Mark S. Weiner

Archive for the ‘Law and film’ Category

Love’s Empire

In Europe, Law and film, Law and literature, Rule of law, State development on March 19, 2014 at 9:02 am

Screen shot 2014-03-19 at 1.21.15 PMIn the latest issue of Telos, I review two books by Paul Kahn of Yale Law School, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty and Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation. In both books, Kahn reads contemporary American law and politics through a framework influenced by the writings of Carl Schmitt. The theme of the issue is “After Faith” (for readers not based in a university, I’m afraid the issue is behind a pay wall).

In the review, I write that Kahn’s books “crisply document and provide a provocative theoretical account of an important feature of America’s distinctiveness: its social imaginary of ‘the political,’ particularly the conceptual, cultural, and affective place the social imaginary affords to law. In Kahn’s view, law in America is different. Most notably, law is imaginatively inextricable from the willingness of American citizens to engage in sacrificial acts of political violence. The reason for this potent union, he explains, is theological. The American nation-state—born of revolution and deriving its legitimacy from a trans-generational popular sovereign (‘we, the people’)—provides a source of ultimate meaning for its citizens analogous to religious belief. In Kahn’s analysis, that is, both the American experience of judicial review and the nation’s openness to the use of existential violence stem from a common source: the fact that ‘our political practices remain embedded in forms of belief and practice that touch upon the sacred.'”

Written last October, my review, titled “Love’s Empire,” begins with a reference to Vladimir Putin’s critique of the notion of American exceptionalism in his New York Times editorial of September 11, 2013. It concludes this way:

“Kahn’s compelling description of the American social imaginary thus would seem to raise more insistently Schmitt’s question about the capacity of societies governed by liberal normativity to survive. This question seems especially significant in the context of contemporary pessimism about trans-Atlanticism. For the past seventy years, the security of those European nations that most embody the de-politicized bourgeois liberalism that Schmitt deplored was underwritten, ironically, by a nation that Kahn convincingly describes as living entirely within the exception. Whether an increasingly centralized European Union or some future system of international law can provide similar security and stability while preserving essential domains of human freedom—including by resisting elite managerialism at home and the blandishments of authoritarians from abroad—remains an open question.”

From Charlotte’s Web to Star Trek: Animals and Midcentury Legal Internationalism

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Animals, Environment, International law, Law and film, Law and literature, United Nations on June 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

340px-EB_croppedWhy is it significant that Stuart Little is a mouse—I mean, why is it significant from the perspective of American legal history? What does Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court have to do with Wilbur, the “radiant” and “humble” pig of Charlotte’s Web? What links a barnyard in North Brooklin, Maine and the Federation Council in the television series “Star Trek”? These are some of the questions I’d like to think about in this fifth post in a continuing thread about E. B. White and international law—or, to put it another way, about the popular liberal legal imagination at midcentury.

To my mind, the opening line of Charlotte’s Web is a model of how to begin a story: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’” Where Papa is going, to the distress of young Fern, is to kill the runt of a new litter of pigs. The line is potent mixture of action, threat, and conflicted loyalty, and it came to White only after many revisions. One of his earliest drafts begins this way: “A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching in the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door—but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about. I am very glad to say that Mr. Zuckerman’s barn had a pig in it, and therefore I feel free to talk about it as much as I want to.” Compare the two sentences and you have a lesson in great editing.

What the first sentence also does is instantly establish empathy with animals. In this case, the reader’s heart goes out to the pig which—whom—Fern soon calls Wilbur. Much of White’s writing gives animals an unassuming, gentle subjectivity. The first chapter of Charlotte’s Web ends with Fern naming Wilbur; the final chapter concludes with Wilbur naming Charlotte’s children (Joy, Aranea, and Nellie). One  aspect of White’s literary brilliance was to be able to create this subjectivity without being at all patronizing. Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton (the rat), the geese, all become our moral equals without fuss. Stuart is an ordinary member of the Little family—part of the pleasure of the tale derives from how everyone takes for granted that he’s a mouse.

White grew up taking care of farm animals at his family’s home in Mount Vernon, New York. He spent time amidst them each summer when his family retreated to Maine. And he surrounded himself with them—sheep, chickens, pigs, geese—when he and his wife, Katharine, purchased a house and barn near North Brooklin (the barn was the inspiration for Charlotte’s Web). Not surprisingly, then, animals populated his prose, for both children and adults. Here’s a characteristic passage of his writing, from the introduction to One Man’s Meat:

Read the rest of this entry »

“One Law”: An Anthem for World Federalism

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, International law, Law and film, Law and literature, Law and music, United Nations on June 10, 2013 at 9:05 pm

In my previous post, I discussed how E. B. White’s Stuart Little put the ideas of world federalist Emery Reves into literary form. Next time, I’ll talk more generally about how White’s view of international law is implicated in his depiction of nature and his approach to English prose style. Today, I’d like to take a brief detour.

