“Did you feel that?”
From March 6-9th I attended the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, which was held in Philadelphia. In many ways it turned out to be a reunion of friends and family. Not only is Philly the city of brotherly love, but it also happens to be the town where my mother grew up. So amidst the academic chatter and panel presentations on Soviet montage, I managed to squeeze in some time with my family and old friends.
Philadelphia is a great city — not only because it’s the home of Rocky Balboa and those art museum steps. On this trip I discovered great restaurants, shops, and a friendly vibe that permeates the city center. And if you’re even the most modest cinephile there’s nothing quite like running up those Rocky stairs, along with all the other tourists. (For the diehard fans: the city relocated the Rocky statue to the Spectrum arena years ago to protect it from pigeons and haters).
The SCMS conference is another family affair of sorts, since it’s a place where all cinema (and media) scholars can come together for four days of academic posturing and reverie. It’s the Olympics for film studies: hundreds of panels devoted to a myriad of research areas. For the past few years I’ve had the privilege of presenting with some of the most impressive people working in contemporary film sound. William Whittington and Mark Kerins, who continue to chair our panels, are doing their part to open the ears of film studies. Randolph Jordan, who is completing his PhD in Montreal, continues to use sound theory to reshape the way I hear contemporary cinema. My work on sound technology and sound style rounded out our panel. This year Elisabeth Weis was our official respondent — the co-editor of Film Sound: Theory and Practice and author of The Silent Scream — which was a thrill for me, since her work greatly influenced my decision to pursue this PhD.
It’s always good fun to present at the SCMS, and this year was no exception. We had a strong audience for our panel, who seemed to genuinely respond to the research being presented. This year, I spoke about the use of Low Frequency sound and how it is being utilized in current suspense thrillers and horror films. There’s a line from Jurassic Park that basically summarizes my position on the use of sub-audible sounds in cinema. Little Tim turns to his sister, Lex, in the Explorer and asks, “Did you feel that?” At about the same time, Lex and the audience begin to feel the vibration from the weight of the T-Rex’s footfalls. For the next minute, besides the rain effects, the sound track reverberates with the sub-audible frequencies of the T-Rex’s movement. It’s important that Tim says feel instead of hear, since the sensation is most definitely felt not heard.
There’s always a flurry of activity at the SCMS meeting, since it’s a place to share research but also catch up with old friends. To do both means that by Sunday you’re exhausted and ready for three days of sleep.
This year’s panoply of panels didn’t disappoint. I did my best to get to all the soundtrack panels, which this year included several papers on film music and early sync sound conventions. While I disagreed with the approach and findings of some in this area, I was impressed by others who re-evaluating how to write about and teach film music and sound technology in the 1920s.
By far the most lively panel I attended was one devoted to new trends in film and television comedy. A paper on the “cringe” aesthetic explored how shows like The Office and The Sarah Silverman Program specialize in uncomfortable, awkward moments that border on the offensive. Some might even say they are offensive. Another paper examined the ways in which Jon Stewart balances his position on The Daily Show as a low-brow comic and a political pundit. It was obvious who in the audience preferred Stewart as pundit and Stewart as dispenser of fart jokes, since only half the crowd chuckled at the potty jokes. I, for one, can see the humor in both strands of humor, but some of my colleagues were none too pleased that the show regularly punches below the belt for a quick snicker fix.
Another memorable year at SCMS. So many panels so little time. At least there’s always next year.