LJST 52 Syllabus Spring 2010

Submitted by Megan L. Estes on Tuesday, 1/12/2010, at 8:16 AM


Film, Myth and the Law

Spring 2010


Austin Sarat


The proliferation of law in film and on television has expanded the sphere of legal life itself. Law lives in images which today saturate our culture and which have a power all their own, and the moving image provides a domain in which legal power operates independently of law’s formal institutions. This course takes up law and film to explore law’s image and the imagined life of law. It will consider the ways “myths” about law are reproduced and contested in film and the way film proposes a visual aesthetics of law. We will ask what happens when legal events are re-narrated in film and examine the treatment of legal officials, events, and institutions (e.g. police, lawyers, judges, trials, executions, prisons), discussing how that treatment positions them in relation to processes of judgment, interpretation, and violence. Attending to the visual dimensions and dynamics of law’s imagined lives as well as to the viewer’s relation to law on film we will also explore the ways in which law provides a template for film spectatorship, positioning viewers as detectives and as jurors. Does film open up new possibilities of judgment, model new modes of interpretation, and provide new insights into law’s violence?


Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns, Law in the Domains of Culture


The required book can be purchased at Amherst Books, 8 Main Street (on the far side of the town common); readings are available online through the course website.


Films:  available via on-line streaming.  Please see the week’s film prior to each Wednesday’s class.








1. What It Means to Watch: Pleasure, Desire, and Prohibition-I (January 27)


            FILM: Rear Window  

            Robert Stam, Reflexivity in Film and Literature, 43-55

            Roland Barthes, “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” in Apparatus, 1-4

            Kyllo v. United States, 121 S. Ct. 2038 (2001)


2. Images as Evidence in Law: Canonical Hopes (February 3)


            FILM: Judgment at Nuremberg  

            McGoorty v. Benhart, 27 NE2d 289 (1940) 





5. On the Constitution of Legal Authority: The World Beyond and Before Law 3. On the Constitution of Legal Authority and the Conventions of Genre:  The Western (February 10) 


            FILM: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence


            Cheyney Ryan, “Print the Legend: Violence and Recognition in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” in Legal Reelism, 23-43        


4.   Justice on the Horizon:  Race and the Limits of Law (February 17) 


            FILM:  To Kill a Mockingbird 


            Powell v. Alabama, 287 US 45

Austin Sarat, “Between (the Presence of) Violence and (the Possibility of) Justice: Lawyering Against Capital Punishment,” in Austin Sarat and Stuart Scheingold, eds., Cause Lawyering: Political Commitments and Professional Responsibilities


5.  On the Constitution and Limits of Legal Authority: Fathers and Fate (February 24) 


            FILM: Sweet Hereafter


            Jerome Frank, Law in the Modern Mind , 3-21

            De Shaney v. Winnebago, 489 US 189 (1989)


LAW’S WAYS OF KNOWING AND WAYS OF KNOWING LAWIV. Law’s Ways of Knowing and Ways of Knowing Law


6. Detection (March 3) 


            FILM: Silence of the Lambs  


Alison Young, "Murder in the Eyes of the Law," 17 Studies in Law, Politics, and Society  (1997), 31-58 


7.  Confession-I: On the Inner Life of the Confessing Subject (March 10)


            FILM: I Confess


            Peter Brooks, Troubling Confessions, Chapter 2


8. Confession-II: A Knowledge Beyond Law? (March 24)


            FILM: Dead Man Walking


            Lockett v. Ohio, 438 US 586 (1978), 1-20, 25-26, 29-31


9. The Trial-I: What (if any) Stories Do Trials Tell and How Do They Tell Them? (March 31)


            FILM: Witness for the Prosecution


            People v. Zackowitz, 254 N.Y. 192 (1930)

Alan Dershowitz, “Life Is Not Dramatic Narrative,” in Peter Brooks and Paul Gewertz, Law's Stories, 99-105.


10.   The Trial II:  Reconstruction and Judgment (April 7)


            FILMTwelve Angry Men


Tocqueville, “Trial By Jury in the United States Considered as a Political Institution,” in Democracy in America

            Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 US 510


11.  The Trial-III: Repetition, Repression, Reception (April 14)

15. Trials and Trauma: Repetition, Repression, and Reception

               FILM: Inherit the Wind


               Edwards v. Aguillard  482 U.S. 578 (1987), 1-16, 26-41                                                         Marjorie Garber, "Cinema Scopes: Evolution, Media, and the Law," in Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns, Law in the Domains of Culture, 121-160





12.  Can Film Do Justice to Law?:  Pleasure, Desire, and Prohibition Revisited (April 21)18. Can Film Do Justice to Law?: Pleasure, Desire, and Prohibition Revisited


FILM: Unforgiven


William Miller, "Clint Eastwood and Equity: Popular Culture's Theory of Revenge," in Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns, Law in the Domains of Culture, 161-202

            Video Software Dealers v. Missouri 968 F2d 684 (1992)


13. Evidentiary Conventions and Legal Mis-readings: Contemporary Anxieties Revisited (April 28)


FILM: Capturing the Friedmans            


            Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836 (1990)

Jessica Silbey, “Filmmaking in the Precinct House and the Genre of the Documentary Film,” 29 Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts (2005), 142-158.


14. Conclusion (May 4)