Allen Porter Mendenhall

Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Fiction, Film, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Rhetoric & Communication, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing on January 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The Independent Review.

“Television rots your brain.” That’s a refrain many of us grew up hearing, but it isn’t true. So suggests Paul Cantor in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, his second book about American film and television.

Cantor has become a celebrity within libertarian circles. He is Clifton Waller  Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia and recently became a visiting professor at his alma mater, Harvard University.  What’s remarkable about his appointment at Harvard is that it is in the Department of Government, not the Department of English. That doesn’t surprise those of us familiar with his breadth of knowledge and range of interests.

Recognized as an interdisciplinary scholar, Cantor attended Ludwig von Mises’s seminars in New York City before establishing himself as an expert on Shakespeare.  Besides publishing extensively on literature of various genres and periods, he has been a tireless advocate for Austrian economics, even though Marxist theories and their materialist offshoots dominate his field. In 1992, the Mises Institute awarded Cantor the Ludwig von Mises Prize for Scholarship in Austrian Economics, and his work at the intersection of economics and literature resulted in Literature and the Economics of Liberty (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), which he edited with Stephen Cox (while contributing nearly half of the book’s contents).

Like that work, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture owes much to the theories of Friedrich Hayek, in particular the concept of spontaneous order. It is a reflection of spontaneous order that the most beloved films and television shows did not spring perfectly from the mind of some genius working in complete isolation.  Rather, they emerged out of the complex interactions between producers and consumers and the collaborative efforts of scores of diligent workers. Viewer feedback facilitated modifications and improvements to films and television, which  advanced in meliorative stages.

Hayek discusses spontaneous order to refute the belief that government intervention and central planning ought to force order onto the marketplace. Cantor discusses it to refute the belief that artistic creation stands outside of commercial exchange. Examining depictions of freedom and coercion in a wide variety of films and television shows, he highlights the disparity between elitist and populist understandings of American culture, which he links to “top-down” and “bottom-up” models of order, respectively. His position is that the popularity and artistic appeal of film and television appear to be proliferating despite the objections and insults levied by the cultural elite, who, it should be added with not a little irony, nonetheless probably watch a great deal of television.

Against the cultural elite and their promotion of patrician—and mostly  European—standards for the arts, Cantor maintains that the marketplace enables  creative and experimental forms of expression that aren’t so different from earlier aesthetic media such as the serialized novel or popular plays. He reminds us that “nineteenth century critics tended to look down on the novel as a popular form, thinking it hardly a form of literature at all,” and adds that it “was not viewed as authentic art, but rather as an impure form, filled with aesthetically extraneous elements  whose only function is to please the public and sell copies” (p. 7). This once “vulgar” medium has lately been celebrated as one of the highest and most impressive categories of art. The form and content of great American novels—whether by Twain or Cooper or Salinger or Pynchon—should remind us that popular novels have been elevated as canonical even though they have rejected the standards and conventions that highbrow critics insisted were necessary for a work to constitute “literature.” Twain and Cooper recognized that highbrow presuppositions and expectations for novels derived from influential Europeans, so they set out to forge a uniquely  American literature free from Old World constraints.

Because film and television are commercial, they allow ordinary Americans  (as opposed to academics and the cultural elite, including and especially the neo-Marxists) to determine aesthetic standards and trends by indicating what does and does not interest them. Authors and television producers, in turn, become responsive and attuned to the demands of their consumers; they become, in short, entrepreneurs who must struggle against the status quo, defy the odds, and push the limits of artistic acceptability.

The elite disparage this process and advocate for aesthetic criteria divorced from the tastes and pleasures of the general public. As Cantor explains, “Elitists who profess to believe in democracy nevertheless have no faith in common people to make sound decisions on their own, even in a matter as simple as choosing the films and television shows they watch” (p. xiv). The elite would have film and television removed from the marketplace, but without the marketplace there would be no film or television.

Films and television shows might just become the masterpieces of the future; they might have already provided us with canonical “texts.” It is too early to say whether they have contributed substance to what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” Greatness, after all, takes time to ascertain.

Orwell, Dr. Johnson, and Hume adhered to the “test of time” measure of  greatness by which a work of art or literature is evaluated according to its ability to compete and survive in the literary marketplace over the course of generations.  This measure requires the sustained consensus of consumers as opposed to the esoteric judgments of elite critics. A work’s ability to attract vast and diverse audiences and to do so long after its production is what makes the work great.

It might seem odd to think of Cantor’s subjects—South Park and The X-Files, for  instance—alongside important literary works of the Western canon. And yet the groundlings who paid a penny to enter into the pit of the Globe Theatre, where they would stand and watch performances of Shakespeare’s plays, probably didn’t think they were witnessing greatness, either. Harold Bloom once said, “Cultural  prophecy is always a mug’s game,” and Cantor is wise not to prophesy about the enduring merit of any films or television shows. Cantor’s point is not that the products of film and television will be considered masterpieces one day, only that they might be.

