Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Losing my SCMS virginity (Part I)

I have been in graduate school for two and a half years, and I regret to admit that (until recently) I have not attended an academic conference in media or communication studies. I've read abstracts, paged through programs, and read reports, but I've never actually been to one. Had I not been asked by bloggers and PhD students Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb of Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope, I still would not have been to one. Being only a part-time student with a full time job makes traveling and preparing a presentation unrealistic in most cases. But with Society of Cinema and Media Studies annual conference taking place in my hometown of Philadelphia this year, and having the unique opportunity of being asked onto a workshop panel (which I will discuss in my second of two posts on SCMS), the situation was ideal for my first conference attendance and presentation.

The workshop in which I participated was slated to begin at 4:00 pm on Saturday, March 8th, but I arrived at the conference around 10:30 in the morning so as to gain familiarity with the atmosphere of the participants, attendees, and the minglings in the hallways. I made sure to attend a variety of panel presentations to get a sense of the overall flavor of the conference -- its academic and social policies. Although I initially paged through the program with the intention of attending as many panels as possible with presenters whose work I've read, I stuck to my guns and wandered in and out of different presentations.

I brief poked in to a panel on documentary filmmaking, entitled "Claiming the Real: Documentary as Practice." Chaired by Shilyh Warren of Duke University, this panel examined the ways in which documentary filmmaking not only provides voice, but enables a kind of agency that is elsewhere non-existent, such as in mainstream news media. I didn't stay long, but found the presentations provocative, especially in light of my increased viewings of documentaries, which are desperately in need of greater study, not so much as a separate kind of cinema, i.e. Cinema B to narrative cinema's Cinema A. Documentaries are wide-ranging, and very accessible now. As more films become available and more people become aware of them, it's nice to know there is a devoted body of scholarship out there. It's not my focus of study, but it's one that interests me greatly, as it should any student of cinema.

I then attended a textbook writing workshop, where Louise Spence, Jeremy Butler, Kristin Thompson and others gleaned social and economic issues of text book writing. I felt I was in the company of other text book writers, mostly, which is a shame because I found their dialogue especially enlightening. The central question that kept coming up was, "How can text book writing remain relevant?" and it's an important one for non-text book writers because text books are the vehicles through which professors teach. They are physical manifestations of canonized film criticism. Writing one requires great care and knowledge, even though none of the topics discussed in these books do not provide the in-depth commentary to which most text book writers and other film professors are accustomed. Their design is such that real, analytical film criticism is not possible. And yet they are utterly essential as tools for guiding and reflecting the pulse of film scholarship.

One of my very favorite lectures from the conference was the panel entitled "More Notes on Soundtracks," chaired by Carol Vernalis, who, despite proudly "taking on Bordwell" (in her own words), was arguably the least interesting of the four presentations. Her central premise --that "music video aesthetics" represent a new kind of cinematic aesthetic, one that is less based on intensified variations of continuity established by classical cinema-- is intriguing, but ultimately works better as a conceptual model than the proposal for a new direction in sound and image studies. What she fails to consider, in my judgment, is that there may be an inherent rhythm to cinematic images made in the classical tradition, with or without music. I'm sure she didn't present her whole thesis, and that time did not allow her to really articulate this music video aesthetics model. But, however interesting it was, it seems that she, like many contemporary scholars, is too quick to draw a line between contemporary aesthetics and classical aesthetics.

Also on that panel, Jeff Smith examined the significance of music in cinema, specifically detailing the function of music and the manners in which film scores are situated in a film depending on the genre, time period, and setting. His exploration of the deviation from the classic tradition of symphonic film scoring was very noteworthy, especially in an age of pop cinema in which the film score is but a distant memory.

Finally, I attended Malcom Turvey's panel on Noel Carrol's influential work in cognitivism, Mystifying Movies, which featured two wonderfully articulate presentations (neither by Carroll himself, who spoke after them) on contemporary film theory. Turvey's analysis of cognitivism and critique of criticism aimed at it was challenging and provocative. In particular, his musings on the spatiotemporality of cinema I found most interesting. He noted that most scholarship seeking to overturn the common bias of space over time to favor time over space ultimately fails because it presupposed a spatial order within which any conception of time is brought forth.

