Up The Academy

Cinema studies takes questions from the 'media'

We academics generally know that the titles of our papers often sound ridiculous. In fact, we generally know that, to the outside observer, the papers themselves often sound ridiculous. But never let it be said that we don't know how to poke fun at ourselves. I mean, no scholar who refers to the "oeuvre" of the goofy Cottage Grove native in American Pie--as U Mass-Amherst's Jon Lupo did recently at the Minneapolis Hilton, presenting "'Stifler's a Fag!': Queerness and Masculinity in the Films of Seann William Scott" as part of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference--does so with an entirely straight face. So the next time you read a sneering article in the New Republic that makes fun of, say, "Cruising's Masculine Fantasies and the Class Unconscious of S/M"--the title of, ahem, the paper that I presented at the conference--just remember that the scholar has likely beaten the snickering scribe to the punch.

The annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) affair brings hundreds of film, TV, radio, and digital media scholars from around the world to present their recent work, screen some hard-to-find films and videos, and compare the hundred or so shades of black in which the participants inevitably tend to be clad. And with as many as a dozen three- or four-paper panels taking place simultaneously, it also brings some tough decisions: Indeed, 10 days later I still regret missing "'It's Not Yet Time to Suck Each Other's Dicks': (Dis)Articulating Male Homosocial Desire with the Tarantino DVDs," as well as...uh, "Animal Sex: Showing and Telling." (Hey--if the academy can withstand Stifler's penetration, why shouldn't it free Willy?) This year's events also included a workshop on the influence of digital technology on film studies pedagogy, a paper on "youth music" in early '60s TV, not one but two panels on new Hong Kong cinema, and yet another consideration of Claire Denis's already canonized Beau travail. It's enough to make the average attendee remove his fashion-forward spectacles and rub his bloodshot eyes in frustration.

Dude, where's my hand? Seann William Scott (right, with Chow Yun-Fat) stretches to include queer studies in his oeuvre
MGM/UA
Dude, where's my hand? Seann William Scott (right, with Chow Yun-Fat) stretches to include queer studies in his oeuvre

But what do people actually talk about in these panels? Well, this year they tended to talk about the event's new name. Founded in 1959 as the Society for Cinema Studies, the organization added "and Media" to its letterhead in 2002, causing many participants to wonder what this means for the study of cinema, and perhaps even for the cinema itself. As University of Minnesota prof John Mowitt put it during one panel: "If the very change in the name of SCS, now SCMS, is given its full weight, then might it not make sense to say that the disciplinary object of cinema studies is fast being overtaken by something called 'media'?" (Sure enough, the death of cinema--if not of the Twin Cities' cultural reputation--could be found in the appearance of the Mary Tyler Moore statue on the cover of this year's conference program.) Similarly, film historian Tom Gunning warned against "dissolving" the study of film into what is often called "visual culture"--an appellation under which "media studies" is practiced in various academic departments.

The irony--which, to be fair, Gunning himself noted--is that this latter caution was offered in the context of a presentation that described how the viewers of early cinema would have been trained to understand movies as a sort of optical illusion due to their familiarity with other "trick" diversions such as the phantasmagoria, a sort of proto-hologram technology. In other words, Gunning showed how we can better grasp cinema's effects by understanding its relationship to other types of visual culture--that is, to other media. (Maybe next year some enterprising grad student will proffer the paradigmatic connection between Mary's tossed hat and the bone in 2001.)

In fact, the society has had papers on television, radio, and other media for many years now, and so the name change is more or less an acknowledgment of what has already happened. Still, as someone who has spent the last few semesters trying to explain the aesthetic and industrial differences between film and television to students who've grown up watching movies mostly on TV screens (or on laptops), I understand the concern. The addition of the "M" to the SCMS undeniably signals the shrinking influence of our beloved "C." Indeed, a few more years of Britney Spears papers might leave some SCMS members wondering, "Dude, where's my discipline?"

 
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