Before The Staircase: Trials in Film and Television
Trials and narrative form
In 1986 I started on my PhD at Bristol University, in the Department of Drama. After a term of indecision, I alighted upon a topic that was new and would enable me to pursue my unflaggingly multi-disciplinary interests: the political use of trials in film, theatre and television.
When in 1993, after a three-year interruption as a researcher for BBC Television, I finally completed and was awarded my doctorate I looked into the possibility of finding a publisher for my thesis. From the then head of BFI Publishing, Ed Buscombe, I received a warmly negative letter in which Ed wrote that, because it didn’t focus on just one discipline, my thesis was, as it stood, ‘unpublishable’.
So I set about changing it: adding film and television chapters at the expense of the two on Edwardian realist drama and post-war German documentary theatre, but at roughly the same time Geoffrey Nowell-Smith wrote to me saying that Carol Clover was also into trials and justice and was ‘writing a book on the subject’. I duly found references to this ‘forthcoming’ publication and, feeling this would steal my thunder, I pushed my own trial book to one side and shifted my focus instead to costume, writing Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies (Routledge, 1997), and subsequently, with New Documentary (Routledge, 2000 and 2006), to documentary. Trials still interest me – I periodically teach courtroom dramas, published short pieces here and there and have written journal articles on live television trials and Fritz Lang’s warped notion of justice in Fury.
But there are two basic morals to be extrapolated from this story. First: put your doctorate in the public domain (mine isn’t! Having always been pathologically uninterested in dotting and crossing the final ‘i’s and ‘t’s, I never even sent a final copy of my thesis to the Bristol library – although I have kept the certificate safe to prove I’m not a fraud). Second: don’t be put off publishing your work because you fear it might overlap with that of someone else more established – they might take as long to deliver their promised manuscript as I have taken to even contemplate getting my thesis bound ready for dispatch to my graduate library. And Clover’s wasn’t the only such volume in the pipeline. When I was writing my PhD, there was pretty much nothing on the subject coming out of anywhere – I remember being sent into a panic when I found a solitary thesis on the British Library database that took me to a PhD that analysed Rolf Hochhuth’s The Representative in depth. These days one can amass a pretty respectable library of books on the law and trials in film, media and culture. Small wonder perhaps that Clover’s still-forthcoming book – referred to on her current Professor Emerita website as The People’s Plot: Film and the Adversarial Imagination – has struggled to come out. I, for one, really want to read it when it does!
Having only just caught up with and been transfixed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary courtroom serial The Staircase (2004), as well as being in the midst of listening to the podcast Serial (2014), I’ve been prompted to return to issues of courtrooms, narrative and documentary. ‘Crime documentaries’ are currently very much in vogue, other prime examples being Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss (2011), a profile of death row prisoner Michael Perry, executed 1 July 2010, and Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015), investigating the unsolved disappearance of Durst’s wife Kathie in 1982. Though manifestly documentaries, all these examples behave like dramas. Documentary might be, to cite Bill Nichols, a ‘discourse of sobriety’ (and what could be more ‘sober’ or sobering than murder?), but in a serial such as The Staircase the interplay with its audience operates on the intense levels of the most affective dramas; detachment is hard to maintain as the trial hurtles towards its denouement and the presiding judge invites the jury in to return its verdict.
The premise of my PhD thesis, ‘Trial and Error’, was that the enduring cultural fascination with and frequent return to the trial across very different genres and performance-based disciplines was that – with its beginning, middle and end structure – the tribunal form effortlessly and innately mimicked the classical narrative form. The trial or courtroom drama possesses an internal linearity and logic that draws an otherwise disparate and eclectic collection of texts together to create a quirkily homogenous whole. Thinking only of the film and television chapters of my thesis, my analysis spanned classical Hollywood examples such as Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind and Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men, Anne-Claire Poirier’s Mourir à tue-tête and Marlene Gorris’s A Question of Silence – two films that utilise the trial as feminist interrogation, Emile de Antonio’s documentary re-enactment In the King of Prussia and the live television coverage of Court TV.
Pleasing in a fictional context, this inherent cohesion is especially significant to the documentary where, in the pursuit of greatest authenticity, a reduced need to artificially shape its subject material is welcome. Approaching the subject from a similar standpoint, Clover argues that ‘trials are already movielike to begin with and movies are already trial-like to begin with’ (Clover, 1998, 99). So, although filming started on The Staircase before Michael Peterson’s trial for the murder of his wife Kathleen had even begun, Lestrade was confident in the knowledge that he’d end up with a story, a coherent narrative - whatever the verdict. This anticipation of satisfying closure works for audiences too, for we likewise know that trials won’t simply stop, they will end, even if such closure is only temporary (because the case could go to appeal) or unsatisfactory.
The complementarity of documentary and fictional trials make tribunal movies of all descriptions exemplary approximations.
My writings on trials:
‘Court Etiquette’, Sight and Sound, 4, February 1993; ‘Trial by Television: Court TV and Dramatising Reality’ Critical Survey 6/2: 172–9 (1994); ‘Rush to Judgement: Imperfect Justice in Fury’, Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, 3, 2011; ‘Imperfect justice: Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and Cinema’s use of the Trial Form’, Law and Humanities, Vol.4 (No.1). pp. 1-19 (2010).
A selection of books on representations of the law in film:
Sarat and Kearns (eds) Law in the Domains of Culture (Michigan UP, 1998); Black, David A. Law in Film (Illinois UP, 1999); Greenfield, Osborn and Robson Film and the Law (Hart Publishing, 2001 and 2010); Moran, Sandon, Loizidou and Christie (eds) Law’s Moving Image (Cavendish Publishing, 2004); Sarat, Douglas and Umphrey (eds) Law on the Screen (Stanford UP, 2005).
- Clover, Carol (1998) ‘Law and the Order of Popular Culture’, in Sarat, Austin and Kearns,Thomas R. (eds) Law in the Domains of Culture, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.