Trigger Happy

Steven Poole has few objections to his latest Switch distractio­n

- STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpool­e.net

Across film, theatre or television, the legal drama portrays an alternativ­e universe in which a puzzling binary question can be settled beyond doubt, to the intellectu­al and emotional satisfacti­on of the audience. The world outside our windows might be a never-ending blizzard of chaotic and irrational rubbish where certainty is impossible, but in the microcosm that is the courtroom we can at least witness an ideal version of truth-finding and justice.

So it has been since the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus composed The Eumenides, the third play in his Oresteia trilogy, in which Orestes is arraigned for the murder of his mother and his guilt debated in the first 12-person jury trial, presided over by the goddess Athena herself. That symbolises the moment in the evolution of human civilizati­on when endlessly ramifying blood feuds are replaced by impersonal, impartial justice, to the benefit of all.

And so to the modern courtroom drama born in the 20th century, early examples of which include Terence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy (1946) and, of course, Twelve Angry Men – originally a TV drama by Reginald Rose (1954), then a play, and then a celebrated movie directed by Sidney Lumet in 1957. The latter defined the modern legal fiction as a locus of exploratio­ns of contempora­ry social issues, and so it has remained, even when the drama is leavened by comedy. Boston Legal (2004–2008), for instance, ran topical episodes about postKatrin­a New Orleans and terrorism legislatio­n, though arguably the high point of each episode is when odd-couple attorneys William Shatner and James Spader share a cigar together on their rooftop and perform touching rituals of male friendship.

Almost none of these fictions, though, is a reliable guide to actual legal practice. The US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor has said that she was inspired to study for a law degree after seeing Twelve Angry Men, but also that once she was a judge she sometimes had to tell juries to ignore that film, since the fictional jury members go on wild flights of speculatio­n and also perform their own research into the case, illegally. Legal dramas are not documentar­ies about a profession, but a way to exercise our own moral and intellectu­al imaginatio­ns.

Similarly, though no one (I think) ever shouts “YES!” when presenting evidence in court, or has an invisible fan blowing permanentl­y at them so the tails of their red headband can flutter prettily in the wind, the extraordin­ary charm and silliness of the Ace Attorney videogames does not mean they are not also serious works. Or so it seemed to me when gratefully loading up The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles and being blissfully reminded of all the other cases I have successful­ly solved over the years. The clatter of the scene-setting teletype, the “surprise” sound effects, the lines of dialogue that read simply “........ ”, the meditative rhythm of trying to stab the A button at just the right time to make the next line of text appear instantly – all these things are like a warm bath to anyone who first played the GBA games 20 years ago.

The character design is, as usual, exquisite: a prosecutor’s eyes are permanentl­y hidden behind the reflecting white oblongs of his spectacle lenses; a military officer has his crying newborn baby strapped to his back; people thunderous­ly karate-chop the desks in front of them, and then a nervous defendant slams his own palms down on the table, making only a tiny slap, and does a comic double-take. The ups and downs of anxiety and triumph as you navigate the fixed rails of the narrative are still expertly judged, and you still feel as though you’re not simply being told a story but actively finding things out.

And yet there is something melancholy and sober, too, in this world, as there always has been in designer Shu Takumi’s vision: not just aesthetica­lly, in touches such as the haunting way in which, in a character’s memory, another character will fade out from their surroundin­gs, leaving an empty chair, but also in its reckoning with imperial arrogance, corruption, and xenophobia. The game may be set in the 19th century but such issues are still with us, as it does not need to crudely emphasise. And so Ace Attorney Chronicles can also be thought of in the company of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), a historical drama about the Salem witch trials that is also a commentary on the anti-Communist mania that gripped 1950s America – both are legal fictions that can prompt us to reflect on present realities.

No one (I think) ever shouts “YES!” when presenting evidence in court, or has an invisible fan blowing at them

 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia