Cardinal Cadence - Fall 2005

Cinematic scholar

Ken Rivers“For me, the cinema is not just a visual art, but an extension of the literary spirit.”

Ken Rivers’ fascination with cinema began with Pinocchio and flourished to take on a worldview, from the French and Italian classics of Truffaut and Fellini to the Marx Brothers, Orson Welles, Hitchcock and other treasures of the silver screen.

“I vividly remember that as a child, the first film I ever saw in a movie theater was Disney’s Pinocchio in its 1954 re-release... It turned out that Pinocchio was, of course, a timeless classic, and almost everything else that came my way fell below that standard. In a sense, that’s why I eventually got interested in classic films – I wanted to see the best that had been made, rather than just routine movies.”

Rivers will have a theater audience of his own when he presents Lamar University’s 19th annual Distinguished Faculty Lecture, sharing insights and experiences reflecting his love affair with film. “The Meaning of the Movies: 100 Years of Cinema in the U.S. and Around the World” will be the topic of the lecture, sponsored by ExxonMobil.

The lecture was postponed because of Hurricane Rita and has been rescheduled for Jan. 30.

“From the ribbon-cutting in 1905 at the first U.S. movie theater, a humble nickelodeon in Pittsburgh that was featuring The Great Train Robbery, to the high-tech and high-stakes computer-generated epics of today, motion pictures have affected the lives of countless millions in America and throughout the world,” said Rivers, professor of French in Lamar’s Department of English and Modern Languages. “This centennial offers a perfect opportunity to reflect on the meaning, or meanings, that film has had for us throughout the past century.”

In the era in which Rivers learned to love cinema, many movies could only be imagined, as they were unavailable to the public.

“It was no easy task to find and view serious movies in those days,” Rivers says. “It’s hard for the younger generation to believe, but way back in the 1960s and ’70s, there were no DVDs, no VCRs, no cable stations.

“I was incredibly fortunate to be studying at Berkeley, because in that town, all the latest French, Italian, German and Japanese films by master filmmakers like Truffaut, Fellini, Fassbinder and Kurosawa played all the time.

There were a cinematheque and a revival movie house that each played at least two different classic movies every night. I did somehow find time to study, but I also absorbed great cinema of every era and culture.”

Today, says Rivers, things are a lot easier, thanks to the new media. “A Lamar student, or anyone in the community, can rent almost anything. But a person still needs to have an idea of what to watch. No one can possibly catch up on more than a century of films without being selective. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do a public lecture on this topic,” Rivers said.

His favorite film of all time is Napoleon, produced in France in 1927, soon lost but rediscovered around 1980. Francis Ford Coppola paid to have the film restored and shown at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Among American films, his favorite is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which he terms “a perfect example of how a director is able to display personal artistry within a commercial project.”

Rivers attended the Cannes Film Festival in May 2003 as a credentialed visitor, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock Centennial Celebration on the centennial of Hitchcock’s birth in 1999. Among memories of the events are photographing Nicole Kidman at Cannes and meeting Janet Leigh and Eva Marie Saint at the Hitchcock centennial.

Rivers’ expertise is reflected in the popularity of his courses on French and world cinema, as well as in the many lectures and papers on film topics that he has presented at conferences during the past 25 years. His French film series is an ongoing feature on campus and will continue in November with “French Film Fest VIII,” showcasing French detective and crime films.

“It’s truly great to see these recent and classic films projected on the big screen, and I’ll keep showing them as long as people keep coming out,” he said. “They’re discovering something new and exciting, and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”

A Lamar faculty member since 1989, Rivers earned three degrees from the University of California at Berkeley: the Ph.D. in French in 1978, master of arts in 1973 and bachelor of arts in 1971. He has served as president of the East Texas chapter of American Teachers of French and is faculty sponsor of The French Circle and Pi Delta Phi French honor society. He was the originator of the university’s global studies program.

Since 1989, he and his wife, Dianna, associate professor of nursing at Lamar, have led study tours to such European destinations as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Florence, the Riviera, Provence, Munich, Switzerland and London. Cinema, Rivers believes, “is one more opportunity for expression available to the creative author, just as earlier formats such as the novel, theater and poetry were opportunities.

“My specialty is French literature, and I see film as fitting in very well with that. In my scholarly work, I am doing something that I think has never been done before, and that is to put some classic film script material into a French literature anthology.”

During the past five years, Rivers has been rewriting, updating and modernizing a five-volume textbook, A Survey of French Literature. Three of the volumes have been published by Focus, and a fourth (19th century literature) is in the process of publication. The fifth (20th century literature) – for which he received a 2005-06 Lamar Research Enhancement Grant – is scheduled for completion in early 2006. The project has involved writing mini-biographies of the authors and introductions to the literary movements of each century, locating period illustrations to include and footnoting the texts.

“Doing this monumental task covering 1,200 years of French writing has made me more aware than ever that literature, like all human creativity, is an evolving process, building on past achievements but also rebelling against the past, striving to do what may not have been possible before,” Rivers said.

“Cinema has enabled creative minds to take one more step forward, doing new things, making new meaning. That is what makes it such a vital art and such an influence upon our lives. It is a force we need to comprehend, as it continues to define who we are.”

by Louise Wood

Cardinal Cadence, 11/8/2005