Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Shubha Ghosh
Professor of Law at Southern Methodist University Dedman School
of Law



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Given the doubts about legal process depicted in this film, it is not surprising that an agent of the state becomes the catalyst for disaster

Feature article

Property and Passion on the Pacific

by Shubha Ghosh

Vadim Perelman's House of Sand and Fog follows a formula as old as Hegel. The movie depicts a battle between two conflicting claims of right, both justifiable and understandable. The problem is that both claims cannot be satisfied, and the result is a solution based on passion and prejudice. The popular appeal of the movie is that it provides a two-hour amusement park ride through that basic principle.

Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy Nicolo, a woman abandoned by her husband in a California, oceanview house that belongs to her family. The painful emotions brought on by abandonment are salved by alcohol, and Kathy misses a tax payment (a tax, we eventually learn, that was improperly levied). She is awakened from her stupor by the bank officer and a policeman one morning and is evicted from her home. The policeman, Officer Lester Burdon befriends her and becomes in some ways her savior and her undoing. Paralleling the eviction is the story of Colonel Behrani, a former official for the Shah of Iran in exile in the Bay Area working a road crew on the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County to rebuild his dream, a house like the one by the Caspian Sea that he lost in the revolution. Ben Kingsley, adding another ethnic embellishment to his acting record, emphasizes the colonel's officiousness. Although his stern manner may suggest his foreign, military roots, he is actually the quintessential American go-getter, a survivor focused on capturing his dreams. When he buys Kathy's repossessed house at a bank auction with plans to resell it at four times the price, he not only sets the stage for the conflict over equally defensible rights, but also symbolizes the American dream of success. After all, the colonel is the winner, Kathy, the loser.

But what does the battle mean? Does justice prevail at the end or is the film no different from, let's say, a Governor Schwarzenegger film, full of sound and fury and two-fisted action, signifying nothing? Fans of the writer Andres Dubus III will recognize similarities between House of Sand and Fog and In the Bedroom, the film that received lots of Oscar buzz in 2001. Both films are based on fictional works by Dubus. Both are about the search for vindication. Both are about the tension between passion and reason. And both show lawyers in less than a favorable light. Dubus' work lays bare the emotion that is masked by legal process and social convention. The murdered son in In the Bedroom comes from a good family, and his death is a consequence of mixing with folks from the wrong side of the tracks. The father's guilt stems from his indulgence of the son's sexual experimentation. The best scene occurs when the father speaks with the criminal lawyer who is prosecuting the case against his son's murderer. We are shown first the lawyer presenting, in an attempt at sympathy, the weaknesses in the state's case. But then we are made to focus on what the father focuses on: the lawyer playing with change in his pocket, his fidgeting, and several other signs of the lawyer's disinterest. When the father takes justice into his own hand, the passion, repressed by process and convention, is unleashed, but we are left wondering whether he really feels any satisfaction.

Like In The Bedroom, House of Sand and Fog depicts the failure of the rule of law in the face of deeply seated passions. It is an act of passion that causes Kathy Nicolo to lose her house. When her legal aid attorney curtly informs Kathy that she would still have her house if only she had opened her mail, she is questioning her client's fall into despondency, depression, and alcohol. Kathy's response is that she could have gotten her house back if only the lawyer had done her "fucking job." The failure of authority figures to deal with the problem is demonstrated even more clearly by Sheriff Burdon, the man who helped to evict Kathy and the man with whom she begins an affair. To call the sheriff a rogue officer is an understatement. Having lost all passion in his marriage, Burdon finds Kathy to be an attractive companion. Their relationship, however, is mutually exploitative. Burdon is using his position of power within the legal system to win over Kathy, and Kathy perhaps sees Burdon, not only as an available sexual partner, but also as an agent, substituting for the legal aid attorney, in getting her house back. Their passion veils a complex set of interests and motivations.

Despite the fact the Burdon sees the colonel only as a man who buys houses cheap and sells them at a sizeable mark-up, the colonel too is a man of passion. He wants to regain the lost status that he had in Iran. Part of the status includes his love for his family and his identity within the broader community of exiles. While many may dismiss this motivation as a longing for the bad old days of the Shah, it is worth recognizing that the colonel is attempting to engage in a transaction that would have been forbidden one hundred years ago in California because of his ethnicity and alienage. Alien land laws would have prevented the colonel from purchasing the property. In light of this history, his actions symbolize a vindication. At one point in the film, he tells his son that they deserve the house and Kathy does not because she is a wasteful American while they have worked to buy and maintain the property. As with Kathy's relation to the property, the colonel's is also imbued with emotion and passion. The conflict between the two over the property illustrates how passions interfere with the language of interests.

There is one moment when reconciliation appears possible. After seeing how devastated and desperate Kathy has become, the colonel agrees to forebear from selling the house and to allow Kathy to regain possession while he retains title. This settlement, one that would make Ronald Coase proud, turns out to be the seed of the final, deadly confrontation. It might make a useful classroom exercise to study why the attempt at settlement failed. The source of the failure is a lack of trust. Sheriff Burdon acts as Kathy's agent in the final transaction, and for the colonel and his family, the Sheriff is a symbol of renegade, illegitimate authority. He has harassed them in the past, threatening deportation and resurrecting fears of how the Savak dealt with enemies of the state in the Shah's Iran. Sheriff Burdon does not trust the colonel in turn, and the reason may be racial or an urge to protect Kathy. Given the doubts about legal process depicted in this film (and in In the Bedroom), it is not surprising that an agent of the state becomes the catalyst for disaster. Order is impossible given the characters involved and the situations they are in.

House of Sand and Fog perhaps is unduly pessimistic about the rule of law and the pursuit of property. The film is, however, a useful catalyst for a discussion on how law fails when passions and interests collide.

Posted January 9, 2006

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