Girls on film: Nina Menkes’ Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (KVIFF 2022)

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Karlovy Vary 2022: It might be a catchy Duran Duran number but it’s also a bit of a problem, that is, the way they appear. Picture the scene! The camera pans slowly, lingering over the contours of a female figure, disrobed, in recline. She is woman, naturally prone, the object of the male subject’s gaze and accompanying desire. Even our favourite directors are at it – Scott, Kubrick (yes, Kubrick!) – putting women in their place, frame by frame. Nina Menkes’s documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022), shown this month at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, blows the lid on a whole point of view, in a language we can all understand – the language of moving pictures.

How deep is your patriarchy? As deep as your love, or rather what you think you love! The patriarchy lodged inside us, sharp-eyed humans all, be it the filmmaker who watches his (most likely!) work unfold, or the spectator who consumes each pre-digested bite of entertainment. I wonder, should I even be writing about gendered movie power? I am, after all, the (not so proud) owner of a male gaze myself, a point of view certainly slanted by masculinist, patriarchal social conditioning.

Full disclosure then: I am a man – or so I like to think. I want and am bound to address the politics of gender all the same. The effects of male-centrism illustrate the workings of power and the harm it can do. In this regard, we should all take heed of the peculiarly insidious effects of films – yes, our beloved films! More than this, we should, if humanly possible, ‘fight the power,’ not by rejecting film (God forbid!) or even ‘cancelling’ specific films – or filmmakers – we have loved, but by renewing their critical appraisal, to reconsider how to do better – men and women (and any other conceivable genders betwixt and beyond) alike.

‘Ways of seeing’ (as shown by John Berger’s work of the same name from 1972) are not neutral. We do not passively receive information from a fixed reality ‘out there.’ Nor do we leave that ‘reality’ untouched as we constitute and reconstitute it in our mind’s eye, and then share those perceptions with others. At their worst, ways of seeing are weaponised, creating the most sinister instruments of torture, and building the most perfectly invisible prison walls. The images flickering across our screens might seem ephemeral, but they can have concrete outcomes for real live people in all their flesh and blood. Women devalued as human beings may be more readily assaulted, less readily hired. Not all images are benign; some are hostile.

It becomes easier to see where the hostility lies and what it does when we unpack filmmaking as a process, when we pick apart and compare the visualisations of men and women. Menkes does this brilliantly. Take lighting for example. We see several shots of men pictured in three-dimensional light, casting shadows across their faces and forms, lending depth and a well-defined spatial context. We can then compare this with the flat, more indeterminate light typically reserved for females, rendering them more two-dimensional, riven from any clear context, disembodied. Hence a man is seen in his place in the world, an active agent, situated in his zone of operations. By contrast, the woman is rendered inert, passive, and all the more objectified (as in reduced to her physical form) for having been riven from any identifiable social context.

«The Watermelon Woman» (1996).
«The Watermelon Woman» (1996).

Then comes the question of what exactly is pictured. Shots of women regularly break the body down into its component parts, lingering on specific areas of sexual interest. Menkes shows us plenty of examples. Their very banality illustrates their ubiquity, their tired conventionality. Men’s bodies are also pictured, nowadays with greater frequency we suspect, but usually in a quite different way.

When the camera pictures the male stripped to the waist, for example, it hardly lingers, for that camera operates on behalf of a notional male viewer. To linger would be to betray immediate homoerotic connotations, such is the implicit heteronormativity of the customary cinematic gaze. Here the body is portrayed more neutrally, less invasively, as a vehicle in motion, engaging in movement and action, most likely some form of fight or flight. The man as ever is the active subject, in stark contrast to the woman as passive object.

Then add audio – or not! For women, the body-focus may well be further accentuated by soundlessness. Hence, we regularly watch women talking without hearing what they have to say. Menkes argues persuasively that film – soundless or otherwise – acts as a kind of social amplifier. It helps normalise and re-perpetuate, among other things, an existing tendency for women to be routinely ignored.

A great virtue of Menkes’s approach is that she doesn’t content herself with simply exposing customary ways of seeing. She seeks to transcend them, to push the cultural envelope and show us there are real cinematic alternatives if we dare to adopt a different point of view. We consider, for example, the innovative camerawork of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman from 1996. Here, in a lovemaking scene, Dunye uses the visuals to accentuate an impression of pure sensation. This is achieved by use of unconventional ‘extra-close-up’ shots.

Another example, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), is worth emphasising because, apart from being a marvellous film, its narrative creates an ingenious context for interrogating and problematising the act of looking. Set in late 18th-century France, the lesbian relationship between aristocrat and artist develops, as it must, in secret. Their relationship is one of asymmetry and yet mutual disempowerment, packed into the complex portrait-making process of looking and being seen. Here the inherent reversible mutuality of observer and observed is highlighted through the romantic tension of their beleaguered yet burgeoning relationship.

«Portrait of a Lady on Fire» (2019).
«Portrait of a Lady on Fire» (2019).

It shouldn’t be necessary to exclude everything hetero in order to escape the male gaze, though it undoubtedly helps. Tomasz Wiński’s Borders of Love (2022), which won the FIPRESCI prize at KVIFF, employs a rollercoaster of fast-cutting and close-ups to capture the raw experience of a sexual encounter, which just happens to be heterosexual: the excitement and even a little confusion. This was especially well suited to the story of a couple experimenting by mutual consent with extra-marital sexual partners. The visual narrative thus successfully eludes the tired proprietorial eroticism of a laddish point of view. This beautifully made and acted film nevertheless raises another gender-power problem, beyond the ambit of Menkes’s interrogation, which should give us pause for thought.

