“Drinking every time someone says ‘this is part of a larger project’ could prove a dangerous game.”
“This conference doubles as a Macintosh-fetish group-therapy meeting.”
“Interesting to see gatekeepers who don’t see themselves as such.”
– some tweets from #SCMS14
The Society of Cinema and Media Studies held its annual conference in Sheraton Seattle over the weekend. SCMS is the main organization of film, TV, video and media scholars. Yes, these are the pointy-headed professors who think you can explain things by…explaining them. And I love them and their work. You might think, after all the “Common Core”-led emphasis on certain pedagogical goals, that the people who study screen media for a living would be in a bit of a crouch. Nope. Consider how much time you spend in front of a screen every day. Don’t you want to know why, and what’s happening to you?
A cynic would say you’re not going to learn that from PhDs who – ahem – research it. A cynic may just be someone who hasn’t read/seen the right essays/papers. At the conference, I was lucky enough to see some terrific ones. There was Mark Westmoreland’s compilation of activist documentaries from Cairo – and these go way beyond The Square to splice and re-mix footage in all kinds of creative ways. There was Anjanli Nath’s “Tweets from Below” where I learned all about Josh Begley and others who’ve fought the US government to provide apps (and twitter feeds like @dronestream, and other resources) to show you where and when all your taxpayer-paid US drones have struck. There was Jennifer Peterson’s work on nudist films from the 50s and early 60s, where she found an important historical bridge between Playboy-inflected 50s culture and the coming hippie movement. These old color films feature many naked children, and if you believe, as I do, that any 50-years+ film footage needs to be preserved as historical record, then it’s important to have published, respected scholars like Peterson, because anyone else looking for this stuff would get arrested. (I should ask Jennifer if her computer makes any special noise when the NSA agent watching her comes online.)
On a Breaking Bad panel that all-too-predictably increased meaning-free twitter traffic, I was pleasantly impressed with Sean O’Sullivan’s dichotomy of TV shows into those that favor the creeping sense of the inevitable (The Wire, Deadwood) and those that would rather stop your heart with the surprise (Mad Men, Breaking Bad). It made me think more about why I prefer the latter – and sometimes shouldn’t. Jason Mittell re-interpreted Breaking Bad through Skyler’s eyes – a nice complication of Brett Martin’s best-selling Difficult Men. (Don’t worry, Mittell knows that it’s still Walt’s show.) In other news, Cynthia Baron organized a panel on “Acting Indie” which dared to suggest continuities and commonalities in independent film…I’m not going to list all the many excellent points here, but all four panelists taught me something useful.
One thing I love about the SCMS conference is learning what’s going on in other countries’ film cultures in a way that I’m not going to get just by seeing Amour. This year I happened to catch a lot of interesting work on East Asia. Chi-Yun Shin examined the pervasive theme of suicide in current Korean high school films – picture John Hughes crossed with Morrissey. Lien Fan Shen made me understand the problematic masculinity of current otaku – a Japanese term for super-fan (think Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons). HreYoung Ok discussed Korea’s difficult path to mounting 3D blockbusters on the Avatar level, and the fact that when they finally did shoot a film in 3D, Mr. Go, about a gorilla who becomes an unlikely baseball star, the record-budgeted film bombed in Korea – but was (almost randomly) a big hit in China.
As for little old me, I had several professional reasons for being there. One was just to see my book on display at the Palgrave book stand, and there it was. (Yay!) Another was to meet with my editor, Cynthia Baron, about my next book, which will be about performance in blockbuster films – partly to complicate the notion that films need Meryl Streep-like acting to be good. Sounds like Cynthia and I are on the same page; that’s a mighty good thing. Yet another reason was to meet a man about a job I’d love to have – the meeting went well, but let’s wait til I have the job before I tell you more. Yet another another reason was to sound out the idea of the first scholarly book about Netflix, probably an edited collection of essays. I met with more than one “acquistions rep” of a major publisher, and they’re interested – that’s good, because anthologies are getting a little less popular as media professors stop buying books and instead scan essays into pdfs for their students. It’s also good because there’s a somewhat reasonable chance that Netflix won’t exist in five years. (Come on, Reed Hastings, no more screwups!)
