SPOTLIGHT February, 2022: Nina Menkes, Independent Filmmaker, Feminist Activist, Educator
“I’ve always felt that I’m a channel for my work,” says writer-director Nina Menkes. “That’s why it’s a vocation. It doesn’t really come from me in the way that things normally come from you. It’s more like, I’m a servant to the films that need to come through me.”
For those familiar with Menkes’ films—the best known among them being such vanguards of American independent cinema as Magdalena Viraga (1986), Queen of Diamonds (1990), and The Bloody Child (1996)—this pronouncement will ring true. Her work is so unlike anything that came before it or has since that it seems entirely uncommon, a feat not many filmmakers can claim to have achieved.
Film critic and historian Berenice Reynaud has said that Menkes “does not inscribe herself in a recognizable avant-garde tradition, she has no master and no disciples, which forces her to reinvent the history of cinema in her own terms, to struggle alone with formal and conceptual issues.” This solitary journey, however, has yielded not a vigilant master, but rather a reluctant sage. Menkes’ latest film, the documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival), explores the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the representation of women in cinema has contributed to our ongoing oppression, both personally and professionally.
A STUDY IN CHOREOGRAPHY FOR CAMERA
Menkes found her talent for filmmaking quite unintentionally. She started out as a dancer, and, as a teenager, had been studying in London when the boyfriend of one of her classmates was starting to make a short film. She was enraptured, practically directing the film herself.
When she got back to her hometown of Berkeley, California, her friends sent her a 16mm print of the finished project. “I watched it, and I thought it was really cool,” she says. “And I got excited about filmmaking.” She then made another dance-oriented film on her own—which she also edited, a part of the process that particularly intrigued Menkes—and thus, a calling was answered.
The accidental filmmaker, like many female filmmakers who’ve come before her, came to the craft by way of other interests. Agnès Varda has famously said that she began filmmaking without having seen many movies, her engrossment before she made La Pointe Courte (1955) being photography. Menkes shares that in common with Varda; in addition to dance and photography, she also credits her mother with inspiring a predilection for exploring her conscious and unconscious worlds.
“For me it all came together in film,” she says. “My talents in photography, my understanding of movement and sound… Another key element, I think, is that my mother was kind of a mystical person, and she had been in Jungian analysis. She always encouraged me and my sister to write down our dreams. So I was really into dream worlds. All of those things together informed my filmmaking.”
Other early influences were the writers Albert Camus, Herman Melville, and Gertrude Stein, and such surrealist painters as Frida Kahlo, Remedios Vara, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí. Though her cinematic influences were sparse, she cites seeing Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad in high school as a formative filmic experience, specifically in how Resnais approached time and space.
She continued her formal education at UCLA’s esteemed film school. “When I got to UCLA,” she says, “I felt like, I’m home. I’m home, capital H. I am home. This is me. I have my vocation, capital V. I’m a filmmaker by vocation. This is not a job, this is not a profession, this is not a skill… I mean, it’s all of those things, actually… but it’s much more than that. It’s a vocation. It’s like a calling. And I never looked back.”
THE BLOODY CHILDREN
Menkes’ first film school project marked a several-years-long collaboration with her younger sister, Tinka. The 11-minute short, A Soft Warrior, stars Tinka as Nina; the director credits coincidence for this auspicious pairing, though with one caveat.
“If you believe in coincidence, which I don’t,” she laughs, “it started as a coincidence because I had the idea… My sister had been very ill, and I wanted to make a film about her illness. Her and me and her illness.” Tinka took on the role because one of the two actresses who Nina had cast didn’t show up. The younger sister was reluctant to play herself, so she appears as Nina while another actress plays Tinka. It’s a disorienting arrangement that only adds to the short’s uncanniness.
Tinka also starred in The Great Sadness of Zohara (1983), Magdalena Viraga (1986), Queen of Diamonds (1990), and The Bloody Child (1996). It’s interesting how Menkes describes these films; while some may categorize them as being made during a high point in her career— recognizing these as masterpieces of American independent filmmaking—she talks about them as existing in a circle of Dante’s vision of Hell.
“Tinka and I went on a journey to a certain kind of underworld space,” she says. “I would call it a descent. It was a spiritual and political descent into, I would say, a very dark place, that culminated with the film The Bloody Child [the last film they made together], which has almost a suicidal energy and is extremely fragmented, formally, and extremely scary in terms of the content.”
Lest anyone be turned off from that or other films from this era of her career, it’s undeniable that each is an idiosyncratic work of art that defies categorization—and summarization, which makes it difficult to discuss them pithily. Of note in these and mostly all of Menkes’ other films is a wholly distinct visual style, which indeed seems to emerge from an unknowable astral plane.
“It just sort of happened,” she says of her aesthetic sorcery. “I had a lot of diverse talents. I had a talent for photography, and I understood sound and movement, and I had an affinity for the mysterious, for the surreal, for the unseen layers of existence.”
The films that came after those up to The Bloody Child, she says, found her moving back into the light.
