Thursday, 29 September 2011

Why is the trial so fascinating?

Once again the cameras have been allowed into the courtroom to observe a murder trial involving figures from the world of show business. The Words of Wisdom this week answer the question 'Why is the trial so fascinating?'

Many of us still feel sadness and a sense of loss over the death of Michael Jackson, a supremely talented but deeply troubled figure. But there are additional reasons why so many of us are rivetted by the trial footage.

We are inquisitive creatures and the televised courtroom licenses us to observe and stare and watch people under pressure. They are not pretending: it's real. The are not particularly aware of the cameras, being entirely focussed on the questions they are asking or answering. In acting terms they are underplaying and often trying to hide their feelings: that draws us in. The slow tempo of the court procedure doesn't bore us: it enhances the suspense, even when the line of questioning appears trivial.

For actors this is a rare opportunity to study people's communication under pressure, both conscious and unconscious. Study tone of voice as an indicator of personality and mood. Watch gesture, restricted in the circumstances but always indicative. Observe eye movement and gaze; direction and duration. Note how blink rate goes up when a person is under emotional pressure. Particularly interesting is head movement, because it is not possible to talk or listen without moving your head and head movement is very revealing (though it does vary in different cultures.) Notice in the trial the way a witness will nearly always start nodding before they utter the word 'yes.'

A particularly interesting example of revealing body language was in the trial of O J Simpson in 1995. One of the lawyers was describing most graphically the way that it was alleged that O J had killed his wife. The camera cut to O J and we saw that he was slowly nodding as the events were described. Now body language is not evidence or testimony but, if it were, O JSimpson could have been found guilty on the spot. In fact he was acquitted but a civil suit a couple of years later found against him for some millions of dollars and he is currently serving a life sentence for unrelated serious charges,

All fascinating stuff.