by Dr Chris O’Rourke / @ChrisORourke1

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies, or SCMS, had its annual conference this year in Chicago at the massive Fairmont hotel in Millennium Park from 22nd to 26th March. There were overspill rooms in an even bigger office building next door, meaning that I delivered my conference paper looking out over the city from the 80th floor.

SCMS is the major North American organisation for scholars interested in the study of film, but (especially since it added ‘Media’ to its name in 2003) it also attracts people researching television, video games, digital and online media, as well as a large international contingent. As with a lot of academic events held in the United States at the start of 2017, there was some discussion in the run-up to the conference about how to deal with the confusion and fear caused by President Trump’s travel ban. Colleagues I talked to had arranged for papers on their panel to be pre-recorded or delivered by Skype, because speakers with passports from the six Muslim-majority countries affected worried that they would be turned away, or even detained, when they landed at O’Hare Airport.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that US politics made its presence felt – not only in the themes of the papers, but in other details, too. This was apparently the first year that the conference venue made provision for all-gender bathrooms, a decision made political by the ongoing debate over controversial ‘bathroom bills’ affecting transgender people in North Carolina and other states. The most topical panel I attended was one on ‘The Celebrity of Politics’. This included illuminating papers by Lindsay Giggey (UCLA), dissecting the celebrity image crafted for Donald Trump during his time as host of NBC’s The Apprentice, and Lindsay Hogan (Boston College) on the creeping rehabilitation of George W. Bush through the media persona of his daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, who now regularly performs the role of relatable, down-home girl on the popular morning TV talk show Today.

SCMS is a big conference, with thousands of delegates and 20 panels taking place at any one time. Added to this are special interest group meetings, book fairs, awards ceremonies, networking events and tours of the neighbourhood, including a trip to the old Essanay Studios, where Charlie Chaplin once worked. This was the first time I’d attended, so I decided to concentrate on following two strands – silent cinema and queer cinema. Across these panels, there was a lot of variety, but also some discernible themes emerging.

One was an interest in recovering lost or marginalised figures in film history. This revisionist impulse isn’t necessarily new, but it clearly continues to motivate a lot of research in the field. Speaking as part of a panel on women in early Spanish cinema, Leigh Mercer (University of Washington) gave a fascinating paper reconstructing the on- and off-screen work of Julienne Mathieu, who was crucial in establishing the distinctive look of early colour films by the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón. (Mathieu can be seen as a performer in Chomón’s 1908 trick film El hotel eléctrico.) Mercer’s research resonates with other recent feminist interventions in film historiography, such as the Women Film Pioneers Project and the UK-based Women’s Film and Television History Network. My own paper shared something of this approach, looking at the role played by the Hollywood star Norma Talmadge in a 1920s newspaper contest designed to launch a new British film star. The winner, Margaret Leahy, starred in the Buster Keaton comedy The Three Ages (1923), although the stellar movie career promised her never came to fruition.

Another theme uniting a number of papers was an interest in linking media and material histories. Possibly my favourite panel, ‘Queer Time and AIDS Media Archives’, showcased research being undertaken at Maynooth University by Maria Pramaggiore and Páraic Kerrigan about media and Irish queer history. Pramaggiore reflected on how oral history and archive film might help to reanimate some of the spaces connected with the gay rights movement in Ireland, such as the pioneering but now mostly forgotten Hirschfeld Centre in Dublin, which at one point hosted its own gay-friendly cinema. On the same panel, James Morrison (Claremont McKenna College) spoke thoughtfully about the phenomenon of AIDS trading cards, sold commercially in the 1990s ostensibly to raise awareness of the epidemic, which now exist as an archival oddity. Morrison also gave out packs of cards he had bought online (the pack I got included gay rights activist and film historian Vito Russo and Princess Diana).

For me, the conference raised interesting questions about the different types of media history currently being pursued – from aesthetic histories of media texts to histories of media institutions and audiences – and how these fit within the larger field of cinema and media studies. As a lecturer, the panels on women’s film history, in particular, also left me thinking about the historical narratives we pass on in our teaching. How can we correct for blind spots in the existing historiography? And how do we connect the study of media in the past to larger stories about gender, sexuality and power?