The Chronicle Review

Film Matters


Robert Rodriguez's 2005 film version of Frank Miller's Sin City
March 07, 2010

Premiering last month, Film Matters is a new scholarly journal with a novel angle on cinema. It is billed as the first peer-reviewed journal of undergraduate writing in film studies. The new quarterly was released by Intellect Ltd., a book and journal publisher based in Bristol, England, that is working in partnership with the film-studies department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

On the phone from Wilmington, Liza Palmer, a creative and fine-arts librarian at the university, and her husband and co-editor, Tim Palmer, an associate professor of film studies, describe the response from academics around the world as the new journal's call for papers spread through e-mail lists and other venues. "Professors are just reveling in this new way they can mentor their best undergraduates," says Tim Palmer. Publication, he suggests, offers an alternative fate for a "great piece of student work" that otherwise "sort of dies at the end of the semester."

Undergraduates make up the editorial board for Film Matters. Students are involved in every aspect of production through a publishing practicum led by Liza Palmer. The members of the editorial board, largely film majors, are also the peers of the peer-review process, with the Palmers overseeing their efforts and stepping in, if needed, as final arbiters. Each feature submission is read at least three times in a double-blind process, says Liza Palmer, and classified as either "publish, do not publish but encourage resubmission, or do not publish period." The editors say they received at least 150 submissions for their first issues. While currently the editorial board comprises Wilmington undergraduates exclusively, there are plans, she says, to get more students involved by setting up the practicum at other institutions—initially the campuses of professors on the journal's advisory board.

While the Palmers anticipate doubling the size of future issues, the first Film Matters is 32 pages of articles illustrated with stills. The editors' textual promise to be "emphatically global and emphatically expansive" is reflected in the debut contents. On the cover is a sultry Michèle Morgan. The French actress peers through hooded eyes to flag a feature on the "American appeal" of the 1938 film Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), by Marcel Carné of Children of Paradise fame. The other two feature essays deal with more-recent movies: One is on Cry Freedom, A World Apart, and A Dry White Season, three films from the 80s on apartheid in South Africa, and the other is on Baz Luhrmann's 2008 epic, Australia. Reflecting the journal's vision, the bios of the undergraduate feature writers are accompanied by bios of their professorial mentors and a brief profile of the relevant department. Students on the editorial board contribute reviews of film-studies books and of DVD releases from such art-house distributors as Criterion.

Plans for the journal include themed issues—the first will be on women and film, later this year. In addition, the Palmers plan to follow students' suggestions to add such elements as profiles of graduate programs in film studies and of "places to live and work for film when you graduate," says Liza Palmer; that is, outside the usual suspects of New York and Los Angeles. Wilmington is a case in point. The film-studies department there, with just over 300 majors and pre-majors, benefits from the presence of a major production facility, EUE Screen Gems Studios, where hundreds of projects have been made in recent years.

In brainstorming sessions, students have been pivotal in pushing the journal in new directions. "Undergraduates don't think in terms of territorial issues. They don't tend to have ideological axes to grind. They don't have one particular discourse or subdiscipline that they want to see dominate the agenda. They just have ideas," says Tim Palmer. "And enthusiasm and energy to accomplish it all," adds his wife.

That enthusiasm is apparent in responses from three of the feature contributors in the first and second issues of Film Matters, who were asked via e-mail what it meant to have their research published, how the experience might shape their future writing, and what they think undergraduates bring to the scholarly table as compared with those further along in academe.

Carolyn Lake is not a film major. She is in her second year pursuing a double major in history and English at Flinders University, in Australia, and sees graduate study in her future. Her essay on Baz Luhrmann's Australia explores the "use of national mythologizing in film." In an e-mail message from Adelaide, she is firm on the value of undergraduate publication even as she weighs both the potential "freshness" of such research and its potential weaknesses. "To draw a line at 'graduate' that says 'you must be this tall to publish' feels arbitrary. The skills required for research are skills that all people would benefit from, and they're not skills that you suddenly wake up with the day after graduation." She adds that "having now published, I feel a stronger need to claim my writing as my own and to take responsibility of what it contains."

