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Article

The American trial and American cinema share certain epistemological tendencies. Both stake claims to an authoritative form of knowledge based on the indubitable quality of observable phenomena. And both are preoccupied with sustaining the authority that underlies the knowledge produced by visual perception. The American trial and cinematic form also increasingly share cultural space. Although the trial film (otherwise known as the courtroom drama) is as old as the medium of film, the continuing popularity of the legal drama centered on a courtroom verdict suggests more than a trend. The inherent affinities between law and film not only produce enduring and memorable stories about law and justice but help constitute a popular legal consciousness that sustains the authority of the rule of law in the United States. This article describes these affinities in more detail, tracing the common themes in trial films, the special case of trial film based on true stories, and the future of the genre in American popular culture. It concludes by reviewing the disciplinary approach to the study of law and visual popular culture.

Article

Criminal justice and its institutions are key objects of popular culture and attract extensive media attention. The portrayal of the justice system, its rules, professions, and institutions has been invigorated with the invention of new media technology. The authorities’ reaction to wrong doing has proven not less exciting to the audience than the criminal acts themselves. French sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized that every member of society has an interest in social cohesion and wishes to see perpetrators appropriately punished. The media plays to this basic inclination. From the reactions of the justice system to crime people take clues not only for its effectiveness but the public also wants to see its basic values represented in the work of officials and their decisions. Therefore, aspects of procedural and distributive justice are picked up by popular imagination and exploited to the full by media producers. Beyond recognition that media depictions of criminal justice will follow media conventions and will therefore be distorted in systematic ways, it has to be acknowledged that those representations and the expectations they formed have become a major force in society. Political repercussions and influences on how crime is dealt with are a consequence.

Article

Military justice films occupy a unique space in film and legal studies, marrying two popular genres—courtroom dramas and military-themed films. This article examines the military justice film as a distinct genre in popular culture depictions of crime and punishment. First, it provides a brief overview of the history of the military justice film, from Classical Hollywood to the present. It then examines what sets military justice films apart from civilian courtroom dramas—the context, hierarchies, procedural rules, and broader implications of justice in the military context. It discusses why military justice films remain an enduring genre, with their appeal to universal themes and archetypal narratives. It further describes how military justice films have paralleled military history and serve as a critique of military, political, and national security policies. The article concludes by examining contemporary depiction of military justice in film, analyzing how the genre has changed since its inception, and discussing how military justice films may continue to evolve to keep pace with shifting norms of both law and warfare.

Article

Stefan Machura and Michael Böhnke

Legal themes, especially those related to crime, abound in German popular culture. This article covers some of the most politically significant and popular examples from the Weimar Republic period to present times, putting them into their social and media sector context. Due to the country’s experience with totalitarian regimes, one main topic of popular culture is the political abuse of the law. Run-of-the-mill crime stories, of course, are a staple of literature and audiovisual media. Their appeal did not lessen in the age of the Internet. Due to genre and narrative conventions, mainstream media tend to shed a positive light on the institutions and personnel connected with the law. Much of German fiction is heavily influenced by the example of US films and TV series, so far that they misrepresent the German legal system. Other influences shape content as well. Economic pressures rank high among them, while overt censorship was evident during the Third Reich (1933–1945) and after partition in the German Democratic Republic (GDR; 1949–1990). Highly regarded artistic works often focus on the topic of individual guilt, while lesser productions typically draw on the sensational aspects of crime detection. The ordering hand of the judge, putting things right after a tumultuous court hearing, signifies the German TV judge show (the equivalent of Judge Judy). Measured degrees of social criticism are typical for many of the better TV productions. And, despite television’s influence, novels and plays still claim a stake in popular culture. Although US media productions dominate the international market for legal fiction, German TV shows, especially police series, became a success story as well. They project the image of the clean, unbiased, correct, and efficient police inspector. Critical films and programs aim mainly at the domestic market due to their specific issues. Nevertheless, the overall effect of German popular fiction dealing with crime and justice tends to be positive, with trust in the law being supported.