These films include Phantom Love (2007) and Dissolution (2010). A 2012 profile in the New York Times elaborates on the ways these films, or at least elements of them, came to be: “The charged images in Phantom Love—a woman walking past a boa constrictor in an apartment hallway, for example—emerged while she was working with a psychic healer, in a months-long process she called ‘shamanic journeying.’ Much of Dissolution came to her while she was living in silence and isolation in a Trappist monastery in Israel.”
It might be said that Menkes’ latest film, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, is something of a departure from her earlier works. It originated not from time spent with a healer or a shaman or during a sojourn to a Trappist monastery, but in the classroom. Menkes has taught film for over 25 years, since she was a graduate student, and she’s currently a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts.
“Over the course of teaching my classes, I’d started to put together little film clip presentations for my students,” she says. “Every year I would usually do one day per semester on this presentation. And I would add and subtract film clips. People were generally kind of blown away when I would show them… even people who had read Laura Mulvey, Teresa de Lauretis, Judith Butler. Somehow when you show it with a concrete image, it makes more sense, and it kind of comes to life in a real way.” Upon being invited to give a master class in Berlin, Menkes opted instead to give this lecture rather than talk about her own career.
The presentation would eventually become a full-fledged oratory titled Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression, for which Menkes began garnering acclaim around the time Harvey Weinstein’s heinous crimes against women were exposed. In a poignant 2017 essay for Filmmaker magazine, Menkes wrote that ”[a]n entire culture of visual language supports and encourages this system, justifying both the perpetrators’ actions and the victims’ humiliated silence. It is essential that this visual code of oppression be exposed and understood.”
Brainwashed endeavors to do just that, and, in my estimation, succeeds. Fellow AWFJ contributor Marilyn Ferdinand aptly notes in her review that “[t]he knowledge that took me years of study and practice to acquire is now available to anyone who watches Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” hinting at the longevity the documentary may attain as a valuable resource tool for filmmakers and audiences alike.
“The image that we’re presented in cinema, generally… is this kind of beautiful, young, fabulous woman, who’s, shall we say, friendly and fuckable,” says Menkes. “The obscure image of desire of the woman, whether it’s Last Year in Marienbad or Vertigo.” She continues: “This is what Brainwashed, of course, is all about. It’s this image of the woman as sexual object, to make a long story short.”
RECOGNIZING THE MALE GAZE
Menkes uses Resnais’ film, which she generally admires, as an example of what she later realized to be a marked example of this objectification. “That film was shown to us in my high school class… and I remember being blown away by the film,” she says. “And what I didn’t remember until I rewatched it for Brainwashed is that it has wall-to-wall [voiceover] of this man who’s talking about this woman he’s obsessed with. She never gets to have any [voiceover]. She never gets to say anything except, ‘Laisse-moi, laisse-moi… leave me alone.’ But when she says ‘leave me alone,’ it sounds more like ‘ravish me.’”
“I totally forgot about that. When I rewatched it, I was like holy shit. I just blocked that part out. So it was a combination of blocking that part out, really appreciating the film for its cinematic qualities in terms of editing, use of space, mise-en-scène, all of that, and at the same time, that film affected me negatively by making me think that I had to be that woman, saying ‘Laisse-moi, laisse-moi,’ and not being able to be a human being and be a sexual being.”
This sort of identification, rise to consciousness, is at the heart of Menkes’ film, which seeks not to “cancel” any of the movies she discusses, but rather bring to light the unconscious ways that they objectify women, further normalizing that behavior in society. I told Menkes that I’d already begun noticing things she discusses in her lecture, even for the better; when recently rewatching The Power of the Dog, I observed how director Jane Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner shoot Kirsten Dunst in a three-dimensional way that allows for the real texture of her face to be displayed on screen. Menkes points out in her lecture how men are shot three-dimensionally in films, the rough landscapes of their faces and bodies adding to more fully realized characterizations, while women are often shot in two-dimension, with soft focus and lighting that make us look more like angels than human beings.
In contrast to her other films, Brainwashed is decidedly more accessible. “That was a very, very conscious and overt decision,” she says. “This film is not made for museums and cinematheques and one week at the Nuart. This film is made for a wide audience. I want to reach a wide audience with this message. I worked very closely with the editor, Cecily Rhett, who did a brilliant job, and the composer, Sharon Farber … [and] we worked very hard to make sure it was not an esoteric, academic-only kind of film. We wanted it to be made for a wide audience, and so that’s what it is, and that’s what it was supposed to be.”
Particularly poignant about the film is how Menkes discusses the impact these images have had on her personally, not just professionally (though it’s noted in the documentary that the film industry is the worst offender of sex discrimination in the United States, more so even than coal mining). It’s a tragic tale of the split self, of a struggle between being strong and respectable or vulnerable and loveable.
“Somebody said, ‘You took Laura Mulvey into real life,’” she says. “It’s not like, well, you know, let’s look at this film, and it’s very patriarchal, but I’m fine, I’m strong, I’m okay, it didn’t ever impact me. No, wrong. It did impact me… [a]nd I think it’s really the center of the whole film, the way that this creates personal problems for women.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Nina Menkes is a trailblazer of American independent cinema and a crucial voice in our current reckoning with the ways film—both as an industry and an art form—treats women. More importantly, few living filmmakers have created work so virtually unprecedented in its stark originality. Her oeuvre is ripe for rediscovery. — Kathleen Sachs