What would such a book look like? Well, last summer my Cal State colleague Kevin McDonald contacted me about a Netflix workshop at the SCMS conference – I had to turn him down because I was already committed to another workshop (about work/life balance. I must have been the unbalanced one to give the panel balance?). To my sincere delight, Kevin put together a group without me, and these people brought some very impressive scholarship to the table on Saturday. Gerald Sim asked crucial questions about the general media narrative perpetuated by Matthew Iglesias in Slate and Ken Auletta in The New Yorker, showing that Netflix didn’t really need to compete with Google, Apple, Amazon, or even YouTube. Peter Feng contextualized Netflix with other failed video-on-demand services, and then documented Netflix’s social-media failures – like the sparse amount of tweets for House of Cards, and the failure of a Netflix promotion which allowed you to see your friends’ lists and ratings. Sudeep Sharma presented the half-full AND half-empty glasses that are Netflix’s deals with low-budget documentary makers – on the one hand, they get exposure; on the other, they get very little cash, a very temporary presence, and zero leverage (Netflix offers them a variable five-figure number and if they don’t take it, Netflix walks away without a second thought). Evan Elkins traced the parameters of Netflix’s international expansion – looks like rather than erasing borders, Netflix is more disrupting and fragmenting them.
So, the hypothetical first book-length study of Netflix’s power and influence (outside of Gina Keating’s Netflixed, which is a more business-shelf-oriented study of how Netflix took down Blockbuster) would hopefully include work like this from these fine people, along with versions of more formal papers that were also given at SCMS’ conference. I saw Brittany Farr discuss some of the problems with power, knowledge, and race on Orange is the New Black – great paper. (Creator Jenji Kohan called the white, pretty female Piper a “Trojan horse” to get more stories of older women, black women and Latinas on the air.) I saw Casey McCormick give a wonderfully spirited oration on binge-watching House of Cards, including some terrific cartoons (did she make them? Amazing) of someone hooked up to a IV bag pumping red “Netflix” into his arm, and another of someone “snorting” from the “buffering” line that appears along with the red Netflix screen on your iPad. I missed Sarah Arnold’s paper titled “Gender and Online Viewing: Theorizing the Active Spectator,” which is a damn shame, because 1) I later heard it included a lot on Netflix, and 2) based on her questions to Kevin’s panel and my paper, she’s clearly an impressive scholar. Oh, and did I forget my own paper? It was about Netflix redefining genre. Most studies show that genre is defined differently by studios and audiences, but with Netflix’s 44 million subscribers (and their many housemates), it’s now time to consider a third source of definition (and boy, does Netflix’s “Complete Genre Listing” provide new avenues of thought). By the way, I would probably serve as editor of the Netflix book. Can I squeeze this in with all of my classes and other writing projects (including, uh, this blog)? Stay tuned.
I haven’t even mentioned the various other conferency things, like seeing old friends, the awards ceremony, the special events, the food, the 35th floor views of downtown Seattle, my dinner with the fantabulous Dennis Bingham, many discussions of tenure, the expanding online world of SCMS (now including video essays!) and so much more. Hey, it was a great conference, in a city I adore, which offered wind-free, spring-springing days with unblemished views of the mighty Mount Rainier serenely presiding in the distance. And yes, despite some snarky tweets, it’s refreshing, nay, invigorating, to see the field humming in so many different ways. Todd Boyd once told me his reaction to USC film production students who resented USC’s requirement that they take one history/theory class and were basically skeptical of anyone writing about – instead of making – film. He would react, “Okay, we’ll bounce, but after we leave – who is you? Welders.”