Academia Nut is a new series at tdylf in which I conduct interviews (via the exciting world of email!) with various academics and accomplished writers about film, TV, and pop culture. It’s a chance to learn about movies and TV from some of the best minds in the industry. The introductory interview is with Kelli Marshall. Kelli holds a Ph.D. in the humanities (film studies and Shakespeare) from the University of Texas–Dallas. She has taught at her alma mater as well as the University of North Texas, Texas Christian University, and the University of Toledo. She currently teaches classes on Seinfeld, film and television comedy, and the works of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino at DePaul University and Columbia College Chicago. Kelli’s research fields include Shakespeare in popular culture and film musicals with a special nod to Gene Kelly. She is also a staunch advocate for social media in and outside the classroom. You can find her work at MediAcademia or follow her on Twitter at @kellimarshall.
TDYLF: Let’s start at the beginning. When you were young, which films inspired you to study the medium?
Kelli Marshall: I took my first class on William Shakespeare as a junior in college, an introductory course on the playwright’s comedies. One day early in the semester, our professor traveled out of town for a conference, leaving us alone with a cart, large-screen television, and video recorder (yeah, that’s right, kiddos; this is before built-in LCD projectors and DVDs). A departmental assistant strolled into the classroom, inserted a Blockbuster VHS tape, pressed the play button, and left. Her menial task was over, but at that moment my future career was confirmed. The TV screen was soon filled with a sun-drenched Tuscan countryside, a multi-racial cast of characters in breezy, white cotton attire, and the poetry of Shakespeare.
The film was Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. The setting was late nineteenth-century Tuscany and the performers an odd combination of British theatre actors (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) and Hollywood screen stars (Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton). This film looked nothing like those I watched in high school. You know the ones—Olivier’s Hamlet, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet—which teachers screen hastily during those seemingly endless English periods before lunch. On the contrary, Branagh’s Much Ado seemed fun, sexy, and understandable.
Since my Shakespeare class only lasted fifty minutes, we were unable to watch Much Ado about Nothing in its entirety. But I had seen enough to know that I wanted to see more and, furthermore, that I needed to figure out how to integrate this film and others like it into my profession.
KM: Here’s what I tell my students when I encourage them to use social media in class, Twitter specifically: it is useful for sharing ideas, fielding questions, revealing the ins and outs of the film (or TV) industry, getting to know people who share similar interests, studying, debating topics, enhancing your critical thinking skills, and networking with others in your field.
If students are engaging on social media in these ways, their learning experience should certainly be enhanced. Studies show, in fact, that when using Twitter, students and faculty are both highly engaged in the learning process in ways that transcend traditional classroom activities. And in some cases, students who use Twitter for class purposes earn higher grades than those who do not.
TDYLF:When students come into your classroom, what would you like them to take away? And by proxy, what can the average moviegoer do to improve their understanding of what they’re seeing?
KM: A broad answer: think carefully about what all those moving images before your faces are saying. And I reiterate this threefold when we discuss onscreen representations of race and gender. Ultimately, what I’m shooting for are responses like these, from actual students of mine:
I never realized how different men and women are treated in movies. Growing up, that is just how it has always been. So I never thought anything of it. This really opened my eyes to how different sexes are treated.
I did not realize how the majority of the movies made are created for the male audience. […] I also realized that even though movies such as Tomb Raider, Catwoman, and Charlie’s Angels feature strong, independent women in the lead roles, the female characters are still represented as sex symbols by the ways they dress and look—and that in the end, they’re made for a male (not female) audience. Overall, this section was an eye-opener to me, and I must say that I am much more aware of the situation now when I watch new movies.
Indeed, it is exceedingly gratifying to a film teacher when the students’ phrases I never realized… turn into Now I pay attention to… or I am much more aware of the situation.
TDYLF: As a southerner who studies film, you’re uniquely qualified to answer this next question. The American South has a long and fascinating history on screen. How do you see the current state of Hollywood’s view of the South (or the New South), and where do you see it going in the next few years?
KM: For the most part, it’s the same as it’s always been: stereotypical representations of white southerners as hillbillies, rednecks, racists, gun-toters, hunters, gun-lovers, conservatives, simpletons, etc. But this is more prevalent in (reality) television right now than film, I think. See, for example, Swamp People, Cajun Pawn Stars, Hillybilly Handfishing, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and Duck Dynasty (even though the Robertsons are certainly not poor). I’ve not seen Mud or The Tree of Life, both of which take place in the South, but I think they work to defy most of these stereotypes, yes?
Editor: Mud absolutely works to defy those stereotypes.
TDYLF: What is it that first drew you to Gene Kelly? When you introduce Gene Kelly to your students, which aspect of film history do you want them to learn?
KM: His ass. 🙂
In all seriousness though… I write in my post “Elation, Star Signification, and Singin’ in the Rain; or Why Gene Kelly Gets Me All Hot and Bothered” that a visceral reaction to this question is that I find Gene Kelly physically attractive. In brief, he’s hot. Second, I have an interest in Kelly that I do not with, say, Ryan Reynolds, Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Gosling, Robert Mitchum, or Clark Gable. While each actor/star may be good-looking and may perform well onscreen, none fascinates me in the way that Kelly does, which leads me to my third response. Finally, I experience such pure delight when I see Gene Kelly (and nada from few other leading men) because I am attracted to his talents—his dancing ability and choreographic skills as well as his innovations in staging and cinematography. Although a perfectionist and evidently hard-nosed on (and off) the set, Kelly is gifted, ambitious, and brilliant—and it shows.
But a more analytical response to why I am attracted to Gene Kelly should take into account what he reinforces, what he embodies, what he mirrors in life that is important to me. If that is the case, then I likely feel this way about Kelly not only because I find him physically attractive, but also because he represents a complicated form of heterosexual masculinity that is largely absent in cinema today.
Re: your second question, honestly, Gene Kelly doesn’t factor into my classes much at all, so students don’t learn a great deal about him and his contributions to cinema history from me. I throw in clips from his films every now and then to illustrate concepts and film techniques, and my introductory film students watch Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but that’s about it. If they follow me on Twitter, though, they’ll get a great deal more about him and his legacy than they bargained for. 😉
TDYLF: You seem to have a deep appreciation for slapstick comedy, especially classic slapstick. Amongst current comedic actors and actresses, who do you think best carries on that tradition, and why?
KM: I definitely like (and teach about) comedy, but I don’t know that slapstick is my favorite subgenre. That said, the first season of Real Husbands of Hollywood (2013– ) does a good job incorporating slapstick (and anarchic) comedy into its storylines. There are pratfalls, horseplay, and in one episode a pissed-off Robin Thicke morphs into a werewolf-like Terry Crews. It’s simultaneously odd and brilliant. I only wish the second season was as fun.
I also thought Melissa McCarthy overshadowed most of her Bridesmaids costars in the realm of physical comedy.
TDYLF: What sacrifice did you have to make to which evil deity or deities to get a job teaching college kids about Seinfeld and the filmography of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino?
KM: Ha. None actually. I come up with the topics, present them to the department head, and generally get a fast response of YES. I think those in charge know that classes like these not only suit the curricula of the media and cinema studies program, but they will also attract students. And that’s a good thing.
TDYLF: I’ve seen you reference severed limbs as major forms of symbolism in the past. What are some other fun symbols and their meaning that viewers can readily identify?
KM: For realz? Did I? Was I talking about Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and/or the film Titus? Otherwise, I have no idea why I’d be discussing severed limbs on Twitter!
I talk a little more about symbolism in my post “Scars and Stars.”