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Abortion in American Film since 2001  

Fran Bigman

In American cinema from 1916 to 2000, two main archetypes emerge in portrayals of women seeking abortion: prima donnas and martyrs/victims. While the prima donna category faded over the course of the 20th century, study of abortion in American cinema from 2001 to 2016 shows that the victim archetype persists in many films. Women who have abortions are cast as victims in films across a variety of genres: Christian, thriller, horror, and historical. Some recent films, however, namely, Obvious Child (2014) and Grandma (2015), reject this hundred-year-old tendency to portray abortion as regrettable and tragic—especially for the women choosing it—and instead show it as a liberating experience that brings women together, breaking new ground for the depiction of abortion in American film.


Cultural Studies Approaches to the Study of Crime in Film and on Television  

Neal King, Rayanne Streeter, and Talitha Rose

Crime film and television has proliferated such influential variations as the Depression-era gangster film; the post–World War studies in corruption known as film noir; the pro-police procedural of that time; and then the violent rogue-cop stories that eventually became cop action in the 1980s, with such hits as television’s Miami Vice and cinema’s Die Hard. Mobster movies enjoyed a resurgence with the works and knockoffs of Scorcese (Goodfellas) and Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), resulting in such TV series as The Sopranos, and with a return to “blaxploitation” with the ’hood movies of the early 1990s. Recent developments include the neo-noir erotic thriller; the rise of the corrupt cop anti-hero, paralleled by the forensic procedural, often focused on baroque serial killers; and the near disappearance of black crime movies from cinema screens. Such developments may owe to shifts in relations between real policing, real crime, and citizens, but they may owe more directly to shifts in the movie/television industries that produce them. Such industry shifts include freewheeling depictions of social problems in early cinema; carefully controlled moralism over the 1930s established by such industrial regulators as the Production Code in Hollywood and the British Board of Film Censors; further repression of subversion as anti-Communism swept through Hollywood in the 1950s; then a return of repressed violence and cynicism in the 1970s as Hollywood regulation of depictions of crime broke down; and a huge spike in box office and ratings success in the 1980s, which resulted in the inclusion of more heroes who are not both white and male. The rise of the prime-time serial on television, enhanced by the introduction of time-shifting technologies of consumption, has allowed for more extended storytelling, usually marketed in terms of “realism,” enabling a sense of unresolved social problems and institutional inertia, for which shows like The Wire have been celebrated. The content of such storytelling, in Western film and television, tends to include white male heroes meeting goals (whether success as criminals or defeat of them as cops) through force of will and resort to violence. Such stories focus on individual attributes more than on social structure, following a longstanding pattern of Hollywood narrative. And they present crime as ubiquitous and both it and the policing of it as violent. The late 1980s increase in the depiction of women of all races and men of color as heroes did little to alter those patterns. And gender patterns persist, including the absence of solidarity among women and the absence of women from stories of political corruption or large-scale combat.


Film Noir  

William Luhr

Film noir is a term coined by French critics in 1946 to describe what they considered an emerging and exciting trend in Hollywood films—one that signaled a new maturity in American cinema. The term translates into English as “black film,” and the darkness to which it refers applies both to the grim themes and events in many of these movies, as well as to their dark look. Many of them deal with doomed characters entangled in immoral and/or criminal activities that go horribly wrong. Such characters lose their psychological mooring and become increasingly desperate, and the depiction of that desperation can at times destabilize the traditional securities and aesthetic distance of the viewer from the events of the film. The cinematography of many of these movies often features images crisscrossed with ominous shadows and filled with dark, mysterious spaces. This article explores the origins of the genre in the 1940s, major influences upon it, its development and many transformations, its intersections with other genres, its place in Hollywood history as well as postwar American culture, its frequent bouts with industry censorship, reasons for the difficulties that critics encounter with defining it, its ongoing popularity, and its extensive influence upon multiple media.


