By Asbjørn Grønstad on 27.03.2012 (07:00).
I have just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference, which this year took place in an unseasonably warm and summery Boston. Over the last decade or so I have been to quite a few SCMS conventions, and in my opinion the program has never been better. Even the glorious weather – on the day of my arrival it was an astonishing 25 degrees Celsius outside, the streets and parks coming alive with people, music and spring enchantment – could not compete with the virtual smorgasbord of panels, workshops and screenings on offer. The only downside of this intellectual feast was of course the luxury of having to choose which event to go to. Sometimes logistics took care of that, as especially popular panels were too crowded actually to get into. In the overly rectangular Whittier room on the fourth floor of the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, for instance, I managed to squeeze in at the far back, standing all the way through Giuliana Bruno’s brilliant presentation on “Surface Matters: The Architecture of the Screen.” Over the five days I spent in “the City on the Hill” I went to panels on “What’s New in Classical Film Theory,” “Mad Men: Industry, Programming, and Audiences,” “Remembering Sidney Lumet,” “Dirty Ethics: The Meaning of Trash,” and “Bodies in Extremis,” to name just a few. My own, on Saturday morning, was called “Violent Images” and featured presentations on “Revisiting Anempathetic Music: Visible Violence and the Audible Offscreen” by Jacqueline Waeber and “Narrative Form, Violence, and the Female Body” by chair Ora Gelley. The 2012 SCMS meeting particularly excelled in the breadth and quality of its many workshops; I’m very sorry to have missed discussions on subjects such as “Teaching the Archive,” “Collective Scholarship in Digital Contexts,” “Video Essays: Film Scholarship’s Emergent Form,” “Digital Methodologies For Screen Histories,” and “Where is Film Theory Today?” But I did manage to attend some very timely workshops, such as “A Profession in Transition: Promises, Pitfalls, and Opportunities” and “Should Studying the Politics of Representation Be History?” The former, which included short talks by representatives of important university presses such as Rutgers and University of California Press, was very much geared toward two major topics of concern to everybody working in the field of media and films studies today: the ongoing crisis in the humanities, and the future of book publishing in an increasingly digital age. The latter, with comments by among others Herman Gray and chaired by Ron Becker and Julia Himberg, took as its point of departure the gradual shift away from issues of representation to questions of both reception and aesthetics that has occurred in our field since the 1980s and onward. Knowledgeable and informed as all the participants were, there could be no more eloquent affirmation of the continued relevance of studies of representation in visual culture than the very real case of Trayvon Martin, the teenage boy who was shot dead by a vigilante thug in Sanford, Florida on February 26. Also mentioned by one of the panel’s participants, the incident was the major news item (besides Mitt Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstorm’s instantly classic “Etch as Sketch” comment) during the week of the conference. The mindless killing of Martin, an African American who was followed and subsequently shot by George Zimmerman, who, inexplicably, claimed his actions were performed in self-defense (the police let him go), caused a lot of turbulence and mass demonstrations throughout the United States. On my way to The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on Thursday March 22 I witnessed such a rally first hand, as I emerged from the city’s red line onto Harvard Square. The Harvard Film Archive hosted an evening with experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr and no less than the world premiere of some of his recent films – the absolutely mesmerizing Work in Progress, followed by the equally wonderful Abracadabra andAuto-Collider. For me, Gehr’s phantasmagorical visions were truly one of the conference highlights, and the filmmaker himself turned out to be a very entertaining and sympathetic presence. It would be quite a stretch to speak in similar turns of the Harvard Film Archive’s special guest the following night, none other than the octogenarian Claude Lanzmann, whose short film The Karski Report – featuring the second day of interviews with Polish resistance movement fighter Jan Karski, material omitted fromShoah – was screened on March 23. Mr. Lanzmann, who at the time was suffering from a fever, methodically shot down every question from the audience and was predictably unwavering in his belief that the Holocaust cannot be grasped and certainly should not be represented in any way.
It goes without saying that this short account only scratches the surface of everything that was going on at the conference. Crisis or not, my impression is that the field of film and media studies is more relevant and in better shape than ever. Next year’s SCMS conference will take place in Chicago between March 6-10.