The last panel, on Carroll's Mystifying Movies was one of the few panels providing an in-depth look into film form. I'm not referring to neoformalism or cognitivism, specifically, when I invoke the term "film form." I use the term as a broader notion for the audiovisual relations of cinema. Where a great deal of scholarship seems to look at form of content, there seems to be little of it (at least at this conference) focused on forms of expression, and the relationship between forms of expression and forms of content. Too often that binary is honored in film scholarship, as if form and content can be isolated from one another.

Despite this qualm, I was overall mostly impressed with the diversity of the presentations, even though I didn't see 90 percent of them. Paging through the program gave me a sense of the overall conference, especially when situated against the panels I did attend. One of the panels on Sunday I would have loved to attend was the panel entitled, Untimely Bodies: Towards a Comparative Film Theory of Human Figures, Temporalities, and Visibilities.” Steven Shaviro, a respondent on the panel, recently posted his three-page piece from the panel on his blog. Having read it, I only wish more that I had attended this panel on Sunday. Here is an excerpt from his presentation:

"The speakers on this panel all point, in one way or another, to the hauntological dimension of the movies. They testify to the ways that -- as Gilles Deleuze puts it in a different context -- the cinematic image is never simply in the present: for it contains, rolled up within it, virtual dimensions of pastness and futurity. But beyond this, they suggest that film is itself the hauntological art par excellence. It is not just that a certain practice of cinema might be described as hauntological; but more importantly that hauntology itself, in its evanescent yet more-than-real spectrality, is inherently cinematic. Film does not capture and reproduce the real, so much as it always already haunts reality, sapping its apparent solidity from within. Film is implicitly an art of specters: of what Brian Wall calls “spirit,” and what Chika Kinoshita designates as “the passive regime of the image.” The presence of the movie star involves an uncanny doubling of physical presence and ghostly evanescence, of fiction and lived experience, as Prakash Younger shows in his discussion of the career of Meena Kumari. In the most general sense, and from its nineteenth-century origins to its twenty-first century actuality, cinema is most essentially what Tom Gunning describes as a phantasmagoria of “invisible bodies” and “intangible images.”


I discuss Tom Gunning's talk last, because it engages in a more general consideration of the issues that the other three panelists raised in relation to specific films. Gunning traces the ways that spectrality has been crucial to film from its very beginnings. The familiar concern with vision and the gaze, with the powers of surveillance and visual control, has always been doubled and undermined, within the cinematic apparatus itself, by the play and display of a resistant opacity. The very thickness of material reality disrupts the perspectival organization of the world by the gaze. Material density and embodied vision find their correlates in “a rhetoric of invisibility and a very complex form of disembodiment.” This is less paradoxical than it might seem at first. For the depth of bodies – and one might also say the sheer givenness of matter, or of what we characterize as “objects” – exceeds and exhausts the capacity of even the most phallic and penetrating gaze. Or to make the same point in an entirely different register, the temporality of the body-as-image is irreducible to the spatializing logic of “the model of vision as total transparency and surveillance.” which Gunning rightly dismisses as an “ultimate fantasy of totalitarianism,” but never an actuality.

What's crucial to Gunning's account, as to those of all the speakers on this panel, is the way that invisibility, impalpability, disappearance, and disembodiment are by no means opposed to an insistence, not just upon the materiality of the film itself, and of the cinematic apparatus, but also upon the embodiment of the spectator, and the materiality of the images or bodies or things that appear onscreen. That is to say, spectrality is not an effect of “lack,” or of the supposed gap between representation and its referent. Rather, we encounter the specter at the very heart of materiality and presence. Or – if a phenomenological manner of speaking be preferred – spectrality is a supplemental dimension of manifestation and appearance themselves. Cinema is not a Platonic cave of illusions, as the old-style film theory would have it, but a hauntological apparatus, a machine for raising ghosts."

One could only hope that Shaviro more explicitly focuses his future writing on some of the issue he talked about on the panel. Although I have not personally read or seen any of the individuals' work he cites, Shaviro is after a new way of thinking about cinema. Whether he was aware of it or not, his piece broadly functions in some way other another of the beginnings of a model for a new kind of film criticism: one not focused on "form" or "content," but of figures, temporalities, and visibilities.


In wrapping my thoughts on my experience at SCMS as an observer, I'd say the overall experience was overwhelming. It took place more than three weeks ago, and there are still ideas bouncing around in my mind; some totally random asides I picked up from conversations, others are gestating critiques and/or expansions on theoretical inquiries put forth by the variety of presenters whom I saw give their presentations.

