“The Uses of Cinema:” SSAAANZ 2018 Conference Review
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As digital distribution, fluctuating industry practices and the confluence of portable and prestige media formats problematize the language and utility of what we term “cinema,” the 2018 biennial conference of the Screen Studies Association of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand (SSAAANZ) could not have been timelier. Convenors Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams hosted a vast array of domestic and international scholars from over fifty institutions at Monash University, Victoria. From November 20th to the 23rd, the gathering covered the theme of “The Uses of Cinema” with a range of erudite keynote and panel presentations, each helping to map a vast realm of screen-studies knowledge. The conference also saw the inaugural launch of the Australian Indigenous Film and Television Research Hub at ACMI, a collaborative research platform focusing on Indigenous screen content, and the Freda Freiberg Film and Screen Studies Library (Monash U, Caulfield).
A common thread linking each presentation was the understanding that tectonic shifts have occurred in the means by which we engage with and understand cinema thanks to media convergence, the digital turn, and the continually-blurred boundaries between viewer and producer. Audiences now possess greater agency in participating with and responding to screen industry practices, and a number of marginalized voices are attaining firmer purchase on a variety of platforms. Concurrently, screen production itself is in a process of reconfiguring culturally, socially, technologically, and economically to connect with those audiences. This dichotomy formed the basis of the conference’s myriad presentations, with many scholars covering topics such as fan-community activism and critique, documentary and independent filmmaking, franchising and adaptation practices, genre and classificatory analyses, film-festival engagement, and querying of cinematic terminology, among others. The conference offered challenging, evocative points that questioned the means used to interpret and discuss modern ideas of cinema, on the big and small screens.
Framing these discussions were a slew of insightful keynote speakers. The conference was launched with Cristina Álvarez López (EQZE Film School) and Adrian Martin (Adjunct, Monash U) articulating the use of cinema within the career of Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio. In the following days, Haidee Wasson (Concordia U) provided a historical context for the current boom in portable cinematic media, whilst Stella Bruzzi (University College London) interrogated the multiplicity of media representations, both fictional and factual, of US President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. In a plenary workshop, Ross Gibson (U Canberra) introduced the ARC-funded “Utilitarian Cinema” project with a screening of a short film by John Hughes and brief presentations of sub-projects by Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd (U Canberra), Stella Barber (Murdoch U), Mick Broderick (Murdoch U), Grace Russell (Monash U), and Deane Williams (Monash U). Allison De Fren (NYU Shanghai & Occidental College) later discussed critical video essays within the context of Orson Welles’ F for Fake, Claire Perkins (Monash U) framed crucial discourses of fourth-wave feminism on television, and finally Jason Mittell (Middlebury College) unpacked the uses of television in online videographic critique. Each keynote addressed multiple dimensions of contemporary screen studies, providing critical contexts across four days of the conference.
Emerging as the most promising aspect of SSAAANZ 2018 is the potential for future studies in screen media across Australia and New Zealand, and beyond. The conference provided fertile ground for scholars to further delve into the histories, contexts and conversations surrounding modern screen studies. Many discussions, triggered from the end-of-panel Q and A all the way to the lunch queue, foreshadow new entries in the screen studies field, with particular focus on areas of queer and gender-based interventions in current screen discourse, linked with a theme of enabling greater agency for marginalized viewers and producers. As well as the keynote from Perkins, this included queer erasure and the “bury your gays” trope as seen in The 100 (Evangeline Aguas, UT Sydney), male gatekeeping in the era of post-feminist comedy (Claire Whitley, Flinders U), and the problematic framing of women in true crime documentaries (Bonnie Evans, U Queensland). As well as this, the omnipresence of franchises stimulated debate, including a focus on the commercial longevity and poetic utility of franchises in the current Hollywood climate (Tara Lomax, U Melbourne), while temporality complicated our understanding of modern screen practice seen in the question of how to frame “prestige” or “quality” television as filmic through production lengths and creator credentials (Natalie Krikowa, UT Sydney). In addition, the concept of the “legacy” hero, bequeathing longstanding franchise responsibility to the next generation, was seen in examples such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park (Dan Golding, Swinburne UT) and intersected with the example of Blade Runner 2049 as serialized, reboot-sequel (Verevis, Monash U).
Additionally, two noteworthy panels addressed the sizeable portion of postgraduate and early career research attendees and the development of their research and funding trajectories. The panels included tips on perfecting academic CVs, how to establish a publication pipeline, the merits of applying for a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), and the wealth of information available for research with the Australian Film Institute. From distinguished professors and senior academics to early career researchers and postgraduate students, the conference’s discussions suggest a wealth of future Australian and New Zealand screen research soon to come; I know I certainly left with a renewed sense of research vigour!
With vast depth and breadth of presentations and ideas, the conference hosted a variety of discipline intellects that posed a number of complex questions about how we use and understand cinema. Chiefly, the conference’s ideas of gender, queerness and temporality in screen studies – many of them led by erudite PhD students and early career researchers – are ripe for further unpacking, and an ongoing understanding of the reconfiguring relationship between industry and audience will likely form the bedrock of future debate. Before SSAAANZ returns in 2020 (at the University of Sydney), the 2018 Uses of Cinema conference certainly gave its attendees much to consider in the interim.