November 13, 2017

Q and A: Kara Keeling

Read about about her teaching and writing, and what you should be watching

By Desa Philadelphia

Tell me about the classes you teach and the ideas you are trying to get across.

The basic premise of my courses as well as my scholarship is that films and other media are part of the world rather than a reflection of the world. They are not somehow something separate from the world. Thinking of them as part of the world means that we have to think of them as affecting and shaping the world, and we can consider how the world is shaping them. Thinking of them as reflections, offers a more passive sense — for example, it encourages us to allow filmmakers to get away with saying, “we’re just showing things the way they are.” Instead, I think of the cinematic arts as enmeshed in the world’s power relations, social relations, and the histories that make the world, and I engage film and media as enmeshed in those sorts of relations.

That is where I start. The question that has always interested me, then, is what kind of work is this particular film, tv show, game, or other new media product doing in the world? How does it participate in an ongoing dialogue about different things? For example, I teach a courses on gender and sexuality in media and in those classes we ask, how are these films participating in an ongoing dialogue about gender? About sexuality? Rather than say what they are reflecting about the world —- which makes it seem that there’s all this stuff going on and film and media just show it — we ask instead, “how does this participate in dialogues that are already happening when it was produced?” Approaching the study of the cinematic arts in this way opens things up and takes into consideration, for example, how people watch a film. They come with ideas already in their head and filmmakers have to craft the film in such a way that there is a dynamic engagement with things that people already carry with them. In some cases, films actually change our mind about certain things. But, more often, they simply reinscribe what we already know. In my classes, we pay attention to the interplay of the form and the content of the cinematic arts.

The ideas and examples around gender, sexuality, race are not what we would consider mainstream in terms of cinema. Do you find these are ideas your students are hearing about for the first time?

The course that I regularly teach in Dornsife for American Studies and Ethnicity is called “Exploring Ethnicity through Film.” It’s a general education course and I think a lot of the students in that course haven’t had many opportunities to think about issues of race and ethnicity in these ways. What I try to do is give them more mainstream material that might be familiar to them already, as well as independent or (less often) experimental cinema. In the GE course, I tend to teach more mainstream media because those conversations that are being staged with mainstream material are conversations that students will have some familiarity with.

In my courses for SCA, I’m likely to give them a wider range of types of materials, mainstream and a lot more independent films. Last semester, in my CTCS 412 class, Gender and Sexuality in Media, I focused on feminist cinema and media. There’s a long history of feminist experimentation with media, film and video. A lot of students are unaware of that history and only know about the debates about representation both on-screen and off-screen. Thinking about a feminist project in cinema and media studies does mean thinking about representation, what and who we see on screen as well as who has access to be able to make movies. But, it also provides an opportunity for more careful considerations of the relationships between form and content. In that class, we explored why feminist filmmakers mess around with form. Some of them do experimental work because they see a film’s form (narrative structure, style, etc.) as part of the larger social structures of sexism or misogyny. So to experiment with the form of a film or video is part of a quest to find a way for people to dismantle the structures that allow for the perpetuation of sexist or misogynistic relations.

Is that about access to or does that fall into representation?

When I say representation I am thinking of both who’s behind the camera — to me access is also about representation, that is, who is represented as filmmakers — as well as what images appear on screen. So, for me, questions of representation are connected to those of access and part of a bigger challenge around breaking up the received knowledge on what people want to see. There is a long history of feminist filmmaking that is trying to change the things that people think are worth seeing onscreen, for example, the assumption that there has to be one character who is driving all the action and point of view. Some feminist filmmakers have been interested in a different proposition, like, to give just one example, what does it mean if we can say that in a certain historical moment, many women, especially white women, were mostly at home and not out in public all the time, driving the action, as it were? Might this domestic experience also be rendered cinematically? Is there still something happening in that historical condition that might be interesting in cinematic terms, even if it’s not part of the cinematic language that we are in the habit of valuing? I take this to be the premise of a film like Chantal Ackerman’s acclaimed 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, for example.

So tell me how you became interested in film study?

I became interested in studying film when I was in college. At the time, Spike Lee had released his films, She’s Gotta Have it and Do the Right Thing, and there was a big conversation happening about black filmmaking. So there was a kind of Black film renaissance and Spike Lee was going around telling everybody you can make your own films and that type of thing. I was already interested in cultural things, art, and literature. So it was exciting to begin to see that film was making this big cultural intervention. This was in a moment when the Rodney King stuff was happening though television, on the heels of the televised spectacle of O.J. Simpson in the white SUV and the subsequent trial. These were big media moments, not just when I was in college but throughout that time period, and they offered a way to engage with issues that matter to me around race. In particular, I think my interest in studying film and other media started mostly with a racial consciousness, being able to engage with film as a way to address race relations, like Spike Lee was trying to do, or to at least get into a more meaningful conversation about it. That became really interesting to me.

You write about queer media. How do you examine queer media as part of your curriculum?

People have been making and trying to make queer and trans* media for a long time and so it has a history that we can explore in class. Now, queer characters on television shows are more common, so in class, we can trace how and where it's becoming more mainstream. We also have shows like Transparent and characters who help us with the political project of differentiating queer from trans*, and there are a variety of ways now that we have more diversity than we had, say, twenty years ago in terms of gender and sexual orientation on TV. What I’m interested in is the tension that exists between the kinds of images that have the ability to be mainstream today and the needs of the communities that supposedly are represented by that increased visibility. In terms of assessing progress, I’m always reticent to just celebrate the fact that we have made a whole lot of strides in terms of mainstream visibility, when there is still entrenched marginalization and some LGBT people remain very vulnerable to different forms of violence and exploitation and oppression. For example, trans* people talk about what it means to have this new unprecedented amount of mainstream transgender visibility at the same time as transgender people, especially transgender people of color, still are being murdered on a regular basis. The investments that have been made in representation, recognition, and visibility are not necessarily paying off for all LGBT people. So we are in a crisis phase that demands that we ask serious questions about representation and visibility and LGBT politics. I think that the classroom is one place to pose those questions with students interested in pursuing them and to begin to respond to them within the context of studying the longer history and politics of LGBT cinema and media, both mainstream and otherwise.

What media do you recommend? What do you think students should know about?

I recommend that students watch Daughters of the Dust. It gave a different and, at the time, new vision of black women. It was such an achievement for the director Julie Dash and it took her a long time to make the film because she had to do it independently. She and the cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, also worked to get the image right, dealing with the fact that film stock wasn't made for black skin, so it was an achievement in that respect as well. I think it’s also important to have a sense of African cinema in addition to African American cinema because African cinema was shaping world cinema, in a certain moment, and has been influential here in the U.S. So, I think that students need to know these films. I try to teach Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films to my graduate students when possible. My dissertation director, Marcia Landy, taught a course on Pasolini that was the best class I ever took. Pasolini was a queer Italian filmmaker. He wouldn’t have called himself queer, but today we would. He was a queer Italian man who was also Marxist. I find it interesting that many of his films that had to do with sexuality also dealt with Marxism and, in some cases, with fascism.

I enjoy showing students Queen Christina from 1933, starring Greta Garbo, who plays the queen and at one point dresses like a man because she is traveling through the countryside and she doesn’t want people to recognize her. Queen Christina was made and released just as the Hays Production Code, which forbade any depiction or inference of homosexuality on screen, was being put in place. For me watching Queen Christina is still a lot of fun.

I also think students should know about Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, which was the first feature film by a Black lesbian filmmaker to have a theatrical release. It just celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year and has held up well over time.

And, of course, everyone should watch the TV show Orphan Black.