police Department. Mr. So and So, you don't have a police report--you instead received a warning from the police, true?"

At this point, I saw his attorney do the "hand-in-hands" pose with his head slowly turning from side to side.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Win some, lose some.

"Win some, lose some."
-- Judge Chamberlain Haller to Vincent Gambini in My Cousin Vinny.

Place this one in the win column. I just tried a probate case where our clients were seeking to oust a trustee for self-dealing, commingling, and other breaches of fiduciary duties owed to the beneficiaries. This trust owned several real properties and involved a substantial amount of assets and income to the beneficiaries.

It doesn't really matter whether the case is criminal, civil, probate or administrative, effective trial attorneys (for plaintiffs, petitioners or the people) should seek to highlight the defendant's "dastardly deed" ("DD"). I define the "DD" as the one irreducible, irrefutable and inscrutable "bad act" that will hopefully color the other evidence in the case. In this matter, I had a few candidates, but I determined that one stood out for its simple profundity.

Of course, to do this correctly at trial, one needs first to close the "escape hatches" for the defendant to try to explain the "DD" away (according to former prosecutor Vincent Bugilosi).

It also helps where you can use the defendant's own sworn statements against him or her. In this case, I had two sworn "accountings" from the trustee. In each, he averred that he had received no compensation as a trustee. So, I simply wanted the witness to confirm that these were his accountings, and they were accurate. Since the last one was a couple of months before the trial, I asked him if he still had not received any compensation. Perhaps thinking at the time that this statement would make him look altruistic (and perhaps victimized), he heartily agreed.

Then, I asked him where he lived. On the surface, this query appeared inconsequential or innocuous. However, I already knew that he was living in the one of the income properties owned by the trust. I also knew that he had paid no rent since moving in. I also knew what the rent was for this property immediately before he moved in. I also knew that the beneficiaries (my clients) were entitled to the rental income stream. Therefore, the trustee was in effect taking money out of their pockets and placing in his own. A simple concept that offends one's sense of justice, right?

At this point, the trustee had no real choice but to admit where he lived (as he had previously testified in his deposition), and probably didn't see the hammer looming when the question was posed. However, when the reality sunk in, his attorney recalled him to testify later. At this point, he futilely tried to spin this benefit as his compensation. Unfortunately, we had already closed this loophole. He had nowhere to go, and not surprisingly, the judgment specifically referenced this "bad act" as a ground to remove the trustee "forthwith" and to surcharge him for the damages and attorneys' fees.

Next post(s) will explore some other amusing aspects of this trial.