For the record, I consider it extremely unlikely that South Park or The X-Files will achieve classic status, but I would not extend that speculation to such films as Casablanca or the Star Wars trilogy. Cantor himself takes pains to distinguish first-rate works from run-of-the-mill entertainment by invoking “traditional criteria for artistic excellence” (p. xxii). We should not take him to mean that film and television are media superior to that which came before them; instead, he considers them as substantially similar to their artistic antecedents, except that their  features signal an evolution in artistic preferences. The allure of art comes not from its alienation from popular culture, but from its ability to incorporate popular culture in ways that do not impede its power to speak beyond its moment.

To be sure, American film and television have produced an overwhelming amount of trash, but so did novel serialization. Not all novelists who published their work in contiguous installments in magazines and periodicals held the stature of Charles Dickens or Henry James or Herman Melville. Cantor points out that we forget about the thousands of bad novels from the Victorian era and extol only around one hundred novels from that period, which supposedly represents a  zenith in culture. Among the thousands if not millions of films and television shows that have been produced over the past century, perhaps a few will rival the works of Dickens, James, and Melville.

If Cantor weren’t such a generous and careful scholar, he might have become the bête noire of sophisticates and lambasted in the pages of The New Criterion for his embrace of the purportedly lowbrow. His command of economics and literary history, however, has spared him from such condemnation and even gained him a devoted following. To do justice to his latest book would require a more comprehensive treatment of his arguments about the figure of the “maverick” in film and television or about the value of collaborative work and coauthorship in  generating exceptional products. Yet these arguments demand more attention than a review can give.

The incomparable Cantor has blessed the libertarian movement with a literary  voice. He has expanded the study of Austrian economics into the fields that need it most. He himself is a maverick, reading and writing industriously to break up the habits of thought and monopolies on ideology that mark literary scholarship.  Would that we had more Cantors to show us how literature flowers when freedom flourishes. There is hope in the idea that artists can turn to the market to cultivate their talents and supply us with the arts we demand. No English department or cultural guardian can rob us of the entertainment that we enjoy.

10 Literary Lawyers We Wish Were Real

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Film, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Television, Wallace Stevens on February 22, 2012 at 8:10 am

Allen Mendenhall

A reader of this site has emailed me to point out a post at Criminaljusticedegreesguide.com.  The post, available here, is titled, “10 Literary Lawyers We Wish Were Real.”  Here’s the list:

1.  Atticus Finch

2.  Rudy Baylor

3.  Perry Mason

4.  Portia as Balthazar

5.  Joel Litvinoff

6.  Horace Rumpole

7.  The Man of Law

8.  Wallace Stevens (a strange selection indeed, since Stevens was real, but the author has put an interesting twist on Stevens)

9.  Henry Drummond

10.  Jake Brigance

Readers should view the article to see why the (unnamed) author believes that these figures “should be real.”

 

Allen Mendenhall Interviews J. Neil Schulman, Prometheus Award–Winning Author of Alongside Night

In Artist, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Fiction, Film, Humanities, Imagination, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Philosophy, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing, Writing on January 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

J. Neil Schulman

J. Neil Schulman is a novelist, actor, filmmaker, journalist, composer, and publisher.  Among his many books are Alongside Night and The Rainbow Cadenza, both of which won the Prometheus Award.  Visit his website at http://jneilschulman.rationalreview.com/.

 

The following interview originally appeared here at Prometheus Unbound: A Libertarian Review of Fiction and Literature.

AM:  Right off the bat, it strikes me that I don’t know what to call you.  Will Neil work?

JNS:  Sure. It’s J. Neil Schulman in credits, and Neil in person.

AM:  Anyway, thank you for doing this interview, Neil.  You’ve had a fascinating and unique career.  You’ve written novels, short fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and other works.  Which of your works is your favorite and why?

JNS:  Every artist gets asked this question sooner or later. I asked it of Robert A. Heinlein when I interviewed him in 1973, and his answer was, “The latest one I’ve been working on.”

I’ve only completed one movie so far — Lady Magdalene’s — so it’s a Hobson’s Choice on that one. Ask me again when I’ve made two! But a lot of people also seem to like the script I wrote for The Twilight Zone, “Profile in Silver.”

I’ve written three novels. My first, Alongside Night [editor's note: free in pdf], seems to be my most accessible and popular. I consider my second novel, The Rainbow Cadenza, to be my most layered, literary, and richest in explicit philosophy. My third novel, Escape from Heaven, is my favorite. It may not be as timely as my first novel or literary as my second novel, but it’s the one that’s closest to my heart…both the funniest thing I’ve ever written, and the one which is most deceptively simple. It appears to be a lightweight piece of comic fantasy, but it’s full of ideas that if examined more closely turn both traditional theology and rationalist philosophy on their heads.

