While SXSW Focuses on the Future, the SCMS Conference Keeps Our Cinematic Past and Present Alive

By  · Published on March 13th, 2013

On Sunday morning, I woke up feeling a combination of physical and mental exhaustion along with the exhilaration of having moved through an impossibly packed schedule. I had attended countless panels, talked movies with friends I hadn’t seen in years and whom I encountered at a variety of different points in my life, attempted (sometimes successfully, often not) to make professional contacts, and enjoyed free food and booze at sponsored parties, a never-unappreciated gift for anyone traveling on a budget – all on very little sleep. And no, I’m not part of FSR’s team covering South by Southwest this year.

This was my experience of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Chicago.

The conference is run, as its name suggests, by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, an organization (founded in 1959) that “promotes the scholarly study of film, television, and video” (though the emerging disciplines of game studies and various tracks of digital media should probably be included in this description). SCMS publishes the premiere US-based journal in the academic discipline of film studies,”Cinema Journal.” The conference is the largest academic film and media studies conference in the country, spanning over five days, with 2–5 blocks of 105-minute panels per day, each block containing around 25 panels, workshops, meetings and (sometimes) screenings, all of which involve formal or semi-formal presentations by 3–5 persons. (You do the math.) Flipping through the nearly-200 page conference program can feel like mastering the art of futility. Ibuprofen may be required.

So why should the wonderful film geeks that read FSR and follow our SXSW coverage care about an academic conference like SCMS?

I’ve attended SCMS three times now (two as a presenter). This year’s conference exhibits several important changes from the first time I attended in Philadelphia in 2008. For one thing, it’s much bigger. More panels have been added to each block, and the previously weekend-exclusive conference has developed its scope substantially by adding a full day on Wednesday. Thus, a conference that was largely organized around the weekend now begins before the week is even halfway over. Some argue that this has resulted in less rigorous selectivity when abstracts for presentations are submitted to peer review. Regardless, even with a conference of this size, some selectivity is undoubtedly at play.

That said, there are great advantages to the conference’s growth and openness. It not only reflects growing interest in the discipline of film and media studies, but also acknowledges its lack of distinct borders: this year saw panels organized around subjects as diverse and immediate as LOLcats, “amateur” digital filmmaking, the Marvel universe, and even a burgeoning new field known as “LEGO studies.” For the sake of organization and focus, many academic conferences within film and media studies center around a certain disciplinary conversation or methodology, like the Music and the Moving Image or Visible Evidence conferences. By hosting a conference entirely under the umbrella of the name of the field of study, a giant conference like SCMS opens itself up to important and timely questions as to what constitutes cinema (the “M” used to not be a part of SCMS) in the era of transmedia (a subject SXSW is deeply invested in).

For as long as I can remember, SCMS has rubbed shoulders with SXSW on my calendar every year, occurring either immediately before or after that giant Austin-based conference/festival/traffic clusterfuck. And SCMS and SXSW aren’t as exclusive as they may initially seem. Many scholars hop on a plane from one and on a plane to the other, including the popularly known “aca-fan” Henry Jenkins.

Still, a great deal of criticism and satire has hit the web the past few days ruminating on the corporatization of the festival, which threatens the authenticity of the music portion (inaugurating starving indie bands into brand sponsorship early) and has been the modus operandi for the buzzword-heavy corporatespeak of the festival’s interactive portion.

While maintaining a similar corporate base, the film component of SXSW seems relatively unimpeachable by comparison. The program’s strange mix of mass Hollywood entertainment, TV series, mumblecore, under-the-radar documentaries, genre/midnight fare, and Sundance favorites might seem to the uninitiated like it lacks a coherent identity, but it in many ways reflects the diverse tastes which characterize Austin-based cinephilia: a city that treats arts cinema with the same reverence as 80s action films. Similarly, SCMS sees opportunities in preferring evaluation over initial discretion, encouraging panels on Grindr and Reddit to exist in the same space as panels on the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde or conventional film studies subjects like the role of the director-as-auteur in the institution of Hollywood.

A festival like SXSW is, of course, future-oriented. Promoters of films, music, and technology are attempting to situate bands, movies and apps for future circulation and consumption. Some will have a future, others won’t. One major important contrast between SCMS and SXSW (besides the fact that the institutional underpinnings and goals of each event couldn’t be more different) is that SCMS attempts to make sense of the past. Instead of asking what media we’ll consume in the future, the conference asks what it means to have consumed media texts, or what it means that we think of cinema within certain bracketed definitions, or what it means that a particular media object with certain encoded meanings circulates throughout culture (and a lot more amazing questions). Conferences like SCMS ask that we consider, and reconsider, history.

But this is what academia has always been good at. The humanities exist in a symbiotic relation to culture: culture industries produce and look forward to the next act of production, and scholarship attempts to make sense of the culture available through criticism, analysis, theory, and archival work. What makes SCMS unique, different, and, yes, important to those who might not be directly invested in such an event or organization is where the past, present, and future meet with incredible implications and how we think about film and media.

Academia is known stereotypically for its mastery of moving at a snail’s pace. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on history, the value placed upon deliberation, or the mechanics and bureaucracy of the peer-review process, but it can sometimes take a maddeningly long time to produce a piece of academic work, which stands in direct contrast to the more immediate form of writing I’m engaging in right now. Conferencing, however, provides opportunities for a more immediate engagement with audio-visual media. Despite expectations of scholarly rigor, SCMS is a place meant for the exchange of ideas, for experimenting with challenging new approaches, and for giving a dry run on the papers, books, and projects of the future – all of which have long-term implications for what shows up in the classroom, what is written in blogs, what terms are used in film criticism, and what conversations we’ll continue to have.

I noticed in the program a panel on Soderbergh’s “final films,” featuring attempts to assess his most recent work with respect to his career as a director. This panel, titled “The Unretiring Overachiever,” focused largely on understanding Soderbergh as a public auteur with respect to the recent economic recession. Panels like this are as relevant as it gets in academic conferencing, but it’s also relevant in a way that can hardly be replicated through the process of publishing. Rather than exclusively focusing on our media past, SCMS makes concentrated efforts to understand our media present, providing a necessary contrast to the largely future-oriented focus of business-related festivals like SXSW.

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