You may not know the name Marvin Hamlisch, but you more than likely have heard his music, especially if you enjoy Hollywood or Broadway. He wrote some of the greatest scores for both, from “The Sting” to “A Chorus Line.” As one might have expected of someone who enrolled in The Julliard School at the age of seven, he was one of an exceedingly small group of musicians to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar, and a Tony—such paragons of popular song are known as EGOTs—and he was one of only two musicians to have won all those awards and a Pulitzer. Here is the theme he wrote for the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me”—followed by a recent performance of the song by Radiohead, for readers who may not want to be reminded of the 1970s.

And Hamlisch didn’t just write hits. If you want to get a sense of how important his background music was to the power of American film, try imagining this sequence from Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” about the hapless bank robber Virgil Starkwell, without Hamlisch’s score:

Hamlisch passed away just ten months ago, at the age of 68. Read the rest of this entry »

What it Means to be Home—with Deanna Durbin

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Constitutional law, Cross-cultural encounters & comparisons, Europe, Law and film, Supreme Court on January 8, 2013 at 2:50 pm

After many weeks abroad, I’m back in the United States, and by coincidence this weekend I watched a movie that reminded me of just what it means to be home. The reminder came in the unexpected form of Deanna Durbin, the girl-next-door Hollywood star of the 1930s and 1940s. I didn’t anticipate that her last film, the romantic comedy For the Love of Mary (1948), would have so much to say about the culture of American constitutional law.

For_the_Love_of_Mary_Poster

As readers of this blog and subscribers to my Facebook page know, in mid-November I flew to Europe to speak about The Rule of the Clan (which will be released in just two months by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), to teach some intensive seminars about the American constitution to European students, and most of all to begin research on my next book.

In the spirit of Jules Verne, the working title of Book #4 is Around the World in Eighty Laws. I’m hoping to reveal some of the beauty, complexity, and fragility of our world through a portrait of its diverse legal systems. I want to show the fundamentally different ways people understand the meaning and purpose of law. I’m also hoping that in the process I’ll be able to raise some basic, hard questions about our ability to get along with one another and with other nations as we respond to globalization.

My travels began at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and ended in Vienna. In between, with Eurail Pass in hand, I visited Maastricht, Tilburg, Luxembourg, Brussels, Würzburg, Hannover, and Salzburg, taking pictures and conducting interviews as I went—trying to channel the spirit of one of my heroes, David Attenborough. It was grand. I also found that I could easily continue an itinerant life indefinitely.

I’ll be posting reflections on my travels and excerpts from my interviews in the coming weeks, especially once I return to my desk in Connecticut.

My European travels naturally got me thinking about what it was I left behind. And that’s why I was so taken with For the Love of Mary. In its lightness of spirit—and in Durbin’s unpretentious style and clear soprano—it captures something essential about the legal self-understanding of my country. Read the rest of this entry »

Distraction from the Storm

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Border regions, Constitutional law, Cross-cultural encounters & comparisons, Environment, India, Law and film, Law and literature, Pakistan, Psychoanalysis, Supreme Court on October 31, 2012 at 8:59 pm

As hurricane Sandy bore down on the eastern seaboard, my wife and I thought that the best distraction from the howling wind and crack of breaking branches would be to curl up and watch movies. It didn’t take long for us to settle on Alfred Hitchcock.

And so after we made up our inflatable bed in the living room—the safest place, we figured, if one of the tall trees in the backyard crashed through the roof—and brought up our emergency kit from the basement—stove, check; fuel, check; tent, check; food and water, check—we unfurled the projector screen we normally use to display academic PowerPoint slides, made a bowl of buttered popcorn, and poured ourselves a beer.

All things considered, it seemed like the sort of thing that one would want to have been doing in the final moments before disaster.

Here’s a picture of our outpost in the storm:

The film on the screen is “North by Northwest”—there’s Carry Grant furtively walking through Penn Station.

Now that we’ve come through the storm safe and sound (a miracle), in this post I’d like to pull on a small thread in the film we saw last night, “Rear Window.” It’s a legal thread, and one that also happens to be entwined with an environmental theme.

There’s not much we can do for our friends in New York and New Jersey, who faired much worse than we did, but if they are able to read it, perhaps this distraction will be welcome. Read the rest of this entry »