Short stories? I’ll pick a few: “The Musician,” “Day of Atonement,” and “When Freemen Shall Stand” — all in my collection Nasty. Brutish, and Short Stories — and my latest short story, “The Laughskeller,” published on my blog, J. Neil Schulman @ Rational Review.

AM:  Your worldview is, in a word, libertarian.  Why is that?  How does libertarianism come across in your writing?

JNS:  In my nonfiction essays it comes across explicitly. In fiction, drama, and comedy, I try to examine libertarian themes without preaching. I was probably most subtle doing this in The Rainbow Cadenza. The utilitarian politics advocated by the chief villain, Burke Filcher, is so self-consistent that a lot of readers have thought this character speaks for the author. In fact, I wrote the novel to attack utilitarianism as a nullification of the natural individual rights I believe in. The novel reduces utilitarianism to absurdity — it’s a formal satire of it.

Alongside Night is less subtle, though I’m probably more successful in the new movie script than the 1970s novel when it comes to letting the audience make up its own mind. I have learned some refinements of my craft in the last three decades.

Alongside Night by J. Neil SchulmanAM:  I recently noticed that you commented on a post at the Austrian Economics and Literature blog edited by my good friend Troy Camplin.  Tell me about the influence that Austrian economics has had on you.

JNS:  I would say that Austrian economics — and more fundamentally, the analytical tools of praxeology and games theory — have been fundamental to my work for my entire professional career. They’re not the only tools in my kit, but they get shopworn as much as any of them. Austrian economics is most explicit in Alongside Night, projecting the social and political consequences of fiat money hyperinflation — but I used games theory in plotting “Profile in Silver” and applied praxeology to the afterlife in Escape from Heaven. Read the rest of this entry »

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Joyce Corrington

In Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Fiction, Film, History, Humanities, Information Design, John William Corrington, Law, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Philosophy, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing, Writing on September 22, 2011 at 8:31 am

Joyce Corrington is a writer who, with her late husband John William “Bill” Corrington, wrote several films, including The Omega Man (1970), Box Car Bertha (1971), and The Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).  Also with Bill Corrington, she co-authored four novels: So Small a Carnival (1986), A Project Named Desire (1987), A Civil Death (1987), and The White Zone (1990).  She was head writer for such television series as Search for Tomorrow, Texas, General Hospital and Superior Court, and she has been a co-executive producer for MTV’s The Real World.  She holds a Ph.D. from Tulane University.  Her latest book, Fear of Dying, is available in both Kindle e-book and paperback format.  Formerly a Malibu resident, she now resides in New Orleans. 

Photo by Robert Corrington

Joyce, thank you so much for doing this interview.  I’m surprised we haven’t done one before.  You’ve been an enormous help to me over the years.  You even allowed me to stay at your home in New Orleans so that I could do research on your late husband, Bill.  During that time I learned that you hold a Ph.D. from Tulane University, and taught Chemistry at Xavier University for ten years.  Tell me, how did a person with that background become a writer?

I’m sure it would never have happened if I hadn’t met and married Bill when we were both at Rice University.  He was working on a doctorate so he could earn a living teaching, but he wanted to write.  Bill succeeded in publishing a number of well-received novels, which I typed and edited for him.  But we did not become co-writers until Roger Corman read one of Bill’s novels and invited him to write a movie script.  This was not something Bill especially wanted to do.  But it paid better than college teaching, so we evolved a film writing partnership, whereby I would create a detailed story structure and Bill would write a script following my outline.  After six films, we became involved in writing television series and continued our writing partnership there and in the four New Orleans mystery books we published.  Bill passed away as the fourth was being written, so I completed it.

Why did you choose to continue the series?

After Bill died I found it difficult to get the same kind of writing jobs we had been used to doing.  I think this was because all of my credits were as half of a writing team and producers felt uncertain whether I could do the job by myself.  Thus I had about two years where I had little to do and, while I read a lot during that time, I also began writing a sequel to our New Orleans mystery series.  I think I wanted to prove that I could do it by myself.  Just after finishing the manuscript for Fear of Dying, I was hired to help produce The Real World, a job which I held for eleven seasons.  I did not get around to publishing Fear of Dying until I retired from that job. Read the rest of this entry »

Adam’s Rib and the “Two-Worlds” Problem

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Film, Humanities, Information Design, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, Teaching on June 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Directed by George Cukor, the film Adam’s Rib tells the story of Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn),New York attorneys whose marriage smacks of “tough love.”  The couple square off when Adam is assigned to prosecute a woman (Judy Holliday) who has attempted to murder her philandering husband—a bumbling dweeb, incidentally—in the apartment of his mistress.  Amanda, who approves of the woman’s act, which she views as resistance to patriarchal society, takes up the case as defense counsel. 

