Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

I finished up my Lawyers in Movies class earlier this week. Scheduling issues meant that I had to move some things around, and although to my way of thinking the movie that should be the capstone of the course is Billy Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie" we ended instead with the Cohen brothers' "Intolerable Cruelty". I think I may move "Intolerable Cruelty" up in the rotation next semester. It is, like all of the Cohen's movies, built like a Swiss watch, and it is also more accessible to the age demographic I'm dealing with here. There are several running jokes/themes running through it. Dogs, for example. The Rottweilers that Marylin releases and that chase Rex Rexroth, (and Gus Petch) Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy's Papillon, Marylin's Poodle-- are all there because Marylin and her friends think of divorce lawyers as being like dogs-- some are hounds, some are Rottwielers and some are Schnauzers. All of them are hired to do one thing, and are, therefore, one-dimensional-- like Miles, and like Marylin.

Another joke-- the joke that the movie builds to in its conclusion-- is the "nail your ass" thing. The movie is well-enough put together for this to be funny in the beginning and all the way through-- in lesser hands it would have gotten tired.

Finally there is the Simon & Garfunkel theme. The movie opens with Freddy screwing up as he sings along to "The Boxer". Strict formalists that they are, the Cohens make a good joke out of the fact that Freddy is out of synch with the universe. The point is underlined by the fact that Simon & Garfunkel are noted for their harmony-- the fact that Freddy is incapable of properly singing along to a beautifully harmonized song demonstrates how inharmonious his life actually is, as we see as the scene progresses. We get Simon & Garfunkel throughout. The officiant at the wedding of Marylin and Howard Doyle enters playing "April, Come She Will", for example, a wildly inappropriate song for a wedding. ("June, she´ll change her tune/In restless walks she´ll prowl the night/July, she will fly/And give no warning to her flight./August, die she must/The autumn winds blow chilly and cold/
September I´ll remember/A love once new has now grown old.") The shaman doesn't sing those verses, but any S&G fan will know them.

And that's the thing. See, my students aren't going to be familiar with one of the more obscure tracks from "Sounds of Silence". They don't really know that S&G are perhaps most famous for the soundtrack of a movie about dysfunctional relationships. It is quite beyond them that the S&G break-up was second only to the break-up of the Beatles in terms of generational trauma (which is, I suspect, what these songs are doing on the soundtrack in the first place).

That's the challenge, I guess. I can explain the dogs, and show how the 'nail your ass' joke is constructed. I can point out that when Howard eats the prenup he is in a one shot, but when Marylin tears it up Miles is in the frame with her-- but an entire cultural education is beyond the scope of my seminar. Is it that we have more culture now that makes it so hard to get to universal issues in a class like this? I will admit that I am probably less attuned to the cultural touchstones of my students than my teachers probably were to mine (for the most part), but I'm not sure why that is.

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