I spent five days hearing papers on a broad variety of cinema-related topics at the SCMS conference in Chicago recently. It was a terrific, stimulating experience. When I first sat down with the conference program I circled the sessions that featured writers whose work I already knew and admired, like Victor Perkins, Lesley Stern, Gilberto Perez, Dan Morgan, and a few others. Then I turned my attention to other sessions whose topics sounded intriguing, featuring scholars whose work I didn’t know. The sessions in the former category turned out to be reliably great, but I was surprised by the latter category – specifically, the high number of graduate students who delivered dynamic, well-researched and memorable presentations.
Surrounded as we are today by a conversation about the ‘crisis in higher education’, I couldn’t help wondering: What percentage of these students will have the opportunity to devote the rest of their lives to teaching and researching cinema/media studies? To make a statistical prediction: that number is likely to be low. Which seems deeply unjust. Veronica Fitzpatrick provides the valuable, much-needed graduate student perspective on the conference experience in her recent blog post. She calls for a discussion on the theme of “disillusions”: on “the bad feelings associated with carving out a life in academia: discouragement, disenchantment, faltered hope, insecurity.” Her post is essential reading.
And so, if a distressing number of current PhD students in the field are unlikely to get a full-time position doing what they truly love, what will that mean for their continued interest in writing about cinema for the rest of their lives? Doesn’t moving image culture stand to lose an enormous amount of potential thought and writing in the decades to come? Which makes me wonder: What are the cultural conditions necessary to recover some of this potential that is on its way to disappearing forever? Under what circumstances might scholars continue to write about cinema even if they were condemned to the slave labor of a system that exploited them as adjunct faculty for the rest of their lives – or if they ceased to be professionals in the field altogether?
My first time attending the Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in 2011, I was thrilled to have been accepted from the still-mysterious open call submission pool in the first place, and doubly so to be randomly placed on a panel chaired by Rosalind Galt, whose writing on both space in contemporary European cinema and queer aesthetics I knew and so admired. Hours within arriving to New Orleans, I had spotted Steven Shaviro at the one cafe within walking distance of the Ritz, given my talk on masculinities in zombie apocalypse films to a fullish room, and was dodging dreamy gusts of wind-borne sugar at Café du Monde. The latter is a memory that returns in darker moments, such as waking to emails concerning misprocessed travel reimbursement forms and final deadlines on degree progress – at a different time, in another life, there was Rosalind Galt and beignets. Read more
Everyone who attended the 2013 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference can remember this scene: everyday, for the fifteen minutes between subsequent panels, an impossibly large crowd would form in the small elevator vestibule in the lobby of The Drake Hotel, effectively blocking all circulation. It wasn’t just people trying to go up to their room or to one of the suites-cum-conference rooms, but also those trying to get to various rooms around the lobby or to head out of the hotel — everyone brought together in a small area for a short amount of time before setting off on their own individual paths. At times it felt like this scene could represent the conference as a whole: people brought together to one place for a short amount of time before they all head off in different directions. While this sometimes meant that SCMS felt too big and too crowded, it also gave off the sense that people were coming together who otherwise wouldn’t have. For instance, this was the case of the two or three papers that absolutely blew my mind by being well researched, methodologically sound, and seamlessly presented. That their topics — porn, philosophy, and art — had little to do with my research interests meant I wouldn’t have come across them otherwise, and made their discovery all the more impressive. Read more
To address some of the problems and possibilities facing animation scholarship, the Animated Media Special Interest Group sponsored a night of short experimental animated films at SCMS this year. Defining Experimental Animation was put together to address the following questions:
How does one “conduct” an animation experiment?
Can experimental animation play with character and figuration?
Is animation itself an experiment with cinema?
The last question suggests something of the relationship between animation and live-action film, a matter with which a number of scholars have struggled for the past decade. The second question speaks to the problem of animation’s relation to experimental film, whose critics and champions have mostly favored abstraction; thanks to the dominance of cartoon studio styles, it is difficult to think of animators’ uses of characters and figuration as “experimental.”
But both of these latter questions depend fundamentally on how the first question is answered, which effectively asks us to consider what counts as an experiment in animation. Rather than thinking of “experimental animation” as something like a genre, akin to cartoons or avant-garde film (with its own canons, communities, theories, etc.), it may be more productive to interrogate the notion of experiment as such. This is a tricky matter. I detect some ambivalence even in the phrasing of the question, as if the word “conduct” can’t be meant literally here. But it offers a starting place for thinking about the films. And it’s worth considering the event itself as an experiment with its participants, who were asked to put these questions (printed in the program) to the films.
The second time at SCMS is all about comparison. Especially when you don’t just belong to film studies, but serve two masters, and that other master is a strange and rare bird – Slavic.
Your second time around, you are no longer worried about your own paper – it is what it is, it won’t make an impact (if you’re lucky, you’ll have a nice conversation or two, and get a couple of Facebook friends). You recognize that it’s more about networking than it is about presenting. You skip the morning panel and set out exploring the city. You learn to recognize faces and to smile pleasantly but noncommittally at them because they look familiar, but you can’t for the life of you remember where and when you met them. You finally see that name tags are useful, not annoying, when you suddenly realize that a person standing two feet from you is that famous scholar whose name you had heard for the first time on the way to the conference. Read more
Upon my arrival into Chicago for SCMS’s 2013 conference, I rushed off my plane in the hopes of getting to the next afternoon panel as quickly as possible. After transferring from the metro and finally taking a moment to look out the window of a CTA bus (the best place to direct your gaze in that situation), I noticed lamppost banners announcing “Picasso and Chicago.” Given my love of and appreciation for art, I was more than curious to know what exactly these signs were referring to. I had some vague notions, but was completely unprepared for what I would eventually discover in the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute was the first museum in the United States to exhibit Picasso’s work in 1913, and it currently “celebrates the special 100-year relationship between Picasso and Chicago by bringing together over 250 of the finest examples of the artist’s paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, and ceramics.” As I wandered through room after room of the exhibit, gazing at works from the artist’s Blue Period (my personal favorite), Rose Period, forays into neoclassicism and surrealism, and so on, I couldn’t help but feel like this was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sublime experience. The sheer number of works like The Old Guitarist (1903), Mother and Child (1921), and The Red Armchair (1931) appearing side-by-side, one after another was awe-inspiring. Read more
I’ll be giving a paper on Inglourious Basterds next week at SCMS, and I’m anticipating some questions that might ask me to apply my thoughts on the film to Django Unchained. When Inglourious Basterds premiered, it became one of the most talked about and theorized objects on the Internet. Written material on Django, it seems, has far surpassed that of its predecessor, and for good reason–despite arguments over aesthetic superiority, I think it’s safe to say that Django is a far more complicated film partly because of the way it deals with history and myth.
In Inglourious Basterds, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler politically embody the Third Reich just as they symbolically stand in for Nazi anti-Semitism. In Django Unchained, we are offered no such historical figureheads, and how could we? The atrocity of American slavery doesn’t have its own codified villains. It’s certainly been mythicized into Manichean absolutes (it couldn’t make for a good Western otherwise), but we can’t quite ascribe those absolutes a face or an icon. If it is right to say that no single individual was responsible for slavery in the same way that no single individual was responsible for the Holocaust, the American myths of each atrocity tell entirely different stories. It is the role of myth, and the abstractions myth affords, that makes these two films fundamentally incomparable despite their apparent similarities. Read more