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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Law & Crit, Take 6: "To Kill A Mockingbird" And Voice-Over Narration

On Monday, Bert Schneider passed away after having produced such classics as "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," and "The Last Picture Show." He was also the producer on Terrence Malick's pastoral "Days of Heaven," and his passing led Jeffrey Wells at "Hollywood Elsewhere" (where I used to write DVD reviews) to quip,

Bert Schneider, the last producer to semi-successfully micro-manage Terrence Malick and keep him from his own self-indulgent tendencies by somehow persuading him to keep Days of Heaven down to a managable 94 minutes, died Monday at age 78.

I can certainly appreciate where Jeff is coming from. I remember seeing "The New World" (the original cut) at the Regal Union Station 14 with a friend, who looked like she had just escaped from the ninth circle of hell as we exited the theater doors. Personally, I'm a fan of Malick, both his newer films as well as his 1970s twin bill of "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" And one thing that these earlier films share is that they feature voice-over narration by young female characters (Sissy Spacek's Holly in "Badlands" and Linda Manz's Linda in "Days of Heaven").

Reading Jeff's post got me thinking about the best use of voice-over narration in movies. Certainly, Linda's narration in "Days of Heaven" would be the near the top of the list. As noted by Tim Dirks, in "Days of Heaven,"

The simple love story set on a pastoral landscape becomes a profound allegorical tale of harmony and discontinuity, love and hate, hopes and fears, and good and evil. Its emotional impact is shaped by the unique perspective of the narrator - a typical teenager telling the tale out of her own youthful concerns (having fun, her uncertain future), combining her beliefs about the dual contradictory nature of humanity ("you just got half-devil and half-angel in ya"), and imaginative and fearsome fantasies of religious judgment and divine retribution (the flaming end of the world, and the Devil's presence on Earth).

Also up there would be Morgan Freeman's narration in "The Shawshank Redemption." Of course, unlike Linda in "Days of Heaven," Freeman's Red is a man who has suffered for decades based upon the mistakes he made in his youth, and he is often relaying the wisdom he has gained as tears go by. In one particularly poignant scene, Red is before the parole board and responds to a question about whether he's sorry about what he did with the following:

There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit. 

This leads me to Alyssa Rosenberg's post today in her Pop Culture and Death Penalty Project.

Today's post deals with Robert Mulligan's film version of Harper Lee's timeless novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Both works were among my earliest introductions to the American legal system, and, along with Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men" (which Rosenberg will discuss next week), played a large role in my decision to become a lawyer.

We read and watched "To Kill a Mockingbird" in my eighth grade English class. My English teacher was obsessed with the role of narration in general and the specific role that choosing Scout Finch as the narrator in Mockingbird had on our perception of events. We discussed her narration a good deal in class, and the teacher even had us each pick different characters in the story so that we (in character) could act out our own narration of how we saw things in front of the class. I chose to be Judge Taylor, who Lee describes in the book as chomping on a cigar and spitting out pieces of it during trial. In an early attempt at method acting, I bought a large Tootsie roll, wrapped it in brown construction paper, and chewed on it and spit it out as I explained to other students how I saw the trial.

But it's not the judge who narrates "To Kill a Mockingbird," and it's not the protaganist Atticus Finch. Instead, it's Finch's daughter Scout, whom many consider a proxy for Lee herself. But it's not the youthful Scout narrating what she sees contemporaneously; instead, it's an adult Scout reflecting on what she saw an unspecified number of years ago. Like Red in "The Shawshank Redemption," she's reelin' in the years.

In her postRosenberg notes that

I’d forgotten how young Scout is in the novel and the movie — she’s just six. And the movie is both about her increasing awareness of the world around her and the way the world reaches out for her, the fact that the innocence of childhood is an imagined and impossible-to-maintain state....

In a way, the movie’s an inverse of the conventional narrative about the death penalty: this terrible thing happened, and we must send a message so strong and deterrent that it will never happen again. Scout sees the ways the legal process can go wrong, she sees the man who’s a supposed threat to her community murdered, and she’s still made a victim. The world is big, and unpredictable. To think that we can produce rationalism with a decision undergirded by emotion doesn’t make sense.

Rosenberg's post again got me thinking about the collateral consequences of the death penalty. Clearly, it directly affects the condemned. Less clearly, it directly affects the executioner, nowadays typically a doctor injecting a fatal cocktail of drugs. But it also affects the defendant's family. It affects the victim's family. It affects the lawyers. It affects the jury.

In an earlier post, I noted that jurors are "death qualified" (i.e., qualified to sit as jurors in death penalty cases) when they are willing to impose the death penalty as a punishment, but I wondered whether anyone is in fact "death qualified" in the sense that they could impose the penalty of death and then live with the consequences of their decision.

Vegetarians, vegans, and animal rights activists often say that meat eaters should have to watch animals being slaughtered if they want to continue to eat meat. My question: What about jurors? Should they have to watch executions before they are tasked with the decision of whether to impose the death penalty? Are they aware that there were 31 "botched" executions from the first lethal injection in 1982 through 2001? Are they aware that there are wide variations in he drugs and dosages used in lethal injections in different states because Fred Leuchter -- the original creator of most execution equipment in this country (who was later conscripted to prove that there were no gas chambers during the Holocaust) -- had no information on the proper dosage of potassium chloride to kill a patient and thus relied on the information that was available for pigs and estimated accordingly? Do they know that in some states such as In Arkansas, executions are left in the hands of unpaid volunteers?

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is such an effective work of literature (and film) because of the juxtaposition of the wide-eyed 6 year-old Scout with her more wisened narrator. At one point, anticipating the O.J. Simpson trial, the adult Scout reflects,

"Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don't already know the answer to….Do it, and you'll often get an answer you don't want, an answer that might wreck your case."

This is not something that the younger Scout would have known. It is insight based upon years of reflection on her years as the daughter of an attorney. Most jurors are like the wide-eyed Scout. They don't know what the death penalty really is. What happens when they wake up years later and reflect upon the decision they made?

-CM

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Comments

This book is so simple,so lucid yet it touches your heart. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for this one and she deserves it!!
This book is set in early nineties in a small town in Mississippi. The protagonist is a small girl who leans about life. Scout is a small girl, who along with her brother Jem see the evil of racism. Their father , Atticus is a lawyer who defends an innocent black man. In the end the evil of racism sees the poor man being punished. Yet we see how the incident affects Scout and Jem and how Atticus teaches the entire world a lesson.

Posted by: Rahul | Aug 21, 2013 9:25:24 AM

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