2012 Film & History Conference

I presented at the 2012 Film & History Conference this weekend in Milwaukee, WI. It was a pretty good conference. It was international with several people from Canada and a few from Europe. There was also a nice mix of graduate students and professors, and a collections of undergrads from Texas A&M Commerce too.

I presented on a panel about sports biopics.  The panel was titled: America’s Pantheon III: Debunking (and Deconstructing) the Sports Hero Biopic and Documentary. I presented first and talked about the characters and production changes that went into Running Brave (1983) and Billy Mills advised them and helped avoid the “hollywood Indian.” The next guy talked about myth making and tropes of sports heroes in Pride of the Yankees (1942) and how some of it was important for WWII and the legacy of Lou Gehrig. The third guy did a point- counterpoint deconstruction of The Hurricane (1999) and how this mistruths cost Denzel Washington an oscar but also served a public re-writing of the facts and perceptions of Rubin Carter and his murder case. The final paper was about The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and how he was almost more of a Jewish hero than a baseball hero, and someone who changed a lot of perceptions of Jews.

Each paper was really interesting and showed how films are often created to with a social/political/historical/economic motive. We were unified in the theme of sports biopics and our deconstruction of them. What emerged where questions about how/why they recreate history. Does the truth matter? The role of feature films versus documentaries. Where does the money come from and why it matters. And much more. Because we all came from different backgrounds — me from history, 2 from film studies, and one from English/communications — we all approached it in different ways. The films studies people looked more at tropes and themes in the films, representations of gender/race, and the receptions and roles they played. The English prof and myself were more interested in questions of truth/reality and deconstruction. Out of the four of us, I was probably the most interested in how/why they filmmakers chose to portray the story and people like they did. Combined all the approaches offer a lot of ideas on how to analyze, interrogate, and place films within the research and writing process.

Since I was there, I attended a few other panels. Two of my favorite papers were about Westerns. One talked about the use and role of “drinking coffee.” I never knew it served so many purposes and was so common (e.g. social filler, guy bonding, and a symbol of domesticity and home). The second was about the portrayals and perceptions of teachers from bookish spinsters, the only respectable job for women in the West, to characters imbued with sexual identities and debates about purity.


One panel I didn’t particularly enjoy, although I am finding more useful now that I reflect on it, was a roundtable by a group of undergraduate students. They talked about their experience in a pair of classes aimed at teaching history through film. I caught about half of their roundtable. It was kind of interesting to get a student perspective but the panel was more about teaching with film, than history. They came with their film studies professor not their history professor. Personally, I would have been more interested to hear from him and about how the films contrasted with what they were reading. To be sure, they talked about it a little bit, but more in comparison with their high school teachers (because they took the class as freshman). They offered some interesting food for thought and feedback for K-12 teachers  and ways to use film, but I’m not sure how it would fit into a university classroom. I fear that I might be sounding a bit closed minded here and I don’t mean to. I missed the first half-hour to forty-five minutes of the discussion (2 hour panels). The part I caught was them talking about the films they liked and why, and what affect/aspects of the films made them more believable. They also talked about their varying high school preparation and how that affected their knowledge and analytical skills of the films. I can see ways where this last point would be helpful for me, but without having watched many of their films it was difficult for me to understand some of the more nuanced points.

The conference over all was so-so. Film & History is interdisciplinary so there’s a lot of different approaches and topics. Some of them I didn’t find all that useful/interesting, but maybe that’s because I don’t speak their “disciplinary” languages. My registration comes with a subscription to the Film & History Journal, so maybe after I read more stuff things will make better sense. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed I tweeted about my sort of “loner status.” I sat alone at the banquet (by choice) and didn’t talk to too many people. Some of that was it being the first conference I’ve attended alone, I’m also not that outgoing to new people. I get anxious, so after presenting I was timid about talking too much to other people. And, they never make the name tags big enough to read, so introductions are really awkward. Anyhow, eventually I did chat with some guys after dinner about sports and our other interests. Here I discovered we really are all pretty like minded and approach film, scholarship, and teaching in similar ways. Disciplinary borders a pretty arbitrary. It really reminded me of some of the MOOCMOOC relationships. In fact, I did mention it to them and a few found it interesting. I feel like digital humanities, those interested in digiped, and film history folks would get along pretty well.

I have my next conference in two weeks — the Midwest Popular Culture Association. I’m presenting on football coaches there and don’t plan on sticking around as long. Conferences are really expensive and I’m already feeling the crunch. Also, its hard to drop all of my other work for a few days. I need to have a super productive week to crawl out of the hole I dug myself into this weekend going to Milwaukee. At the same time, I think I learned some good lessons at Film & History to take forward. I’m not sure if I will go back next year, but I might.

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