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April 07, 2010

The theory of justice in Law & Order

TV | Law & Order | Dick Wolf's Abject Theory of Justice | Overthinking It This is by necessity a tiny slice of a much larger essay. If you have any interest in L&O:SVU or think cop tv is appalling, this'll appeal to you.
To the extent that the Law & Order franchise is about anything, it’s about society’s proper reaction to crime, and while I don’t think for a second that Dick Wolf (or any other individual) was trying to come up with a coherent theory of justice as they wrote it, there is a sort of ad-hoc theory that has developed over the course of the show’s multi-decade run. Like Hegel’s theory, it is retributionist: the utilitarian justification that McCoy et al. are somehow making New York a safer place is given lip-service every now and then, but no more than that. The demands of serial drama dictate that another murderer or rapist will pop up next week anyway. What remains is retribution. Even for a perp that poses no further danger to the community, the fact that crimes have been committed demands a certain response. But what response? Rehabilitation—perhaps in a sense the reconstitution that Hegel is hoping for—is completely absent here. None of the criminals processed by McCoy et al. show up in a later episode on a work-release program. Punishment, then? Not really. We never see punishment on Law & Order. Trials, sure, and even convictions. But could we imagine an episode that focused on documenting punishment itself, following the prisoners around their daily lives in jail? Even Oz, which was set in a jail, was never really about this. No, when criminals have had their day on Law & Order, they are… simply… gone. All sentences are effectively death sentences: whatever happens to them afterwards, we don’t get to see it. What we do see, remember, are those constant melodramatic recitations of the crime. Occam’s Razor again suggests that these scenes are there for a reason. If the series is about the proper reaction to crime, and [X] happens in every single episode, then [X] is probably the reaction in question. . . . And this is where it honestly gets a liiiitle bit completely appalling. The healthy body of society in these shows is represented by the cops and the lawyers. Unlike the criminals (and the victims!), they persist from episode to episode. And while the criminals (or the victims!) deliver these intense, melodramatic narrations of the criminal act, the cops and lawyers spend most of their time being competent and cracking wise. In terms of being cast out of society as an abject thing, Law & Order makes precious little distinction between the criminal and the victim of the crime. Now, there’s still something wrong with this picture, which is that I haven’t explained why SVU in particular draws an audience. Basically all I’ve pointed out are the ways that it’s similar to Law and Order Regular Victim’s Unit. But I think it’s really just a question of what kind of crime you find most threatening to your idea of a well-ordered society. . . .

April 05, 2010

Recommended Viewing: Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo is a unique little horror film. Formally it lies somewhere between the reality-tv "Paranormal Activity" and HBO's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." It's a ghost story at its heart, but it has the look and smell of any recent documentaries. This is a film that doesn't rely on cheap cat scares or gross-out gore. There is no torture porn in Lake Mungo's cinematic DNA. It has a story to tell, a story with twists and turns and revelations and red herrings, and it tells it superbly. The film begins with slow shots of South Wales, Australia. The Palmer family--father, mother, brother, and sister--are enjoying a lazy summer afternoon at a local lake (not Lake Mungo, that comes later). The sister, Alice, disappears and is found dead by police divers. The family is devastated. They each retreat into their private griefs. But then the twists start slowly unfurling. The mother visits a psychic who uses hypnosis to unlock dreams. The brother captures what looks like a ghostly image of Alice on film and becomes obsessed with photography. Cameras in the house capture odd images, but what are they? As soon as you think you know what's happening, another twist snaps into place and the ground under your feet shifts. It's beautiful, really. Was Alice troubled? Was she murdered? As the film goes on, signs point to a secret buried at Lake Mungo. Haunted by Alice's death, the family travels to the park and confronts Alice's secret. It's difficult to write this without giving spoilers, but it's necessary. Every year I make a point of watching all of the After Dark Horrorfest films. The festival typically offers 6 to 9 movies and the plot, style and quality run the full spectrum. There is a complete stinker every year, some films with heart or great visuals and there is always one that stands out far, far above the rest. In 2010, that's Lake Mungo. As I'm writing this I see it's been slated for a 2011 remake for American audiences. But you should probably just watch the original. It's available right now on DVD and on Netflix.

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