Report from SCMS: Wednesday

March 18, 2010
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Note from the Editors: Many of the Antenna editors are at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Los Angeles this week. This makes running the store as usual a little hard, especially since there will be no free wifi in the Bonaventure Hotel (insert grumbly comment or exclamation here). Instead, therefore, we’re asking some Antenna writers to cover the proceedings with a series of daily reports. Business as usual will return on Monday.

At five days, twenty-four sessions, and eighteen tracks per session, this is a monster-sized SCMS conference, primarily due to having last year’s cancelled event mashed-up into it. Accordingly, more than ever, at least in my 20 years of attendance, there is much of potential interest in virtually every session. It’s particularly heartening to see the growing complexity of both the “C” and “M” in SCMS, with panels, workshops, and papers on all manner of media.

While the work is certainly intriguing and the face time is, as always, invaluable, the academic conference format, particularly bereft of an active online backchannel, feels increasingly like a ritual exercise rather than an energizing intellectual experience. We’re clearly at a point where discussions of the “future” of conferences are really about the present, and we need to have robust, serious discussions about what this experience should mean in an era of instant, on-demand intellectual exchange. Thankfully, this year, such discussions are scheduled for day three of this very conference…

That said, my frustration with the conference format contrasted with the energy and engagement on offer at the panels I saw today. One of the best features of SCMS have always been teaching workshops, which continually tackle the “how do we do X in the classroom” issues with a mix of giddy idealism and calm pragmatism. We’re geeks for pedagogy, after all, and sharing our triumphs and failures can be cathartic and inspiring. There was general agreement at such a workshop Wednesday morning that teaching film and media theory to undergrads that continues to be vital, though there was uncertainty about how that vitality is best conveyed. That said, all agreed that the primary point was about process rather than outcome, i.e., teaching students to theorize, via intensive and innovative reading and writing assignments, rather than merely serving up leftover Bazin. The growing interest in non Euro-American film theory was also acknowledged, with all participants grateful that the Internet has enabled greater discovery and sharing of such works (e.g., the ongoing translation project at the SCMS website).

After that, most of the rest of my day was spent in two fascinating panels contemplating authorship, which has surged back into consideration over the past few years. A morning panel examined how television form and authorship always intersect in complex ways. Norma Coates’ ongoing revision of the account of popular music and television focused this time on “cultural interloper” Jack Good, whose passion for theatrical “excitement” basically invented rock’s visual iconography in the 1950s and 1960s. Karen Vered explored why the variety genre has been missing from accounts of early Australian television. Heather Hendershot considered how Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology series recreated a particular niche of cinematic auteurism. Finally, in a comparative study, Michele Hilmes explored the relationship between representations of authorship and the very structure of British and American broadcasting.

The afternoon panel centered on changing conceptions of creative authority in contemporary television and transmedia. I found that Denise Mann’s opening account of the industrial machinations behind the official transmedia extensions of Heroes dovetailed nicely with Derek Johnson’s closing analysis of different forms of “licensed authorship” in Battlestar Galactica’s relationship with its fans. Intriguingly, NBC Universal owns each property. At the same panel, Jonathan Lupo studied the formation of queer-themed cable networks Here! and Logo, arguing that their pursuit of the queer market came at the neglect of attention to the queer audience; and Daniel Bernardi and Kevin Sandler presented their ethnographic account of the production of The Shield, focusing primarily on the conflict between the series’ writers and actor Michael Jace over his character’s homosexuality.

This work on authorship (broadly speaking) is particularly significant today, as it taps into neglected considerations of matters like licensing, copyright, and industrial authority: all concepts we’d do well to understand not only from the distance as scholars, but also in the fray, as fans and cultural producers.

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