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Faculty Interviews Winter 2021

Professor Emerita Rebecca West Looks Back at CMS History and to its Future with the Gift of the Marva West Tan Fund

By Amy Skjerseth

Currently the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in the Departments of Romance Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies, Rebecca West began teaching at UChicago in 1973, long before courses or university spaces were devoted to the study of cinema. “That cinema could be the object of serious scholarly study was a risible idea among many of the faculty,” West recalls. “I could scarcely have imagined a time when there would be a Film Studies Center, or a Logan Center, or, indeed, a Department of Cinema and Media Studies. Doc Films existed, of course, having begun in the 1930s but, as I remember, films were shown in a room at the International House where the audience sat on rickety chairs and watched films that were projected on a small pull-down screen.” Cinema studies began to flourish in 1978 when Gerald Mast began teaching in the English department, having received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from UChicago years before. Mast had his own collection of films, and would eventually donate several hundred prints to the University—many of which are still preserved. At that point, West and other faculty members with an interest in cinema convened to add cinema to the curriculum. Indeed, it was as a loose assembly of faculty from different departments that the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies began. After Mast died in 1988, the faculty wondered how to maintain the momentum he had built. But then Miriam Hansen arrived in 1990. 

“Miriam was an absolute force of nature, a strong and articulate advocate for the development of cinema studies, and an inspiration for all of us who had a stake in the creation of a department,” West says. “The hires of Tom Gunning and Yuri Tsivian in one year, along with Miriam’s outstanding reputation as a film scholar, really lifted the program into the realm of powerful scholarly respectability.” West was a member of the early core faculty along with Jim Lastra, Jackie Stewart and others—with David Levin, Judy Hoffman, Robert Bird, and Jim Chandler soon to join. When CMS became a full-fledged department, West was thrilled to discuss directions to take with new appointments in Japanese and Chinese cinema studies; Black cinema studies; film and media theory; French cinema; and more. “From what was an initial focus on American early cinema, with a bit of European cinema around the edges,” West explains, “the department is currently international in its sweep, and it has of course evolved into the inclusion of media studies with Patrick Jagoda at the helm, and even some practice under the expert guidance of Judy Hoffman. And Jackie Stewart has been at the head of the incredible Black cinema studies component. I truly could never have dreamed back in the 1970s that today’s CMS would come to be. It has been thrilling to be a small part of its birth and growth.”     

  Among West’s favorite memories of CMS are the premieres that Hansen organized at the Max Palevsky auditorium (an enormously beneficial gift that Hansen brought to fruition). West also treasures the courses she taught in gender studies. “I was the Director of the Center for Gender Studies, as it was then known, from 2002 to 2005, and it was fabulous for me to be able to combine my focus there with my teaching in CMS. At that time, Ron Gregg was teaching courses on queer and gay film theory and practice, so we had our own little enclave for students interested in such topics.” West and Gregg supported each other’s work, even traveling together to the University of Turin for a conference organized by Giaime Alonge, whio was visiting faculty at UChicago, on Cary Grant. “There, we spent hours talking together about queer masculinity in Vertigo and North by Northwest (Ron’s topic), and about Cary’s attire, socks and all (my topic).” West was thrilled to discuss the complexities of Italian Neorealism with Noa Steimatsky when she joined the department, and likewise French studies, one of West’s ongoing secondary areas of interest, when Jennifer Wild was hired. “Jennifer, Judy Hoffman, and I became fast friends, and have enjoyed many rather posh girls’ lunches and shopping excursions over many years before the pandemic put a temporary hold on such life-enriching frivolities.” 

West also recalls as a highlight the Film Studies Center renovation, which was shaped by “many departmental discussions with the indispensable Julia Gibbs, the assistant director of the Center, as to how that small but essential space could best be reconfigured.” She also audited Tom Gunning’s course on the Uncanny, where “some of the eerie, truly uncanny films he chose for us to analyze—Cronenberg’s The Brood, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure—have stayed with me permanently.” For her part, West especially enjoyed teaching “From Page to Screen,” which focused on women authors of crime novels and the film adaptations of their works, and “The Tough Guy and the Latin Lover,” which explored types of masculinities on screen and showcased her love of Harvey Keitel and Marcello Mastroianni. The course “Rome in Literature and Film,” West says, “gave me the chance to indulge another abiding love, this time for the eternal city where I had lived for a year and every nook and cranny of which I came to cherish.” 

West has pioneered studies of transnational adaptations, twentieth-century Italian literary studies, and gender and stardom in cinema. For example, she has published several articles about film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith novels: one on Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) starring Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, and another on Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich as the conman extraordinaire. “Writing on these films gave me the opportunity to investigate issues of queer masculinity, film adaptation, and transnational uses of literary sources,” West explains. “The character of Tom Ripley has long fascinated me, and I have written hundreds of unpublished pages on him, which may or may not find the light of day. Through the years, my enthusiasm for the study of cinema has not diminished one bit.” 

West’s passion for cinema lives on through the Marva  West  Tan Fund, which she established in October 2020 to support CMS activities. The fund is given in honor of her sister, Marva, who was an esteemed contributor to the medical community and an avid reader of West’s work. The sisters often discussed star fandom and shared a love of film noir, mystery and crime movies, adaptations from Austen and Dickens, and period pieces, especially movies set in the nineteenth century. “Marva and I adored The Heiress with Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, and sort of loved-hated Hitchcock’s Rebecca. We agreed that sexy bad boy George Sanders was the best thing about that film, with Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers a close second. That fetish scene where she caresses Rebecca’s furs and undies (‘made specially for her by the nuns of the convent of St. Clare,’ no less) is priceless. We loved rebellious in-your-face women like Rebecca (or so many of Bette Davis’ roles) as well as the ugly handsomeness (or handsome ugliness) of Charles Bronson—he reminded us of our rough and tough papa with the soft heart, I think.” 

West hopes that today’s young audiences will not forget the treasure trove of older films that so enriched the sisters’ lives. As a graduate student at Yale, she frequented a small art movie house tucked away on a side street in New Haven. The experience of first seeing films there by Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, and Kurosawa fostered West’s 50-year love of the magic of great cinema. “I would certainly hope that the experience of seeing films in movie theaters will again be possible post-pandemic,” West remarks. “The shared reactions to what transpires on the big screen are not at all equaled by our solitary reactions to movies viewed on our devices.” 

The Marva  West  Tan Fund primarily will focus on hosting speakers and filmmakers and on supporting graduate student research. West feels strongly that the history of cinema must do more to recognize the essential contributions of women and hopes that a future CMS event will honor their work. “Women directors, screenwriters, editors, costumers, designers, musicians, and of course actors, have sustained cinema since its beginnings,” she says. “How about inviting Martin Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker? Or Sofia Coppola? Or any number of young Black and Latina filmmakers?” Secondly, she encourages graduate students to pursue any topics they deem worthy of serious research. “They have always been an enormously talented and committed cohort, and I am sure that they will continue to bring honor to CMS in the future. May they and the Department live long and prosper!”

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