Monday, March 12, 2007

The 2007 Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Conference

I'm a lapsed academic, having forsaken the ivory tower of higher learning for the grungy apartment of film distribution and occassional freelance criticism (and blogging). My enthusiasms run too wide and too shallow to be fulfilled by the rigorous niche-filling of a Ph.D. program (I snagged an M.A. in Cinema Studies in '05). I'm also quite lazy, so I can't envision myself plowing through Deleuze and Bergson without going mad. But I'm grateful for those who manage to put themselves through the wringer and still maintain a love of the movies, who place theories at the service of the films, and not the other way around.

Which is why I was excited to attend the 2007 SCMS conference in Chicago this past weekend, held at the Hilton on Michigan Ave. A massive gathering of film academics from all over the world, it offered an endless number of panels, screenings, and emptied bottles of cheap wine. Some highlights, filmic and otherwise, follow.

Best paper title: "Foreign Women and Toilets" (Katarzyna Marciniak, left, Ohio University/USC)

-This enigmatic title was listed under the "Scales of Abjection" panel, and took place at 10:15AM on Sunday, March 11. I, much to my chagrin, could not attend, as sleep triumphed over porcelain throne philosophizing.

Best paper
: "Fury, Censorship, and the Politics of Lynching" (Amy Wood, University of North Carolina)

-Is it sad that the best presentation was by a historian and not a film scholar? I blame Deleuze. Regardless, this was a lucidly presented and scrupulously researched lecture that placed Fritz Lang's 1936 film in the context of the anti-lynching rhetoric of the time. Essentially her argument is that in eliding the racial aspect of lynching and presenting it as an affront to the general notion of law & order, the film dovetailed with the anti-lynching rhetoric that was gaining traction in the South, giving them a reason to deride the practice without confronting the racial attitudes behind it. It was fascinating to hear how leftist critics like Otis Ferguson took the film to task for this reason, while the NAACP and the black press fully embraced it as a powerful polemic that would boost their cause. Wood notes that the film was a modest box office success, and played well in Southern cities that had brutal lynchings only a few years before.

Professor whose office hours I would visit at every opportunity: Lucy Mazdon (University of Southampton)

-Lucy Mazdon presented a paper entitled "Transnational Cinematic Traffic and the Remake", which tracked how British industry and audiences dealt with French imports, with Clouzot's Wages of Fear as the major case study. She posited these transnational premieres as their own type of remake, as they are marketed and received in remarkably different ways in different countries. She was incredibly engaging and down to earth - and as easily impressionable as I am, I was smitten. The only panel during which I asked a question.

Best University Party: Duke University

-I attended three University parties on Saturday night: NYU, University of Chicago, and Duke. The NYU party blew up at a room at the Hilton, the Chicago party occurred at the department on their campus, and the Duke party layed claim to Andy's Jazz Club, a touristy and rather un-listenable live venue. The NYU-fest held claim to a variety of bald pates and New Balance sneakers, with a smattering of leather shirts and flouncy skirts. There was a brief wine-shortage scare, but I had hidden a small bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, which would hold me through the night. The conversations revolved around everyone's new publications, as this was an alumni reunion more than a party. I secreted myself in a corner with my generous hosts (and NYU chums), Scarlett Cinema's own P.L. Kerpius and her man-friend, Chicago Ph.D. candidate Matt Hauske.

-The Chicago party was a student-oriented affair, with the gray hairs ensconced in various corners bathing in the glow of yearning faces in need of validation. Tom Gunning, right, held court in the back, while I just held back. The talk revolved around upcoming papers, examinations, and what the next destination would be. Apparently the food was top notch (wraps!), but alas, all we saw were limp garnishes of lettuce. I still had Johnnie.

-An unknown party directed us to Andy's, where the Dukies were gathered. I talked to a professor from Greece who claimed her students go on strike every six months, allowing her to attend the conference. This conversation alone launched Duke into the winners circle. Add in drunken tourists, cheap cigars, and furtive arguments about Von Sternberg, and Duke is the clear victor.

There were many more Cinema Studies thrills and chills (Malcom Turvey's Vertov and Bergson paper was hot!), but those will have to be reserved for a later date, if I don't forget first.

In conclusion, when in Chicago, visit the Velvet Lounge.


Blogger Doug said...

You actually went to that?! You paid money to go to that?!

I looked at the PDF schedule and felt a cold shiver up and down my spine.

Can you imagine Manny Farber at one of those things?

Or Orson Welles?

1:46 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

I agree that the vast majority of the conference was bullshit, but there are still a valiant few academics out there who actually consider film as an art form, and those are the panels I attended and mostly enjoyed. Those were the ones I highlighted in my post.

And to clarify, I went to Chicago to visit friends, the conference was just an excuse. It was a fascinating event, really, but I empathize with your cold shudder. I just didn't witness the worst of it to get worked up too much.

I think Welles would be bemused by the whole thing. One of his favorite jokes in Other Side of the Wind is when Joseph McBride's film scholar character asks John Huston if the camera is a phallus.

Farber, of course, would be pissed.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Wow, awesome post, Rob! You make conferencing sound like such a dashing, mysterious affair ^_^

1:48 PM  

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