Javi Aitor Zubizarreta is equally thoughtful. "Film studies has always benefited from boldness and audacity, and undergrads can offer the exuberance and excitement that really pushes film scholarship further," writes the University of Notre Dame junior. "That being said, I think many undergrads don't see their work as anything more than classwork, something just for a grade. It's a shame that they aren't more aware of opportunities like Film Matters, that is, opportunities to take their work and their own understanding further." Zubizarreta's essay for the in-process second issue, "Action Stars Who Don't Get Any Action: Hong Kong Actors in U.S. Roles," is on how stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li are commonly deprived of significant love interests. Zubizarreta sees publication as a spur to further scholarship. "Getting published makes you want to get published again, and makes you aware that your work must get better, fresher, more meaningful."

Lucas O'Connor's experience with Film Matters is slightly different. He graduated from Yale University in May 2009. Some months later he heard from one of his professors urging him to submit an article. He sent a shorter version of what had been his senior essay about Robert Rodriguez's film version of Frank Miller's series of graphic novels Sin City. O'Connor's punchy piece, also scheduled for FM 1.2, disputes Rodriguez's claim of actual translation between media.

"Submitting my essay taught me more than anything else how to edit my ideas down," O'Connor observes. "The original essay was around 10,000 words; I chopped it in half for my original submission, and I have since cut it down to around 3,000 words. As a result of this process, I think I have finally figured out which ideas in the paper are the big ones and which are just decoration."

The 'Cinevirginal'

As a visual medium, film has always had the challenge of representing internal states of being, writes Tamar Jeffers McDonald. That is all the more pronounced for the state of virginity. As editor of Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film (Wayne State University Press), McDonald joins 13 other film scholars in a wide-ranging take on the "cinevirginal." Most of the novices encountered in the book are, not surprisingly, young and female: Marjorie in Marjorie Morningstar, Carole in Repulsion, Stacy in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, among many others. But there are also pastry-violating boys as well as male 40-year-old virgins in the mix.

Several of the movies discussed in the book date from the era of the censorious Production Code. The code "mandated that such matters could not be openly discussed on screen," McDonald notes, displacing the issue from overt dialogue to such elements as costume and mise-en-scène.

A film from the later years of the regulation, Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, is the subject for a sharply argued essay by Alisia G. Chase. Preminger, notes Chase, had famously bucked the code in 1953 with The Moon Is Blue, a film that angered censors for such language as "professional virgin." But he was far more circumspect in his 1958 adaptation of Françoise Sagan's novel on a young girl's sexual and moral coming of age, published in 1954 when the French author was just 18. Chase feels that Preminger has been let off easy. "The film's clearly punitive preponderance on the topic of sexual virginity has been historically overlooked." In drawing attention to his textual revisions and cinematic choices, Chase shows how the director attempted to satisfy the code and "a nation full of apprehensive parents," while not losing a young female audience wishing to see a sexually active and impenitent heroine. Casting played a role. There were similarities in appearance and style between the Iowa-born ingenue Jean Seberg, playing the lead of Cecile, and the only slightly older Sagan. "Seberg and Sagan were constant features in the popular press and their visual convergence," Chase writes, "probably helped Preminger insinuate that there was more naughtiness to the on-screen character of Cecile than his moralizing revision let on."

No book about cinematic virginity could omit Doris Day. In Virgin Territory, Day is the editor's revisionist project. McDonald is determined, she writes, to "rupture assumptions" about Day's "perpetual maiden status." Not so perpetual, argues McDonald, who dates the virgin persona to a film relatively late in Day's career: Lover Come Back (1961). Likewise no book on the "cinevirginal" could be complete without horror-movie virgins. Pete Falconer's essay furthers the diverse take on virgins with a figure that includes but goes beyond the stock character who faces the psycho killer at the end of slasher films, and usually prevails. Distinct from those virgins, there are neophytes such as the telekinetic Carrie, for instance. Intriguingly, his third major focus on a horror-movie virgin is Wesley Snipes's half-mortal, half-vampire eponymous character in Blade who constrains his bloodlust. "Blade's arterial abstinence is also informed by his apparent lack of sexual inexperience," Falconer says, moving the warrior hero to the ranks of the arguably chaste.