OPINION: The Cinema of Casey Anthony

5 07 2011

I know that I’m a movie blogger by name, but if you’ll allow me a brief aside, I’d like to address a different field altogether.  I, like many Americans this summer, have been following the developments in the trial of Casey Anthony.  Today, to the shock (and disgust) of many captivated American television watchers, she was acquitted of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee.

I will inevitably catch heat for this, but I do not sit in front of my computer typing this post in dismay.  Just a day after 311 million Americans celebrated the preservation of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that so many men have died for, the trial by jury guaranteed to all citizens in the Bill of Rights produced a verdict of not guilty.  Regardless how much Nancy Grace or Bill O’Reilly told us she is guilty, or will continue to tell us she is guilty, we have to trust the American legal system here.  We have to trust that these jurors listened to the evidence and made the right call.

But this post isn’t about the woman in the courtroom, it’s about the people that watched her courtesy of the courtroom cameras.  I learned a lot about how Americans view concepts of justice, vengeance, and entertainment, three ingredients that can make be quite poisonous when mixed.  Quite frankly, what I’ve seen over the past month should have the Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves.  This cannot be the America they wanted to create.

Just last Christmas, “True Grit” was an unprecedented success, grossing $171 million, scoring nearly unanimous critical support, and raking in 10 Academy Award nominations.  The Coens’ film grapples with the tricky question of revenge; in the movie, Hailee Steinfeld’s spunky 14-year-old Mattie Ross embarks on a journey to kill Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father in cold blood.  She is seen as the hero of the film, and when she ultimately succeeds, the audience cheers.  The character representing justice, Matt Damon’s LeBoeuf, is a clown that is mostly mocked by the audience.

While the Coen Brothers likely expected this to play mostly for their usual niche audience, the excellent film wound up entering the mainstream and playing well into February and March in most theaters.  Not to insult the average moviegoer, but I don’t think that many of them understood that “True Grit” is supposed to be a meditation on the merit of retribution, not a vindication of it.  The movie is just ENTERTAINMENT, and the Coens deliver a cinematic vengeance that excites inside a theater.  But outside that theater, we aren’t meant to feel inspired to deliver payback in such a dramatic fashion.

Which brings me to the matter in question here, the Casey Anthony trial.  How does an ordinary 25-year-old mother from Orlando, Florida become “The Social Media Trial of the Century,” according to Time?  How does she grace the cover of People alongside Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Aniston?  Simply put, people want VENGEANCE.  They want to see the death of Caylee Anthony avenged, and they want blood to pay for it.

How do I feel so confident in making this statement?  Because most people didn’t need a trial or the deliberations of a jury to reach their own verdict; they just went ahead and pronounced her guilty.  Bill O’Reilly even said, “She is as guilty as they come.”  Although it is not specifically codified in the Constitution, it is considered a part of common law and an American virtue that someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  Everyone has the right to due process of law.  Everyone has the right to a trial by jury.  It is not up to people watching the trial on Fox News from their couch, nor is it up to those catching glimpse on CNN from the water-cooler.

But how can Americans have strayed so far from the ideals of our Founding Fathers?  In my opinion, it’s the means of information that induce such expectations for violent ends.  It’s a tired argument, I know.  Let’s blame the media and putting cameras in courtrooms for everything!  But in this case, the drive for ratings and good television has muddled the distinction between justice and vengeance by adding entertainment to the mix.  We have become convinced that the American legal system is only doing its job when it’s convicting people because there is too much crime in this country for punishment to be spared.

All of those title cards for coverage of the Casey Anthony trial, no matter what channel you watched, read “JUSTICE FOR CAYLEE.”  But it was never about justice for them, it was about retribution for her.  They found a woman who represented all sorts of bad parenting and immoral behavior, two things they could prove without a trial.  They made the trial about the condemnation of a woman more for her lack of scruples and less for her action since the case was based largely on circumstantial evidence.  They wasted no time calling her a representative of all evil in society.

This, to any well-versed film watcher, echoes the message of “Chicago,” Rob Marshall’s 2002 Best Picture winning musical movie.  Richard Gere’s Billy Flynn is a master of the media; in the number “We Both Reached for the Gun,” he is shown manipulating everyone literally as marionette puppets, holding their strings and making them dance.  He is the best lawyer in Chicago because he can turn the tide of public opinion in favor of his merry murderesses, thus providing a nice complement to evidence that suggests, but doesn’t prove, their innocence.  Billy has a mastery of the courtroom too and manages to get false acquittals for Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) because he knows one fact: “This trial … the whole world … it’s all … show business.”

Here is a perfect study of opposites: Roxie is a victim of culture’s evils, while Casey Anthony was made to represent them.  The media tried to make her trial a proxy trial for her behavior.  But it’s not; it’s about her actions, and the jury could not find in evidence that her actions included murdering her daughter.  It makes for good television to focus on her unscrupulous behavior in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance, but it does not make for a trial in the American judicial system.

