Farewell to Peter Bondonella

Last year one of the members of my dissertation committee, Peter Bondonella from French and Italian department, retired. And although his research doesn’t exactly coincide with mine, I insisted that he remain in my committee partially because he was one of the first faculty I met when I first came to Bloomington in 1996. Yeah, it has been that long. Professor Bondonella, as charming as he is, is quite the controversial character. So the chair of my department asked me to write a brief note about him to be published in the newsletter. That was a year ago… No newsletter yet. As I spent some time writing this up, so I figured, I might as well publish it in my blog to demonstrate his indirect influence in my academic career. Enjoy…

“It’s OK to change your mind…” These were the words that I remembered when I saw Peter Bondanella walking into the multimedia section of Borders four years ago where I had been taking my year-long leave-of-absence from my doctoral degree program. That was the advice he had given us when I first started graduate work in Comparative Literature at Indiana University in 1996. He explained to us at our C501 class that the smartest thing he had ever done, albeit a bit late in the game, was to change his field of interest to Italian cinema; a hard decision because he had to work in a field that was quite unfamiliar to him. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that in six years, I would be at that very juncture amidst the DVDs at Borders, reconsidering my own position, asking myself whether I am even passionate about my work. At the time, I was slowly veering away from literature and becoming curious about media studies, especially, electronic media. That day, he didn’t ask me what I was doing in retail, nor did he mention that he hadn’t been seeing me at the university lately. Instead, we had a brief chat about the recent book that came out on James Bond movie posters and I suggested that I should work on an independent study with him regarding these posters, forgetting that about a half an hour ago, I was determined to quit it all. I never did start an independent study with him, but rather, came back to school, revised my entire reading list for my comprehensive exams to include readings on the novel, film, and new media. As this anecdote shows, Peter Bondanella’s personable attitude and his genuine care for his students make him an invaluable mentor for his students. Moreover, as anyone who knows him will tell you that he is a great conversationalist, always have something interesting to say, and very outspoken and frank.

Bondanella’s research over the years has made cinema an integral component of Italian studies curriculum across the States. However, as I mentioned earlier, his initial focus in the early years of his career wasn’t cinema studies. It was shortly after his arrival to Indiana University in the 70s that Bondanella became interested in Italian cinema and wrote important works such as Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (1983), The Films of Federico Fellini (2002), Hollywood Italians: Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys, and Sopranos (2004), in addition to translating works of Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Cellini, and Vasari, and editing Dante. During his tenure, he was conferred the title of Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, Film Studies, and Italian. He was also appointed as the chairperson of the IU Department of West European Studies and the director of the West European Studies National Resource Center from 1992-2001.

Seeing the wide range of interests that are being housed in our department these days, my main interest was to find out how much the field of Comparative Literature had changed over the years. Recalling the early days, Bondanella sees the discipline to be far more interesting in the late 60s than it is now. He states that the field was “far more centered upon the western tradition of literature and upon literature, [and] not all sorts of theory.” The best thing about Comparative Literature before theory took over, he states, that it encouraged a person to pursue all kinds of interests. He admits that he may never have tried his hands at cinema studies if that hadn’t been so. While admitting that the field is virtually unrecognizable to him these days, he notes that students today are facing similar problems that he himself has experienced as a young scholar, including teaching too much, not enough support for research, and too many reading lists that may or may not be relevant. His main advice for in-coming graduate students is pretty simple and timeless: Don’t select fields that are the flavor of the month and are usually out-of-date by the time you graduate (I guess this advice didn’t stick with me because research in new media is already old by the time it gets published). When I asked him about what the field might look like in the future, he expressed concern and explained that, unless there is some return to central texts and interests, the field might simply dry up or blow away as an academic discipline.

Throughout his years at IU, Peter Bondanella met fascinating people and had memorable experiences that not only influenced the direction of his academic career, but also transformed him into an engaging conversationalist. He considers Harry Geduld, the former Chair of Comparative Literature and the founder of Film Studies at IU, to be the most influential figure in his academic career. He explains that Professor Geduld’s “unfailing sense of humor, generosity, and helpfulness as a colleague and later as a chair” was really the push he needed to do film studies when he began to be interested in adding film to his research profile. He notes that at the time “there were virtually no Italian film courses in the entire country and certainly no film books written on Italian cinema by Americans.” He is proud that his career aimed to fill this gap by making Italian cinema an integral part of Italian studies across country.

His frequent visits to Italy allowed him to meet some of the most influential figures in the field including, but not limited to, Umberto Eco, Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Denis Mack Smith, the Taviani brothers, Nanni Moretti, and Ettore Scola. Bondanella considers the International Film Conference that he organized at IU in 1992 to be the most memorable event of his career at IU. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the European invention of the cinema, this conference brought together famous directors such as John Landis, Peter Bogdanovich, and Ettore Scola and a large collection of the best international film scholars from the United States, England, France, Germany, and Italy.

Sad to see him retire, I was curious about his future plans. He told me that he plans on completing his fourth and last revision of his history of Italian cinema, Italian Cinema from the Silent Era to the Present, in addition to finishing up The Cambridge Companion to Umberto Eco, which is now complete. After finishing up these two projects, he claims that he will stop writing, unless, of course, someone pays him a lot to do so. He has a few dissertation projects to see through in Comparative Literature (one of which is mine) and Communication and Culture. He hopes to spend most of his time in his house and cabin in Utah hanging out with his new Mormon friends, riding his Harley Davidson and spending time with his lovely wife, Julia, and two Italian greyhounds named Dante and Gianluca.

As a graduate student of Comparative Literature, I would like to thank him for his dedication and contribution to our field and wish him a pleasant retirement. More importantly, I would like to thank him for his continuing support of his students.

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