Gangsters and Genre  

Anita Lam

While there are multiple possible definitions of what makes a gangster film, ranging from the simple inclusion of a villainous gangster in a film to those that follow outlaws on the run, the classic definition of a gangster film has revolved around the rise and inevitable fall of an immigrant gangster protagonist, a career criminal with whom audiences are expected to identify. Yet this classic definition has been expanded by evolving theoretical and methodological considerations of film genre. From the outset, gangster films were one of the first film genres to be considered by early genre criticism. Based on structural and formal analyses of the so-called Big Three Hollywood gangster films from the 1930s—namely, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface—early scholars argued that the gangster genre reflected the ideological tensions that underlay the American Dream of material success. Interpreted as modern tragic figures, gun-toting gangsters in these films were trapped in dangerous cities characterized by anonymity, violence, and death. More recently, genre criticism of gangster films has not only shifted emphasis away from the classic gangster narrative, but also paid far greater attention to institutional intertexts that have highly influenced the production and historical reception of these films. By highlighting variability, contingency, mutability, and flexibility, scholars now speak of genre in terms of specific cycles of production, where each cycle produces different gangster figures to mediate changing societal concerns and public discourses around issues of criminality, class, gender, and race. More contemporary and culturally-specific extensions, adaptations, or articulations of the gangster genre can also be read as thematic explorations of blackness in the following two ways. First, the cycle of ghetto-centric American “hood” films in the 1990s, a cycle that helped to launch hip-hop cinema, points to a continuity between the mythic figure of the gangster and African-American self-representations as “gangsta.” Secondly, while the gangster genre has been defined as a distinctly and explicitly American genre, owing much to critics’ primary emphasis on examining Hollywood films, the genre has also played a significant role in revitalizing and popularizing Hong Kong cinema in the late 1980s and 1990s. Referred to as hak bong dianying (“black gang films”), Cantonese-language Hong Kong gangster films are part of the fabric of local Hong Kong culture, revealing the moral implications of joining “black society” (the Cantonese-language concept for triad) and the “black paths” that members take.


A Genre Study of Prosecutors and Criminal Defense Lawyers in American Movies and Television  

Michael Asimow

The term genre refers to a set of thematically or stylistically similar popular cultural texts. Courtroom narratives form both movie and television genres, and criminal trials form subgenres. Each entry in the criminal subgenres contains a criminal trial and pits a prosecutor against a defense lawyer. This article discusses the genre conventions for these characters. Where the defense lawyer is a protagonist, the client is a co-protagonist. The client is either innocent or is being unjustly prosecuted. The defense lawyer, often presented in heroic terms, struggles to get the client acquitted (or the punishment reduced). The defense lawyer must overcome obstacles that the antagonist prosecutor places in the lawyer’s path. Defense lawyers are loners who are lacking in personal life or emotions. Perry Mason is the iconic genre defense lawyer. Where the prosecutor is the protagonist, the crime victim (or survivors of a deceased victim) are the co-protagonists. Prosecutors are relentless, honorable, and often politically ambitious. They must struggle to overcome obstacles erected by defense lawyers. Like defense lawyers, prosecutors lack a personal life or emotions. Jack McCoy on Law & Order is the iconic genre prosecutor. These generic conventions have become stale. Consequently, creators of pop culture products in the criminal courtroom subgenre employ genre-busting narratives that have refreshed the genre. Defense lawyers often work for clients they suspect are guilty and try to get them off through the use of technical defenses. Guilty clients deceive gullible lawyers into putting on cases with perjured testimony. If the client confesses guilt, the lawyer betrays the client to protect the public. Defense lawyers have personal lives, feelings, and emotions, and some are anti-heroes. Genre-busting prosecutors often have unpleasant personalities, and they don’t hesitate to bend ethical rules. As in the case of defense lawyers, prosecutors have inner lives and personal relationships. These genre-busters have destabilized the generic conventions and may well have established new conventions.


