The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
Dr. Shonekan tells us about her short film Lioness of Lisabi. The film is based on the life of Nigerian women’s activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and shows how Africans have driven their own social change.
West teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in the English Department on subjects bridging—like her research—the literary with the visual. She offers courses, for example, on British literature, film history, crime films, film adaptation of novels, novel illustration, and photography.
With her continual interest in adaptation study, West has already visualized her next research project, which will reflect on what it means to adapt a novel to the screen, specifically in the case of Masterpiece Theatre_. “_Masterpiece Theatre fascinates me because it’s an example of what’s called ‘good television.’” Released in the 1970s, it was “designed to appeal to more intellectual, educated viewers. It was designed for our parents,” reports West, and for years it thrived on that identity. “But if you watch Masterpiece Theatre now, it’s totally different…. It’s clearly geared to a much younger audience. Instead of writing faithful adaptation, they radically re-write the plots, interject back-stories, introduce new characters, and use some of Hollywood’s hottest actors to play the roles. They are tailoring these films toward a twenty-first century audience—a younger one, a sexier one, one that is impatient with the idea of fidelity, one that wants a more experimental adaptation.” West plans to look at Masterpiece Theatre’s last ten years so see what those experiments might reveal. “If nothing else,” she jokes, “it will allow me to watch a lot of old Masterpiece Theatre episodes with my mother, who is a huge fan!”
West is currently finishing a book, From Celluloid to Tabloid, in collaboration with Penelope Pelizzon (University of Connecticut), on Hollywood crime films and tabloid journalism from the 1920s through the 1940s. Unlike the tabloids of today, which West decries as “pretty trashy scandal magazines and newspapers…often designed to expose and ruin people’s careers,” the tabloids of the earlier era contain much more liveliness and inventiveness. “Although the cliché is that the tabloids have always been pitched to the uneducated, these early ones from the 1920s are surprisingly literary, replete with metaphorical word play, allusions, wit, and irony.” Tabloid writers often went on to become celebrated novelists and screenwriters for Hollywood. Beyond their literary value, these tabloids also teach us about urban culture and modernity, especially about New York in the 1920s and 1930s. West and Pelizzon refer to these tabloids as “adaptation-ready sites,” because they know how to spin information so quickly from one source.
Asked to recommend films from this era “where you have journalists exhibiting all the characteristics of gangsters,” the first two films West mentions are The Picture Snatcher (1933) and Blessed Event (1932), which were produced just as the gangster film genre seemed to be disappearing from the Hollywood screen, owing to the Production Code’s restrictions. But Hollywood—in its need to continue profiting from the gangster’s popularity—found ways to “get around the censors,” explains West. “All of the gangster’s characteristics (his penchant for violence, his street smarts, his flashy style, his witty repartee) are put into the figure of the newspaper reporter,” who rarely works for a legitimate newspaper, West adds, but for a tabloid newspaper—“So, they get to have it both ways!” In the area of noir documentaries, where filmmakers experimented by combining film noir style with a documentary style, West recommends Naked City (1948).
Ugarte talks about the study of culture as found in literature, film, and the press.
Miller talks about his preference of film over theatre as an actor’s medium.
Devlin describes the content of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. Volume I covers the period from 1920 to 1945 (with the success of The Glass Menagerie), while volume II concerns Williams’ “major period” from 1945 to 1957, during which A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were introduced.