Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Classical Cinema SIG for SCMS?

On Twitter, I tossed out a quick idea that maybe it's time for there to be a Scholarly Interest Group (SIG) for SCMS geared toward those of us who work on classical cinema. There is a good reasons there hasn't been one up until now: SIGs have emerged to champion emerging research areas or those historically overlooked in the fields of US- and Canadian-based cinema and media studies. Classical Hollywood in particular was the canonical and culturally dominant hegemon at the center of film studies stretching back through the history of the Society, going to the SCS days. Why carve out a interest group niche for something that was already established and widespread?

I think there are two reasons it's time to do just that. First, it's hard for me not to see SIGs gaining in importance in SCMS. There's currently not anything like the divisions at the MLA Convention, neatly organized along clear subdisciplinary lines. Maybe they'll never have that rigidity or clarity. But the conference's and society's continued growth means that there's going to be increasing pressure for sub-division, and the SIGs and Caucuses are a logical mechanism to manage this pressure. If these do become more important, than SIGs no longer need to be limited by the emerging or "minority" approaches in the discipline, but even heretofore dominant approaches may find a need for organizational representation.

Second, classical cinema studies is not as dominant as it used to be. There are still a good number of papers on classical Hollywood at the conference, but not as many as there used to be. Papers on the studio periods of other national cinemas are much sparser. I wouldn't want to put forth the case for a SIG as a rearguard action to preserve the status quo of a canon - it's great that both contemporary cinema and alternative practices are getting more of their due. But a SIG can provide a form and cohesion to what now feels scattershot. SIGs provide community and help for a collective agenda setting and in the process raise the profile for excellent work that is already being done.

These goals seem particularly vital because classical cinema studies is actually a dynamic area now, hardly dead despite the sense of many in the field that the area is too well charted and everything has already been said. Not to make an exhaustive list, I would point to a few trends worth highlighting:

  • The availability of films (via video, cable TV, etc) has radically transformed our understanding of the period, both popularly and academically.
  • An generational difference from the period compared to the flurry of scholarship in the 1970s and 80s means that scholars have a different relation to the period and are asking different questions. 
  • Scholarship has increasingly reappraised the criticism contemporary to the films themeselves, opening up a dynamic account of the history of writing on film. The scholars of "useful cinema" have impacted how we see even the history of entertainment cinema.
  • Work in other areas, such as transitional cinema, have challenged and refined canonical accounts of classical cinema. Incidentally, this is one reason I think limiting the purview to "classical Hollywood" would be a mistake.
  • There is sometimes a sense of stalled impasse after the theory/history debates of the 1990s, but I see an opportunity. Classical cinema is one key area in which scholars often work across these disciplinary traditions and combine them in innovative ways.

For these reasons and more, I would love to see a Classical Cinema SIG. I honestly don't know how much groundswell of support the idea would have, but it's worth putting the idea out there.

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