While I’m indulging in pessimism at the moment, I don’t believe this condemnation is a final verdict on America’s fate.  Now perhaps more than ever, I think “12 Angry Men” rings true and relevant.  The movie revolves around a twelve man jury deliberating a case based on reasonable doubt, not unlike the Casey Anthony trial.  When they enter the deliberation move, it seems that all will vote guilty.  However, one juror known as #8, played by the noble Henry Fonda, votes in dissent.  Over the course of Sidney Lumet’s movie, #8 tries to convince the other jurors that their mental picture of the defendant is not enough to justify a vote.  As he so eloquently puts it, “It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first …We’re talking about somebody’s life here.”

With the death penalty on the table for Casey Anthony, she found herself in a position very similar to that of the Puerto Rican man in the movie.  But thanks to one noble juryman, he was saved.  As #8 struggles to change the rest of the jury’s mind, they take a second look at the evidence that seems to tell one story yet find that it tells another one – a story where the defendant is innocent.  When there are only three holdouts, #8 makes this speech that gets straight to the heart of the trial that has been the center of American attention for months:

“It’s very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth. Well, I don’t think any real damage has been done here. Because I don’t really know what the truth is. No one ever will, I suppose. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. We may be trying to return a guilty man to the community. No one can really know. But we have a reasonable doubt, and this is a safeguard which has enormous value to our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.”

Perhaps Casey Anthony is guilty.  That’s what many Americans still think in spite of this verdict.  But how many of us have come to this decision based on piecing together the evidence presented in court?  I’m going to guess very few of us have.  However, whatever notions I may have had about Casey Anthony thanks to Fox News or CNN have been wiped clean today with the jury’s verdict.  I’m not sure if the deliberations played out like “12 Angry Men” or if they took on another shape or form entirely.  Yet I am going to trust that however they came to their verdict, it is the right one.  And if you believe in the justice system that our Founding Fathers envisioned is morally right, then you must scorn notions of retribution and entertainment and believe in their verdict too.

OPINION: The Versatile Movie Review

14 11 2010

NOTE: While this post is a direct response to the Central Florida Film Critic‘s post “I should have gotten the training,” I mean no ill will towards the author.  I only wish to express my own opinions on the matter and defend my own writings.

I’ve been a little busy doing clean-up work on my own site for the past week, but one thing I’ve been meaning to address is some criticism laid out against me by a fellow blogger.  In a post calling out flaws in himself and other bloggers, he specifically addressed my post on “Citizen Kane.”  For those of you who didn’t catch it, here’s the portion of the article that was written about me:

“The second thing I want to point out is Marshall of Marshall and the Movies, another fun writer. Recently he wrote a piece on CITIZEN KANE, and two things bothered me about it. Firstly, his declaration that he can count the films he has seen from before 1941 on one hand. While I can’t boast about being too much better (sixteen total, and seven came within the last few months), I do have to wonder if any of us can intellectually discuss cinematic worth with such a lack of foundation. Would you trust someone to discuss music without a foundation in understanding The Beatles or Bob Dylan? That is not to say any opinion is invalid; after all, anyone can judge art. However, a lack of classic cinema knowledge seems like it leads to false understandings of a film’s importance. Throughout his piece on Welles’ masterpiece, Marshall talks about the comparisons to THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Of course, there was a lot of talk about such comparisons, and I have referred to Fincher’s film as a modern-day CITIZEN KANE. However, I think Marshall spends so much time writing about the comparisons that it seems as if he views the classic as a building block to the Facebook movie. Welles made a masterpiece without any pretenses of Fincher, and it seems like a better way to judge it. I assume part of it is to encourage his readers to see the Welles film (like all of us, Marshall is young and his friends likely have not seen it), but I don’t think he gives CITIZEN KANE the proper critical overview, which needs more independent remarks.”

While I certainly see where James is coming from on a number of things, I think he vastly misread the intent of the post.  I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing that different movie reviews serve different purposes and audiences and should be written to reflect them.  In case you didn’t catch my October post entitled “A Great Movie Reviewer,” perhaps now is a better time than ever to check it out.  Here’s one of the five points I laid out, which I think is especially pertinent to this discussion:

Know why you write and who you are writing for. It’s important to know your purpose and your audience when you write because it will affect your tone, diction, syntax, and all those other things your English teachers loved to talk about.  If you are writing to tell people that they need to see a movie that is unknown, you need to use different rhetoric than what you would use to tell people they should see the latest James Cameron movie.  You can inform, persuade, and urge with a review, but know which you want to do when you write it.  And be sure to write in a way that can appeal to the people that will read you.  Intellectual ramblings will only get you so far if you write to an audience that just wants to know what to put on their Netflix queue.”

