Under the Skin of SCMS 2015

Film Studies PhD student, Michelle Devereaux, attended the  Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Montreal, Canada. Here is her report on the latest trends in film academia.

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

The annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference, a.k.a. the granddaddy of all film conferences – at least that’s what I’m calling it – took place in the wintry climes of Montreal this past 25-29 March 2015. While the weather was unseasonably brutal at times, even for the snowiest metropolis this side of Moscow, temperatures inside the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel often reached a feverish level, given the sheer number of bodies colliding with each other on the conference floor, the packed lifts, and any of the more than two-dozen seminar rooms in use at any given moment.

As a first-time conference-goer, I found the sheer size of SCMS to be a little overwhelming (the programme itself was well over 200 pages). The amount of choice involved was often confounding and frustrating – no attendee could hope to see anything but a small fraction of the programme on offer. However the comprehensiveness of SCMS makes up for what it loses in its lack of intimacy.

I ended up attending a dozen seminars, ranging from the aesthetically oriented (panels such as Cinema’s Visual Worlds and Terrible Beauty: The Affective Aesthetics of the Horror Genre) to the theoretical (Revisiting Film Theory, Experiencing the Movies: Recent Trends in Film-Phenomenology) to the Scarlett Johannson–obsessed but often-fascinating panel Impenetrable, Surface Readings of Under the Skin.

The Under the Skin panel offered provocative readings of the film in relation to various concepts of the Other (blackness, gender, and the alien) from Lucas Hilderbrand (University of California Irvine) and Elena Gorfinkel (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and wound up with Amy Herzog (Queen’s College, CUNY) and her discussion of the film as a “star vehicle,” complete with slides of various Johansson internet memes. In addition to these, I counted roughly six papers in the programme on Her alone, as well as an entire panel devoted to 2015’s unofficial conference mascot and her recent body-politic output, Scarlett Johannson’s Bodily Turn, which examined the eerie intersections of Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy.

It got to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Johannson riding down René-Lévesque Boulevard in an open-air motorcade, offering a pleasant royal wave to adoring attendees as snowflakes rained down on her like ticker tape. Okay, I would have been pretty surprised, but you get my point.

It’s clear that Johannson’s recent output has touched an academic nerve. Her film choices have certainly played with the idea of the corporeal, and given the fact that she, more than any major film star of late, has become inextricable from her sex symbol image (Herzog even referred to her as the “sex symbol of our uncertain times”) the excitement makes sense. Still, I would have appreciated more of a focus on the films and less on her star turn.

Luckily, there were other topics to be addressed, particularly sound, historically the redheaded stepchild of film aesthetics, which seemed to finally be getting its due. Film-sound theoretical pioneer Michel Chion’s name was invoked in multiple seminars, even ones not solely devoted to the topic, of which there were several.

Mary Ann Doane name-checked Chion in her discussion of the creation of a three-dimensional space in classical cinema. She referred to hearing as “always a three-dimensional spatial perception” and sound as “omnidirectional,” as opposed to the unidirectional image of the fixed screen. The University of Queensland’s Jane Stadler discussed synaesthesia and the phenomenology of sound (“sound can directly touch the body”) on the Film Phenomenology panel.

In the same seminar, noted cognitivist Carl Plantinga served as respondent, and argued that the fields of cognitivist and phenomenological study intersect and complement each other in surprising ways. “We feel ourselves into the world as much as we think ourselves into the world,” he said, in a rare moment of cognitivist poetics.

I was mainly drawn to panels on aesthetics, perhaps because my own work focuses strongly on the way mise-en-scène exemplifies narrative and thematic preoccupations. During the Terrible Beauty panel, Clarkson University’s Brian Hauser presented a thoroughly entertaining paper on horror filmmaker John Carpenter’s “aesthetics of dread.” Honestly, as an unrepentant fan of the director’s early work, he had me at The Thing.

The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

Cinema’s Visual Worlds offered a thoroughly engrossing panel on auteurist mise-en-scène, with Cary Elza (University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point) exploring the “neo-baroque” excess and obsessive world-curation of Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Shelton Waldrep (University of Southern Maine) discussed the “pictorial” set design of Stanley Kubrick and production designer Sir Ken Adam. It struck me after both of their engaging talks how these two filmmakers share a whiff of the obsessive-compulsive that’s manifest in completely antithetical ways – one was notoriously private while the other goes out of his way to court a direct discourse with his fans, as Elza pointed out in her talk.

During the same panel, I gained newfound appreciation of the mise-en-scène of Satyajit Ray via Northwestern University’s Simran Bhalla and her discussion of the “gendered rooms” and “feminine sub-spaces” of Charulata and Ghare Baire in her “Through an Opera Glass, Darkly” paper.

