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BRAINWASHED: A New Look at Film History according to Nina Menkes

BRAINWASHED: A New Look at Film History according to Nina Menkes

REVIEW: Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (director: Nina Menkes, 2022) – JANA BÉBAROVÁ

Czech version of this article can be found here.

Not counting the four-hour documentary We Need To Talk About Cosby (which I’ll discuss in my next article), it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced such anxiety after watching a documentary as I did with Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, which, like the first-named title, premiered at this year’s Sundance (and like Klondike, which I wrote about in my previous text, it will be seen at the Berlinale in February). Pioneering feminist filmmaker and icon of the American independent scene, Nina Menkes, uses 175 excerpts from films selected throughout history to demonstrate how cinema contributes to the creation of flawed social norms that disadvantage women and reinforce pernicious rape culture. Caffeine-sugar-nicotine (I know) is my proven sedative triple combination that I had to apply after watching. As a standard, I also recommend an excellent dietary supplement called Neurol or try to just sleep it off, but in this case it’s best to put all thoughts and feelings on paper.

As a woman, I am naturally interested in the representation of female characters in media, and even in my classes with film school students I usually incorporate these topics into my lectures and seminars and open discussions. But it wasn’t until watching Brainwashed that it struck me (as well as very many others who saw it) how much the visual language of the film massages our brains in the wrong direction, and how the flawed construction of visual stylization and the positioning of female characters in the film’s narrative destroys women’s self-concept to a frightening degree, subconsciously fueling their self-hatred, insecurity and passivity, and how massively these patterns infect the audience with misogyny and paternalism that have become practically the widespread nature of human thought and action. And how difficult it is to explain and refute something to someone without being dismissed and labeled as a hysterical feminist. At the beginning of Brainwashed, I wondered if Nina Menkes wouldn’t get such reactions, but while watching her film, it was confirmed for me what an excellent speaker she is, and that I wish she could give a talk to my students in the Czech Republic (I’m adding Nina Menkes‘ lecture to my wish list next to Steven Soderbergh’s).

Before the screening at Sundance, Nina Menkes said that working on this documentary was a transformative and liberating process for her. „I had no idea I was in jail,“ she said. „I always tell my students that they shouldn’t make films for the audience, but for themselves. That they have to listen to their inner voice and not think of the audience when creating. They have to think about their vision and create it. But the opposite is true of this film. It was made for you.”  After all, it was during her work with film school students, that the whole story of Brainwashed was born. Even during her film studies at UCLA, Nina Menkes began teaching – first at USC and later at CalArts, where she currently works. Over the course of twenty years, she produced a lecture for her students entitled “Sex and Power; The Visual Language of Oppression ”, through which she illustrated her understanding about shot design and the established film canon. Her presentation developed over time, gradually incorporating new examples and new insights. When the #MeToo movement was born with the Harvey Weinstein case, Menkes wrote the essay „The Visual Language of Oppression: Harvey Wasn’t Working in a Vacuum“ for Filmmaker magazine in November 2017 (I recommend reading it here). There, she mentioned the key concepts of her lecture, linking the visual language of the film to sexual assault and discrimination in employment. She pointed to the principles of the Hollywood system, where „men are subjects and women are objects of glorification / consumption.“  She articulates how this became the norm of film techniques that despise women and at the same time seemingly celebrate them. And which, as she writes in the essay, is “leading women to understand that their best — and maybe only — chance for advancement is through sexual attractiveness“. Her essay went viral (it was the most widely read article in Filmmaker Magazine that year) and she received a number of invitations to present her lecture internationally. Her first public presentation in the USA took place at the Sundance Black House in January 2018 (part of the launch of Gwen Wynne’s EOS World Fund), followed by others at the AFI Fest, the BFI Film Fest in London, festivals in Rotterdam and Cannes. The feedback from the participants then encouraged Nina Menkes to make a feature film based on it.

While her original lecture included 15 films, the feature-length documentary format allowed her to expand the range of samples to 175 – mostly (and logically) from Hollywood, as it dominates worldwide distribution and thus has the greatest impact on audience perception; however, it does not exclude non-US films built around the cult of acting film beauties with perfect curves such as Jane Fonda (Barbarella) or Brigitte Bardot (Contempt). On a representative selection of works, Menkes points out how films reinforce gender inequality in creating the relationship of the subject (man) to the object (woman) – what different types of shots are used to capture the female body, which is fragmented and exhibited, sexualized through typical slow panning or slow-motion shots (which, on the other hand, are most typically used in macho action scenes for men); how, in the case of women, the way of lighting is different and does not allow actresses to age and how all these aspects are related to their narrative position in the film, which is dominantly viewed through the multiple perspectives of a cis heterosexual male at the level director-cameraman-male character (and add in male writers, producers, etc. ), which is then de facto forced on the audience. 