I write largely for an audience that could care less about classic film.  I myself don’t really care that much for it, but I know that it’s important that I see these movies to have a larger understanding of film.  The movies I choose to review don’t require an incredible amount of knowledge of classics, and referring to them in reviews or posts would be largely wasted intellectual ramble.  I choose to spend most of my time watching movies that help me make accurate comparisons to help my friends and bloggers.  It makes more sense to say that the latest indie comedy is no “Juno,” not that it’s no “Citizen Kane.”

My post on “Citizen Kane” wasn’t so much a review or an intellectual discussion so much as it was a reflection piece.  What I wanted to look at was how a movie 70 years old can be relevant to a movie about Facebook, and when I sat down to write, that’s what I was trying to convey.  I don’t have the education to talk about Orson Welles’ masterpiece in any great depth; besides, there are plenty of scholars willing to do that for me.  “Citizen Kane” means something different to an 18-year-old movie buff than it does to a film student or a filmmaker, and I found an interesting way to discuss what it meant to me through a comparison with “The Social Network.”  I’m not incredibly well-suited to write a piece on the movie many critics deem the greatest ever made, but I think my perspective mirrors most of my readers.

I’m sorry to put this bluntly, but if you plopped the average moviegoer down to watch “Citizen Kane” without them knowing what it was, I doubt they would think it was anything special.  I say this not in the sense that the movie is bad, but because it was so revolutionary, so many movies have mimicked it that what made Welles’ movie sensational in 1941 makes it average in 2010.  What better way to illuminate the exciting side of “Citizen Kane” than by placing it side-by-side with the sure-to-be generational classic “The Social Network?”  My hope was that the logic of my readers would go, “This worked in ‘The Social Network,’ so if ‘Citizen Kane’ used it, then it must be good too!”

I had no intentions to give “Citizen Kane” a full critical overview because I’m simply not qualified.  But I believe that taking into account my purpose and my audience, my post did what it was supposed to do.  I’m not asking you to trust me as a film scholar; I’m asking you to trust me as a teenager with an appreciation for film.  I’m willing to hear criticism of my work, but my overall message to James at Central Florida Film Critic is that you can’t judge all writing through one lens.  You have to take into account different perspectives, and I think your scolding of my post simply didn’t do that.  If the way I view movies doesn’t align with the way you want to view them, I can only recommend you finding another site to read.

But I certainly hope that isn’t the case.

OPINION: A Great Movie Reviewer

27 10 2010

Dear Koungaroo (the neophyte blogger who left this comment exactly four months ago):

There’s no right or wrong way to be a movie reviewer; start off knowing that.  But you can never stop getting better.  In over a year of blogging, my movie reviews have changed quite a bit because I have been open to change.  Since you seem to be so eager to accept it as well, let me offer you five tips that have helped me find success in writing reviews.

Read lots of reviews. There is so much to learn, and you are never done learning.  Read as many reviews as you can tolerate because no two people write them the same.  I’ve picked up so much from reading other people’s reviews, everything from words to styles.  Be they professional or amateur, every writer enthusiastic enough to pen a review has something to offer you.  Other writers can help you discover your voice, which is a very important thing to have when writing reviews.  If you are a funny person, don’t hesitate to let it show.  Don’t be afraid to crack a joke or two. If you talk like a Cambridge professor, don’t be afraid to spin an eloquent phrase.

Write what you would want to read. Just because millions of people read The New York Times doesn’t mean that you have to write like that to get readers.  Don’t write in a style that would be off-putting to you.  If you woudn’t want to read what you write, how can you expect anyone else to read it?  Write first to please yourself, and then worry about how other people will see it.  If they are coming to read it on your blog, they want your unique spin and a movie reviewer they can have somewhat of a relationship with.  There are plenty of Roger Eberts out there; there’s only one you.

Know why you write and who you are writing for. It’s important to know your purpose and your audience when you write because it will affect your tone, diction, syntax, and all those other things your English teachers loved to talk about.  If you are writing to tell people that they need to see a movie that is unknown, you need to use different rhetoric than what you would use to tell people they should see the latest James Cameron movie.  You can inform, persuade, and urge with a review, but know which you want to do when you write it.  And be sure to write in a way that can appeal to the people that will read you.  Intellectual ramblings will only get you so far if you write to an audience that just wants to know what to put on their Netflix queue.

Perhaps a distinctive feature will help. Aimless reviewing makes for a lack of clarity for readers at times.  Give them ways to get what they want out of your reviewing, particularly through categorizing reviews and memorable columns.  Perhaps write something focusing on classics or undiscovered gems or overrated movies.  The possibilities are endless, but find a way to be distinct from the average movie reviewer.

Make your review memorable. Until you get paid to review movies, you have no credibility other than what you give yourself. So what are you going to do to make people value your opinion as much as Peter Travers’ opinion?  Be original and creative; don’t merely rehash what every other critic is saying.  There are infinitely many ways to express a common sentiment, find your own!  You have to give your reader a reason to remember your review, be it through the way your phrase your review or the way you rate it.

Until the next reel,