If there's one thing I learned --or at least was reminded of-- from my wanderings, it's that there is no end to the amount of ways for thinking about (and with) media, specifically cinema. Some of these theoretical frameworks were built and maintained over decades, such as Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxism. These are the old reliables of media theorizing; but for as lucrative as each of these established bodies may be, they are perhaps employed too often and stringently to reveal anything about media and cinema. Other theoretical bodies are relatively recent, such as cognitivism, post-modernism, and post-structuralism, all of which lend significant insights into film scholarship. The problem with these schools of thought is in how proponents of them position themselves as the extreme reverse of established theories like psychoanalysis. In other words, many of these more trendy contemporary theoretical inquiries tend to be substituting one Grand Theory for another. This idea is the central argument of my own presentation, and is currently the topic of the project I'm working on right now in my independent study of Deleuze and media. (More on this in the next post...)

Although film and media scholarship has fractured into countless factions and schools of thought, there was a distinct flavor to most of the proceedings I witness at SCMS. Based on the the sessions I attended and reading through the program, I gathered that the conference errs on the conservative side (for the most part) with regards to modes of theoretical inquiry. I can't say that for certain, since I'm basing this observation on one day of attendance at one conference, but I get that feeling.

What this year's offerings lacked in terms of media content, however, it somewhat made up for in media content. This may not so much be to the credit of the Society itself, but to media scholarship as a whole in the last 15 to 20 years. Nevertheless, I attended a few panels and workshops representing diverse interests and inquiries into world cinema, documentary filmmaking, many of which were well versed in cultural studies. One hopes that this is not a short-lived trend, but instead the beginning of a larger movement within scholarly cinema and media research that will blossom into a greater understanding of various forms of content and expression reflected in and enacted by new and old media.

I acknowledge my overtly optimistic attitude toward cinema, concerning its limitless aesthetic and communicative possibilities, but the shear diversity of the kinds of films, social policies, and and modes of cultural agency that is currently being explored by students and scholars is wide-ranging, and inspiring to say the least. I do not envision this "cinema of tomorrow" as a much-needed cultural convergence through the various forms of analogic and digital media now available. Rather, electronic and digital media that have re-calibrated individual and collective means for participating in social policies and institutions. And since these forms of media are increasingly constitutive of our cultural agencies, cinema's relevance as an aesthetic means of communicating, sharing and experiencing narrative, and a form of discourse. This last notion is perhaps most intriguing, but the extent to which it is realized and developed hinges on necessary paradigm shifts which have yet to play out.


Benjamin Wright said...

I had no idea that you were at this year's SCMS. It's such a big affair that it's easy to get lost in the crowd. I would have liked to meet you in person, after reading your posts for such a long time.

I was also at the Soundtracks panel and had a real problem with the Vietnam film presentation, since the presenter was not very accurate in her discussion of sound in Apocalypse Now, nor did she even cite the composer of The Green Berets.

My panel on contemporary sound theory/practice was late on Sunday, but still managed to get a small crowd of sound-loving film scholars. Unlike the other soundtrack panels, our was the only one to really tackle issues affecting contemporary sound practice...not just film music or histories of the conversion period, which are always popular.

Do you think you'll be making it to Tokyo next year?

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for commenting, Benjamin.

I was also somewhat confused about her description of Apocalypse Now, but since it's been so long since I've seen the film, I attributed my confusion to my own shaky memory. Turns out my memory of the film isn't too shabby after all. As for her presentation, I thought she made some decent points, but you're right about some of her facts.

If I had known you were on another panel on sound/image relations, I would have loved to attend. What, specifically, did you examine, if you don't mind me asking?

As for future SCMS conferences, it's all in the air. I would love to attend as many conferences and film fests as possible, but I have quite a few engagements and responsibilities which don't really allow me to go to these. If I end up in a PhD program, I am doing to have to attend more, but I doubt that will happen.

All the stars happened to align for me to attend/present at this conference in Philly.

Benjamin Wright said...

Hi Ted,
My paper addressed the use of low frequency sounds in modern movies. Like how deep bass is used to convey "weight" in objects. It's a fascinating area to investigate, particularly because so much of the literature on film sound ignores contemporary mixing techniques, especially the subwoofer.

My phd thesis is very much a historiographic study of how mixing styles have changed since the 1970s.