Genesis tells us that God fashioned Adam from dust, Eve from Adam’s rib.  Adam’s Rib tells a different story.  If anything, Amanda, or “Eve,” is the starting-point—a source of controversy, inspiration, and curiosity.  Adam’s Rib isn’t the first production to render gender contests in comedic tones—it’s part of a tradition dating back at least to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew or Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed, and probably much further—but it is one of the more remarkable of all twentieth-century productions, especially in light of Amanda’s advocacy for a doctrine that, in American family law, came to be known as “formal equality.” 

What, exactly, does Adam’s Rib offer law students?  What does it teach law students, in other words, and why should law professors bother with it?  A film that’s in no way after verisimilitude is unlikely to teach law students how to file motions, write briefs, analyze statutes, or bill clients—tasks that we, most of us, assume are requisite to becoming “good” lawyers.  So what’s the point?  In his own cunning way, James Elkins, whose Lawyers & Film course I took in law school, responded to questions of this variety, during class, by drawing two boxes on the blackboard: one representing law, the other film.  “We’ve gotta get from this box to this box,” he explained, retracing the diagram with the tip of his chalk.  “One place to start,” he suggested, “is with the movie scenes depicting lawyers or the courtroom.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Screening Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Film, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Writing on June 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Allen Mendenhall

We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.  We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.

 —Robert McKee, from Story

 

Law school is, in a way, about performing.  From the minute you walk into the building as a 1L, you search for and construct a new identity—one that conforms to your assumptions of what a lawyer is and does.

The first time a professor called on me—Mr. Mendenhall, can you tell us how the judge in this case distinguishes restitutionary from reliance damages?—I panicked.  I knew the answer.  More or less.  But I had no chance to rehearse.  Here I was, before a large audience, a packed house, all alone, all eyes on me.

“Um, yes,” I stammered, apparently suffering from stage fright.  I don’t remember how I answered—not precisely—but I remember taking a deep breath, feigning confidence, and pretending to know what the professor expected me to know.  I must’ve sounded silly bloviating about things I hardly understood; at the same time, I must’ve performed satisfactorily because the professor let me alone and interrogated another student. 

My first audition.  Read the rest of this entry »

Constructing Tony Montana, Scarface

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Film, Information Design, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Scarface, Semiotics on August 12, 2010 at 4:17 pm

 

Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1983) adopts and adapts to several conventions of the gangster genre; these conventions feature prominently as icons on posters and in trailers for the film.  These conventions additionally constitute and perpetuate the narrative image of “gangster” that audiences have come to expect from gangster films.  Big guns, flashy jewels, impeccable suits, sexy women—these are some of the signifiers that de Palma employs as semantics of the gangster genre.  Such signifiers summon forth ideas of “the gangster” before audiences ever see a single scene of the film.  Insofar as Scarface is a remake of another gangster film and audiences are aware of this fact, said audiences (at least those watching in 1983) most likely expect (or expected) de Palma’s production to recycle the genre.  Scores of carefully chosen images market de Palma’s film by announcing the gangster genre such that even viewers who are unaware that the film is a remake will nevertheless recognize gangster signs and symbols (as opposed to cowboy or hit-man or action hero signs and symbols).  Tony Montana’s image remains so popular today, some twenty-seven years after the film’s production, that fans of Scarface can still purchase the film’s paraphernalia in stores and malls across America.  For better or worse, Scarface has become a lasting contribution to our national culture.  This post is an exercise.  Its purpose is not to celebrate Scarface—which, I confess, I dislike as a film—but briefly to show how advertising points to and can satisfy various stylistic criteria in order to signal specific categories (genres) of film.  This post also recommends semiotics as an exercise in self-awareness.  We can learn about ourselves by examining the objects that surround us as well as the values and priorities that those objects connote.     Read the rest of this entry »

25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers

In Arts & Letters, Film on August 2, 2010 at 8:07 am

The editors of the ABA Journal have asked readers to vote for their favorite fictional lawyer.  See here.  But there’s a catch: Atticus Finch is not in the running.  It seems that Mr. Finch would have been too obvious a winner.  Candidates in the running include Michael Clayton, Ally McBeal, Vincent “Vinny” Gambini, Paul Biegler, Rusty Sabich, and many more.

My vote is for Paul Biegler, the piano-playing protagonist of Anatomy of a Murder.  Jimmy Stewart stars as Biegler in this now-classic film based on the best-selling novel by the same name.  The Honorable John D. Voelker, writing under the pseudonym Robert Traver, published the novel in 1959.  In perhaps the most insightful line of the film, Beigler says, “As a lawyer I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad.”

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