Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service

Professor writes two books on film industry innovators

Mon, 06/02/2014

LAWRENCE – In two separate books, John Tibbetts, associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, examines the careers of two visionary filmmakers who preside over the birth of a new era of cinema in their countries.

In “Peter Weir Interviews,” Tibbetts studies the Australian who helped usher in a new generation of filmmakers and put the country's cinema on the map with such films as “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Gallipoli.” Later, Weir’s success in Hollywood – including Academy Award nominations for “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Green Card,” “The Truman Show” and “Master and Commander” – heralded the arrival of other Australian filmmakers to the American film industry.

In “Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century,” Tibbetts and co-author James M. Welsh write about the silent film star who shaped much of Hollywood in the early part of the 20th century. Fairbanks, known for his boyish charm and dashing good looks, established Hollywood aristocracy, made the first feature comedies in the United States, took filmgoers abroad in swashbuckling adventures, produced one of the first Technicolor films in 1926, co-founded United Artists studio and was the first president of the Academy of Motion Pictures. Fairbanks was the inspiration for Jean Dujardin’s 2011 Oscar-winning performance in “The Artist.”

To Tibbetts, both men celebrated youth. Fairbanks was the eternal child, a combination of Puck, Peter Pan and the go-getting young American. Weir’s movies centered on youthful ideals and the turmoil that disturbs those ideals.

“The everyday world was never enough for either of them,” Tibbetts said. “They both made movies about things that weren’t immediately apparent in our more prosaic world.”

Tibbetts has been fascinated with both film icons for decades. In 1977, Tibbetts and Welsh released their first book on Fairbanks, “His Majesty the American: The Cinema of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.” It was the first book to focus on Fairbanks’ early films. In the newly released book, interviews and essays offer fresh perspectives on the film legend’s life and work. Also included is the account of a French art director on the set of Fairbanks’ last silent film, “The Iron Mask.”

“It’s a day-by-day, week-by-week account of what it was like to work on a silent film set,” Tibbetts said. “He marvels with almost childlike eyes at this fabled community making movies. For the scholar, this is a crucial on-site look at United Artists studios and the making of these films.”

Tibbetts first interviewed Weir in 1993, shortly after the making of “Fearless.” Over the years, Tibbetts interviewed him several more times, even traveling to Australia to visit Weir in his native city of Sydney. The book includes Tibbetts’ interview with Russell Boyd, the cinematographer on many of Weir’s films, and interviews with Weir from other writers that date back to the 1970s.

Also included in the book is a never-before published lecture Weir gave in Washington, D.C., connected to Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, in which he shares his reaction to visiting the trenches of Gallipoli.

“It’s very moving. And when you read it, you want to see the film 'Gallipoli' all over again,” Tibbetts said.

Another commonality is that both men leave unanswered questions in the public imagination.

In the case of Fairbanks, the world has wondered why the greatest star of the silent film era didn’t find equal success in the years that followed the introduction of the “talkies.” Tibbetts argues that while Fairbanks' work varied wildly in the years after silent films, it included some of his best work, including his final film in 1934, “The Private Life of Don Juan.”

“He grew up, he grew old, and as a result he grew restless,” Tibbetts said. “But as a result of that restlessness and the deepening depression about his career being behind him came some of his best work.”

Much of that work has been overlooked, Tibbetts said.

For Weir, questions turn to the mysterious ending of one of his best-known early films, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which never fully reveals why a group of Australian schoolgirls disappear. Was it flying saucers? An earthquake? The audience is never told.

“Weir is nothing if not ambivalent. It’s typical of all of Weir’s films,” Tibbetts said. “Ambiguity is everywhere. He embraces it and invites his viewers to do the same.”

During one of his interviews with Weir, Tibbetts asked whether he enjoyed leaving the audience in such confusion.

Weir told him, “No, I’ve probably got my fingers firmly on my brow, thinking, ‘Is this the right ending?'” 

The University Press of Mississippi published both books.

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
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Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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