Guilt, Greed, and Furniture: Using Mel Brooks’s The Twelve Chairs to Teach Dying Declarations

17 Feb 2012 02:35pm Lenora Ledwon 

This piece was written for a program held by the American Association of Law Schools Section on Law and Humanities, “Excavating and Integrating Law and Humanities in the Core Curriculum,” on January 5, 2012.

When I teach the dying declarations hearsay exception in my Evidence course, I always show the opening scene from Mel Brooks's darkly comedic film, The Twelve Chairs. A film clip is a particularly dense piece of storytelling, in that it presents story information in a visually and aurally rich manner (including such varied aspects as images, colors, tone, soundtracks, special effects, edits, montage, etc.). Yet, we are able to take in and process a whole series of nuanced and complex messages in a film clip in a relatively efficient manner. Simply put, we are good at "reading" visual stories from television and film. Further, showing the excerpt from The Twelve Chairs not only is fun, it's good learning pedagogy.

This short scene enhances class discussion in three principal ways. First, the scene serves as an engaging mini-review of the elements of the hearsay exception for dying declarations. Second, it serves as a springboard for the class to think critically and articulate some unspoken assumptions underpinning the rationale for the rule (the short scene raises issues about our assumptions governing family dynamics, gender, class, politics, and religion, among other matters) and consider the possibility of drafting a different (and perhaps better)rule. , Third, the nature of the example (a film clip, and a comedic one at that) surprises and delights the students who are used to the usually bleak and violent fact patterns in many evidence casebooks. Thus, their attention level is high and they are very engaged in the analysis. A more full discussion of each of these three aspects follows.

 

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