Nazi Justice in Popular Legal Culture  

Carsten Würmann

Stories dealing with the detection of a crime, the hunt of the culprit, and his or her conviction were extremely popular in Nazi Germany. They were the product of an entertainment industry that remained in private hands far into the Second World War. Published as books, dime novels, films, radio plays, and dramas, crime stories were successfully commercialized and marketed through multiple media. Products of a popular culture must by definition be liked and consumed by the audience. Although this might sound like a tautology, it describes a premise that even the Nazi regime could not totally suspend. The products of popular culture were primarily a means to address the entertainment needs of the audience rather than being an instrument of indoctrination purposefully designed by the Nazi elite. These products could be regarded as the result of a negotiation process for a Nazi mainstream that tried to mediate the intentions of the producers, the interests of the regime, and the expectations of the recipients. What were the representations of law and order that the popular culture in NS Germany under these premises could offer? Telling about crime and justice in a popular and fictitious way demands a certain grade of reality. Such works result from genre conventions consumers of popular stories expect to be respected. The settings and ingredients in these novels and movies must be from this world. That does not mean realism in a literal sense but a rather realistic setting to make the fiction believable. What the story offers has to match the readers’ expectation at least in part. In a totalitarian society that wants to control potentially every aspect of life, the amount of realism required becomes problematic. As long as there is a gap between ideological theory and reality, any author who wants to incorporate aspects of the reader’s daily life to make the stories work cannot be sure if she or he has incorporated the necessary aspects. Stories that tell about crimes committed in a NS German society do not fit in this conception because they could create doubt about public security. Telling stories about police forces and a legal system that always acts in total accordance with the rule of law could point out the grotesque discrepancy of these descriptions with the reality of the rogue state of Nazi Germany.


Nordic Noir  

Annette Hill and Susan Turnbull

Nordic noir is an emerging crime genre that draws on crime fiction, feature film, and television drama. The term Nordic noir is associated with a region (Scandinavia), with a mood (gloomy and bleak), with a look (dark and grim), and with strong characters and a compelling narrative. Such is the popularity of Nordic noir as a brand for crime that it can also, and somewhat confusingly, be associated with disparate, bleak dramas set in particular locations outside the Scandinavian region (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland), such as Wales, Italy, France, Mexico, and the United States. As such, Nordic noir is a global brand that attracts transnational audiences, and at the same time, it is a genre that offers a specific style of storytelling that has the look and feel of a regional, moody, and compelling crime narrative. The approach to Nordic noir taken in this article analyzes the genre as multidimensional, involving production and institutional contexts, creative practices, and the practices of audiences and fans. The research uses empirical and theoretical analysis drawing on genre analysis, as well as production and audience studies, including qualitative interviews and participant observations with executive and creative producers, viewers, and fans. Nordic noir is not a fixed genre; rather, it is in a constant process of iteration as it mutates, hybridizes and migrates from one location to another, where it may be received and understood in different ways. The concept of “genre work” is useful in helping to capture and critically analyze Nordic noir from multiple perspectives, taking into account the complex ways in which this genre is a cocreation between industries and audiences. This is particularly evident in the case of the Danish-Swedish coproduction Broen/Bron/The Bridge (2011), which provides an illuminating case study of these processes at work. It is this constantly ongoing notion of genre work that illuminates the fluidity of Nordic noir, where its meaning and symbolic power is cocreated by institutions, producers, and audiences.


Guilt or Innocence: Lessons About the Legal Process in American Courtroom Films  

Paul Bergman

American courtroom films depicting criminal trials have long resonated with audiences around the world, including viewers in countries whose legal systems are very different from those portrayed in the films. Three principal factors account for the broad popularity of these films. 1. Flexibility of the genre: The crimes with which defendants are charged can be carried out in an infinite number of ways and for an infinite variety of motives. Stories can be comedies or dramas; real or fictional; and “who-dunits,” “why-dunits,” or “how-dunits.” 2. The adversary system of trial: The American adversary system of trial is made to order for screenwriters. The question-and-answer format produces verbal duels between lawyers and witnesses that often result in surprise evidence, sudden plot twists, and in-your-face comeuppances. While the nominal targets of the testimony and the arguments are the jurors who are frequently present, the jurors are proxies for the writers’ ultimate targets, the viewers. 3. Subject matter: Defendants in courtroom films are typically charged with murder or other forms of serious crime, topics to which viewers in all countries can easily relate. For individual courtroom films, the “moment of truth” typically occurs when viewers find out whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. But for the courtroom genre as a whole, “moments of truth” consist of the “macro lessons” that courtroom films “teach” to viewers about the American system of criminal justice. Most viewers, regardless of where they live, have had little or very little exposure to actual criminal trials. For most people, what they think they know about American criminal justice is based on the images of law, lawyers, and criminal justice portrayed in courtroom films.


Cultural Representations of Torture  

Honni van Rijswijk

Scenes of torture are central to the Western imaginary of law, animating questions of power, authority and legitimacy. This examination of key cultural representations of torture provides some historical background on torture in the Western imaginary and focuses on its contemporary significance. A flexible set of analytical and aesthetic approaches to practices of representation are used to assess the changing significance of torture. In particular, three figures are central to the representation of torture—the torturer, the tortured, and the torture chamber. The significance of these elements differs depending on the form and perspective of representation. These elements of representations of torture changed following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and have complicated the social and legal work done by previous cultural texts and government policies around the effectiveness of torture and the risks of states of exception. Not only do popular films and television series support and justify the use of torture as a legitimate information-gathering tool, but representations of torture have become sites of pleasure and enjoyment. The emergence of new figures and genres in representations of torture suggests that the use of torture in violent or conflict scenes has been of increasing interest to the public and possibly have become increasingly accepted since the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).


Reality TV Crime Programs  

Annette Hill

Crime reality television is a significant origin story in understanding reality entertainment. In the 1980s, crime reality television captured the public’s imagination with cold cases, ongoing criminal investigations, surveillance feeds, and live appeals to the public for information to catch criminals. Early crime reality television borrowed from other factual genres, including news reportage, crime and observational documentary, and crime drama; this mixing of different generic elements helped to create representations of crime that were a combination of dramatized spectacles, surveillance footage, and public appeals. What united this mix of factual and dramatic styles was the sense of liveness; the live address to the public and the caught-in-the-act camerawork contributed to an experience of watching as immediate and real. This feeling of liveness, a central component of television itself, meant that crime reality television was popular entertainment that also connected to the real world, inviting audiences and publics to engage with crime in their local neighborhood, in society, and in public debates about law and order. This was citizen crime television that had commercial and public appeal. At some point in the origin story of reality television, crime was overshadowed by the global development of this entertainment genre. In early studies, books such as Entertaining Crime (Fishman & Cavender, 1998) or Tabloid Television (Langer, 1998) examined the influx of infotainment and sensational news reportage primarily on television in Europe, Australia, and America. These books were about reality television and addressed the first crime wave in the genre. Studies of the 2000s books, such as Reality TV (Hill, 2005) or Staging the Real (Kilborn, 2003), examined docusoaps and competitive reality and talent shows, addressing the second and third waves in the genre. More recently, companions to reality television (Ouellette, 2014) contain research on global reality television formats, as well as scripted reality or business reality, and analyze issues concerning politics, race, class, production, celebrities, branding, and lifestyles. Crime is conspicuous by its relative absence from these discussions: what happened to crime reality television? Today, true crime is flourishing in commercial zones, for example, on branded digital television channels like CBS Reality or the international surveillance format Hunted, and subscription video on demand true crime Making a Murderer. Many of these popular series tap into that feeling of liveness that was so crucial to early crime reality television, particularly the connection between representing crime, law and order, and the real world. This makes crime reality television a rich site of analysis as an intergeneric space where there are tensions surrounding the staging of real crime for entertainment, and its connection to traditional values of authority and duty, representations of ethnicity, gender and social class, and broader moral, legal and political issues.


Feminist Themes in Television Crime Dramas  

Nancy C. Jurik and Gray Cavender

The academic literature notes that male-centered protagonists dominated the crime genre (novels, film, television) for many years. However, beginning in the 1970s, when women began to enter the real world of policing, they also began to appear in the crime genre. Scholars describe how in those early years, women were depicted as just trying to “break in” to the formerly male world of genre protagonists. They experienced antipathy from their peers and superiors, a situation that continued into the 1980s. In the 1990s, television programs like Prime Suspect addressed the continuing antipathy but also demonstrated that the persistence and successes of women protagonists began to change the narrative of the crime genre. Indeed, some scholars noted the emergence of a feminist crime genre in which plot lines were more likely to address issues that concerned women, including issues of social justice that contextualized crimes. Not only was there an abundance of women-centered genre productions, there was a significant increase in academic scholarship about these protagonists. Some scholars argue that once women in the crime genre reached a critical mass, some of their storylines began to change. There was a tendency for women to be seen as less feminist in their career orientations and more like traditional genre protagonists, e.g., brooding, conflicted, and oppressive. Plots abandoned social justice issues in favor of more traditional “whodunits” or police procedural narratives. The same darkness that characterized men in the crime genre could now be applied to women. Some scholars have argued that a few feminist-oriented productions continue to appear. These productions demonstrate a concern not only with gender but also with issues pertaining to race, class, sexual orientation, and age. For the most part, these productions still center on white, heterosexual women, notwithstanding some attention to these larger social matters.