Guest Post: Jim Welsh (Founding Editor Emeritus, Literature/Film Quarterly)
Founded in 1989, the Literature/Film Association has sponsored annual conferences for the past 18 years, as well as one conference in England, at the University of Bath in 1997, organized by Wendy Everett, assisted by her colleague, Brian Neve. The 2007 Kansas Conference was the first time, however, the organization met near the geographical center of the United States. Thus the location was a bit risky, and certainly the timing could also have been better. The Midwest regional Popular Culture Association met the same weekend in Kansas City, some 30 miles east of Lawrence, Kansas, and the LFA meetings. Moreover, a new, competing organization called “Literature-On-Screen” had met two weeks earlier at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. The “Literature-On-Screen” group depended on their own, thoroughly academic membership to generate two plenary speakers, R. Barton Palmer of Clemson University and journalist-turned-academic Neil Sinyard from the University of Hull. By contrast, the Kansas LFA Conference turned entirely to professionals and outsiders, notably film director and playwright Neil La Bute, who spoke to the mysteries of scripting dialogue, while using filmed examples to demonstrate how that dialogue might be translated to the screen (most effectively from his film The Shape of Things). LaBute was therefore a “natural” to keynote this conference, since the conference theme was “theatre and film” and since the speaker had himself earned a degree in theatre from Kansas University on his way from BYU to NYU and the Royal Court Theatre.
The LFA Kansas Conference had not one, not two, but three plenary speakers. Emeritus professor Frank Manchel of the University of Vermont, recognized as a “foundational” scholar and as a pioneer in the academic study of film, spoke about how cinema studies slowly but surely invaded the college curriculum, following a new interest in European cinema in the 1950s and the pacesetting example of Herman Weinberg, who translated the dialogue of many foreign pictures and became one of the first cinema scholars to teach a cinema course in New York City. Professor Manchel was one of the original movers and shakers of the Society for Cinema Studies; he also chaired the American Federation of Film Societies in New York and was book-review editor for Bill Starr’s Film Society Review. This link was also important because of an ancillary focus of the Kansas Conference, which devoted an opening evening session to discussing “The Day ‘The Cinema’ Died, 7/30/07,” marking the passing of Antonioni, Bergman, Existentialism, Humanism and the Cinema and “A Tribute to the Film Generation circa 1968.” A third related plenary by Andrew Erdman spoke to the issue of biography, theatre and American vaudeville. Erdman is currently researching a biography of the vaudeville performer Eva Tanguay (1878-1947). The last night of the Conference, a Hollywood biopic pretending to represent the life of Eva Tanguay was presented to conferees on 35mm.
But beyond these “headliners” there were one hundred clever and gifted presenters. Perhaps the youngest was Kevin Flanagan of North Carolina State University, who discussed the career of the flamboyant British film director Ken Russell in a session entitled “Reinventing the Biopic, Reinventing Ken Russell.” In that same session Washburn University historian Tom Prasch presented a brilliant analysis of “forms of Transgression in Ken Russell’s Salome.” Yet another seasoned academic presenter at the Conference was former LFA President David Kranz of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, who moderated a “difficult” panel entitled “The Enduring (if not Endearing) Persistence of Fidelity, and Its Naysayers.” This seminal argument began some years ago at a Dickinson College Conference and has been going on ever since. Some of us would like to export this dog-and-pony show to Ankara, Turkey, next year. (But more on that point later.)
Similar issues were intelligently discussed in a session chaired by Tom Leitch of the University of Delaware, concerning “’Impossible’ Issues of Adaptation.” Leitch presented a lively paper with a deceptively bland and un-lively title, “Filming Poetry,” while Jennifer Jeffers of Cleveland State University spoke to “The Paradoxical Impossibility of Adaptation.” But perhaps Rebecca Bell-Metereau from Texas State University had the best title in this session: “The Strange Love of Lolita, or How Censors Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Adaptations.” Other good titles were in evidence, such as Katrina Bondari’s “Oh My God, They Killed Socrates! Teaching Aristophanes via South Park,” an essay that may eventually be published in a casebook on film pedagogy, or Nancy Shay’s “To the Lighthouse: Using a Bad (TV) Movie to Teach a Good Book.” One session in American literature was entitled “Birdies and Undies, Hats and Showers,” covering (or uncovering) “Birds and Undergarments” in film adaptations of The Scarlet Letter, then moving on to Miller’s Crossing and Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Several of the specialists attending the Kansas conference in 2007 had recently published books dealing with film adaptation or issues of intertextuality, most notably Thomas M. Leitch, Adaptation and Its Discontents (Johns Hopkins UP, 2007), Jennifer Jeffers, Britain Colonized: Hollywood’s Appropriation of British Literature (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006), Peter Lev and J.M. Welsh, The Literature/Film Reader: Issues of Adaptation (Scarecrow Press, 2007), Walter Metz, Engaging Film Criticism (Peter Lang, 2004), and John Tibbetts and J.M. Welsh The Encyclopedia of Novels Into Film (Facts On File, 2006). Other presenters had forthcoming books in production, such as David Kranz and Nancy Mellerski, In/Fidelity: Essays on Film Adaptation (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming 2008) and Kevin Alexander Boon, Script Culture and the American Screenplay (Wayne State UP, forthcoming 2008). LFA members do have a track record for academic productivity, as well as demonstrable wit and energy.
From the onset in 1989, the Literature/Film Assn already had an established journal, Literature/Film Quarterly, before beginning to sponsor annual conferences to encourage scholarship that might eventually be published in LFQ. Currently, however, the Literature/Film Assn operates independently from the journal. By contrast, the Literature On Screen movement began in 2006 in England; at the Oglethorpe Conference in Atlanta they had a reception to “launch” a new journal, to be called “Adaptation” and to be published by Oxford University Press, but since the journal does not yet exist, they were only able to “launch” several dozen silver plastic pens in Atlanta, to the happy sounds of popping corks, expecting the journal to follow sometime later in 2008.
The Kansas Conference was directed by host KU Associate Professor of Theatre and Film John Tibbetts, who oversaw many diverse details in the midst of introducing all the speakers and presumed dignitaries and writing all the publicity and promotional copy, including the “Welcome” statement in the conference program. Conference Co-Director Cynthia Miller of Emerson College in Boston was the organizational genius who constantly worked to calm frayed nerves and temperamental egos behind the scenes. This was very important, since the Literature/Film Association has always taken pride in sponsoring “friendly” conferences, relatively free of jargon and nonsense and posturing.
One Coming Attraction: Lit/Film Assn in Europe (forthcoming 2008)
A conference is being planned for Ankara, Turkey, for November of 2008 to discuss possible TESOL applications concerning the study of Literature and Film. Contact Laurence Raw, Baskent University, Ankara, Turkey (firstname.lastname@example.org) or LFA Secretary Cynthia Miller (email@example.com).