During the Meditations on Time panel, the University of Melbourne’s Grace Torcasio offered an on-point, in-depth reading of nostalgia in the famous “Carousel pitch” scene from television prestige drama Mad Men, while Lisa Jacobsen from the University of California at Berkeley contrasted the use of documentary re-enactment in Joshua Oppenheimer’s lauded The Act of Killing and Uwe Boll’s reviled Auschwitz.

Since this was a media conference, and not strictly just about film, papers were not confined solely to the “legitimate” cinema (or television, in the case of Mad Men) – everything from professional wrestling to pornography to reality television to Twitter was in play.

The cultural importance of social media certainly reared its head in the surprisingly sparsely attended, uneven Twin Peaks at 25 panel.  Dana Och, from the University of Pittsburgh, spoke about the show’s influence on female-centred melodrama (specifically referencing the campy U.S. television series Pretty Little Liars) and argued that Twin Peaks’ close relation to soap opera has a “gendering” effect on its discourse. Karra Shimabukuro (University of New Mexico) explored its relationship to the enduring concept of the “folkloric forest.” Ross Garner (Cardiff University) and Rebecca Williams (University of South Wales) were more interested in the cult series’ effect on the world of online fandom and social media marketing strategies (something I admittedly have little interest in).


Many superstars of the academic film world were on hand, including Doane, Carl Plantinga, Tom Gunning and Richard Dyer, who spoke to packed rooms, although scheduled attendee Dudley Andrew was an unfortunate no-show. Doane, Gunning, and Kristen Whissel spoke on the panel The Dimensionality of the Moving Image, which dealt with the use of on- and off-screen space in classical and silent cinema and was literally standing room only in the hotel’s largest conference room (although most of the chair-less, like me, chose to sit on the floor).

Perhaps SCMS should consider a stadium-style screen feed of the superstar panellists to complement the PowerPoint slides and clips – although, given the spate of technical issues that marred this year’s conference, that’s probably wishful thinking. Kriss Raveto-Biagioli and Tarek Elhaik’s discussion during the Politics of Reanimation panel, for instance, was sadly so technically undermined it was difficult to concentrate on the content of their talk. Other panellists had to forgo their prepared visual components altogether, mostly due to the dreaded Mac-to-PC migration.

There were a few controversial moments in the seminars I attended. One academic superstar’s work was rebuked when the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Patrice Petro criticized the recent output of David Rodowick in her “Frankfurt School Now” talk, calling out his supposed disregard of feminist film theory and its importance within the history of theory in general. She was probably referring to his recent publication Elegy for Theory, but that wasn’t totally clear. Regardless, it was one of the few truly provocative moments (politically speaking), at least for me. It’s a shame that Rodowick wasn’t there to offer any kind of defence.

Academic Trends

Considering I sampled such a small portion of the seminars on offer, it’s difficult to make claims of overarching trends, but the idea of “reality” in representation was often addressed, as was the use of space and sound, and the corporeal (Johannson-related or not) in aesthetics.  The most roundly enjoyable panels I attended were Cinema’s Visual Worlds and the Under the Skin panel. I’m anxious to hear more from Northwestern’s Bhalla and UC Irvine’s Hilderbrand. Although I didn’t necessarily totally agree with the latter’s reading of Under the Skin, it made me consider the film in completely new and interesting ways, and that’s what you want from academic discourse. I would also gladly attend another seminar from Och, who was one of the most engaging and charismatic speakers I saw, yet offered substantial content that belied her lively, fun delivery.

McLaren screeningIn addition to the seminars, panels, and workshops, there was a seemingly endless array of special events, from university-specific, cocktail-based meet and greets to a massive academic book market to film screenings such as “Experiments in 3D,” a special showing of restored Malcolm McLaren shorts in the titular number of dimensions, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The cinema facilities at nearby Concordia University, which were used for the McLaren screening, are truly top-notch, and the place was suitably packed. It was nice to see so many conference attendees in one place doing the exact same thing: watching the work of a great filmmaker after talking about film for so many long days.

At the end of those four long days, I was suitably exhausted, but in a satisfied way. I decided it was well worth the experience. Surely going to your first SCMS is a major right of passage for every film academic; meeting like-minded scholars and getting a sense of the vast range of study available to film academics is world-expanding, if a bit dizzying. One thing I know for sure: If I attend (or present at) next year’s conference, which is being held in Atlanta, at least I know I won’t have to pack so many wool jumpers and coats.

– Michelle Devereaux, PhD Film Studies candidate