Nina Menkes interpolates her analytical comments with the personal observations of 23 invited film debaters, starting with film theorist Laura Mulvey, who in her influential article „Visual Pleasure and Narrative Film“ in 1975 pointed out that classic narrative film is dominated by the male gaze and pleasure of looking at the female object. Mulvey shares her frustration with the disillusionment that even after so many years, nothing has really changed. Through their experiences, Julie Dash, Joey Soloway and Eliza Hittman introduce a very important aspect of distribution, which is mostly controlled by men (just look at who heads the media conglomerates that control world distribution). In other words, it’s important to realize that it’s not just about who’s behind the camera making the film, but who decides what gets seen. This has been discussed in the past by many women filmmakers who, despite the success of their films at festivals, have not been able to find a distributor (Eliza Hittman, for example). This is naturally related to how difficult it is for women filmmakers to make their next films. This vicious circle could be discussed endlessly, as there are so many examples. As Brainwashed points out, among other things, American film schools are usually attended with 50/50 gender parity, because as long as you pour money (tuition) into the system, it’s ok, but when it comes to getting money back from the system, parity vanishes. By the way, the documentary This Changes Everything (2018), highlighted in the Q&A by one of the Brainwashed co-producers, a filmmaker and activist on behalf of women directors, Maria Giese, speaks well about gender inequality and discrimination in Hollywood (I highly recommend watching this documentary; similarly, the TV series Visible: Out on Television).

It is necessary to eradicate the absurd prejudice that women do not try hard enough and/or that there are just not enough talented women out there. They are here, and there are many of them. They just don’t have a voice. That’s why I like Sundance, whose motto is freedom of creative expression for everyone; that the festival gives space not only for women, but for all minority groups in the film industry. There is a need for diversity and the widest possible representation of characters, which the mainstream has reduced to a minimum precisely because it excludes those who are might be more able to represent them in a credible way. 

In her concentrated interpretation, Nina Menkes does not overlook the important manipulative element of film music, in the authorship of which only 5% are represented by women (a number I have been thinking about for a long time and would sincerely like to understand- why is it so low?). I don’t think I’ll ever look at the original Blade Runner (or the new one) with the same admiration – remember the scene where Deckard refuses to let Rachael out of his apartment and forcibly pushes her into a corner until his aggressive tactics of seduction succeed. The scene itself is unhealthy enough, but what is most disturbing about the role of cinematic audio is the sensually erotic music that accompanies Deckard’s physical insistence on the woman, and subliminally confirms the audience in our perverted „no means yes“ beliefs. And these are exactly the moments that destructively affect our relationships in everyday life.

In Brainwashed, Nina Menkes confides that, despite her assertiveness and confidence in her professional life, where she is used to having her job under control, she often felt trapped in her personal life because she could not reconcile the idea of herself as both active and attractive woman. As she demonstrates in a number of examples, femininity is standardly associated with passivity in films (see all those sexualized, powerless, beautiful female bodies). In her own feature films, Menkes often expresses what it’s like to be a sexualized object and carry some trauma (for example, here you can see a restored version of her award-winning film Queen of Diamonds and here for more information). In Brainwashed, she states that her lecture is based on her own grief and struggle – to which, by the way, her colleague, screenwriter Jodi Lampert, aptly replies: „But Nina, don’t you think all women feel that sadness?“

The documentary Brainwashed, which in the title sequence aptly paraphrases the effect of dizziness from the title sequence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, accurately names the reasons for our spectatorial blindness. It shows the power of films and those who make them, to brainwash us with dazzling cinema by blocking, postponing, apologizing for these ideologically problematic moments. I myself am well aware of this, for example, in film noir – a phenomenon that has fascinated me since my studies in film history. Although the American classics of the 1940s and 1950s are extremely visually intoxicating and one cannot help but fall in love with them, on the other hand, they are overwhelmed by sometimes disgusting misogyny (which director Lynne Littman famously called “ the invisible sport“ in This Changes Everything). With few exceptions, noirs limit women’s existence to only two types: 1) kind and obedient housewives, and (2) seductive beauties who demonstrate that emancipation equals characterless gold digging, which must be punished by death. Apart from the giallo, which was born out of film noir, perhaps no genre was so disrespectful and violent towards women. And that is why, like Nina Menkes, I consider it very important to put these works into context and comment. When we screened a Storm Warning (1951) ­– to my view one of the best noirs ever made ­­– at the Noir Film Festival last year, I simply couldn’t help but talk about the rape culture, which the film implies through the character of Ginger Rogers – an attractive model who, in the xenophobic milieu of the American South, becomes a despised victim not dissimilar to women on medieval witch trials.

„It is my hope that Brainwashed will help illuminate the internal and external barriers that confine our consciousness, and can initiate a conversation about the urgency of shifting entrenched ways of seeing, opening up a world where we can all be full-on Human Subjects, claiming our own perception of both ourselves and the world,” Nina Menkes explained in her director’s statement. After watching it, I can say that her film succeeds very well. Perhaps this text will help Brainwashed be seen by other people. Change is needed.

My previous, Czech written articles about this year’s Sundance can be found here.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

Director and producer: Nina Menkes
DOP: Shana Hagan
Editor: Cecily Rhett
Music: Sharon Farber
Performers: Nina Menkes, Maria Giese, Rosanna Arquette, Julie Dash, May Hong HaDuong, Catherine Hardwicke, Eliza Hittman, Laura Mulvey, Jodi Lampert, Iyabo Kwayana, Joey Soloway and others.
USA, 2022, 105 min.

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