As the title perhaps suggests, the film is about a couple, Petr and Hans, deciding to push their sexual boundaries. They deliberately embark on an adventure ‘together’ to introduce other partners into ‘the bedroom’ (not always literally). It isn’t long before this sparks tensions and jealousies, culminating in Petr’s pressure on her sceptical partner to join a polyamorous union with two other couples. This is tricky social-emotional territory to say the least. Protagonists and filmmaker alike are up against some hardy social conventions and taboos.

Visually, the film handles the tricky subject-matter perfectly, avoiding a male-centric slant, and succeeding in highlighting the emotional journey rather than the freakshow attraction of objects in sexual motion. And yet, surprisingly, the film’s subtlety and balance ultimately break down at the narrative level. In important respects the narrative fails to emulate the admirable lightness of touch of the cinematography. A kind of message – the moral of the story if you will – even seems to emerge from the emotional carnage of the film’s dramatic dénouement.

As Petr resorts to deception in pursuing repeated sexual encounters with one preferred partner, Hans’s confusion and resentment mounts. In the meantime, we become increasingly focused on his emotional journey: his sadness and loneliness. At this point, the spectator is encouraged, by narrative as well as camera focus, to identify with Hans especially in an emerging conflict with Petr. Then, when he meets another in a bar, who fulfils the cliché of being attracted to any man who is obviously sad, he takes a sexual and emotional step of his own, one that proves to be a bridge to far.

When Hans finally confronts Petr, his words are telling, not just in the context of the story, but in reflecting an implicit narrator position, a point of view with pretty clear moral overtones. He eulogises – quite cruelly under the circumstances – his new ‘conquest’ (my word) as something so pure, in contrast to the tarnished relationship he is about to leave. He continues to confess that he wouldn’t be able to make love to Petr anymore without imagining her with all those other men: the coup de grace. In other words, your adventures have now rendered you, by contrast, impure, and therefore, to quote the late great Leonard Cohen, ‘nobody’s wife.’

«Borders of Love» (2022).
«Borders of Love» (2022).

He may not use any of the prohibited (in polite society) misogynist terms like ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ but they lurk like the ghost of macho past in the patriarchal subtext. The film avoids explicit preaching but falls into it implicitly through its master narrative and adoptive narrator. It preaches by implication bourgeois values and, worst of all, a double standard for men and women, whose outcome, if not intention, borders on misogyny.

It is worth lingering over Borders of Love, in particular, because it highlights the complex character of sexual politics as it dovetails with the complex character of film. A point of view can be a literal visualisation but also a more metaphorical picture of the social order in the eye of the filmmaker and, if he (in this case) pulls us into his imagined world, the eye of the beholder.

It is one thing to place cinematography in the broader context of visual storytelling. It is quite another to place it in a broader social context. It is telling that one of Menkes’s earliest and best examples of an alternative viewpoint is provided by what many would regard as a highly problematic historical narrative of the Atlantic slave trade. This is the American blockbuster from 1975, Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo. Here the owner of the objectifying gaze is the privileged white woman in relation to her commodified male property. The cross-cutting power dynamics, or intersectionality, here are unmistakable. They remind us that the ravages of capitalist class dynamics and racism will also play a part in the construction of a point of view.

Aside from such contextual considerations, gender is further complicated by the strictures of a heteronormative order and its resistance. This was nicely illustrated by the worthy winner of the FIPRESCI Proxima prize at KVIFF, Tomáš Bojar and Adéla Komrzý’s compelling observational documentary, Art Talent Show (2022). The mysterious workings and difficulties of art and its aesthetics are tellingly illustrated by its setting in the institutional hierarchy of art school, beautifully visualised in classic fly-on-the-wall style. Broader and in a way more telling questions of culture come to the fore at the same time. The self-expressions of teachers and students take form not only in the work under evaluation but in the constitution and performance of their own identities. The passive, neutral point-of-view, in this regard, creates a sort of tabula rasa in this regard, in all its potentialities and dangers. Many of the artists, both established and aspiring, present themselves in a way that is self-consciously and even flamboyantly queer.

Meanwhile, the doorkeepers sit in quiet judgement. One expresses outright hostility – bordering on hatred – to a confidante (captured on film) about one ‘creep’ and his genderbending outfits. The social matrix is here evoked, but to what effect? I, as one spectator, was concerned about the implicitly hostile on-screen exposure of the two women’s bigotry. Others with whom I discussed the film were more concerned that the cross-dressing artists were likely to be viewed in a negative light. Had I overestimated the spectator? To some, perhaps, the comments would only provide a confirmation and amplification of their own bigotry. The uncertain effects of the portrayals cannot detract at any rate from the veracity and good faith of filmmaking, which takes care to observe minutely, warts and all, but resists the temptation to facile judgements.

«Art Talent Show» (2022).
«Art Talent Show» (2022).

Menkes’s work highlights – and could have further developed – the double quality to the notion of the object. Menkes emphasises the grammatical sense: the (male) subject is the active part in a statement, its mover, the (female) object only its passive receptacle. Objectivity is nevertheless more than this, as Menkes’s own examples continually remind us. Reduction to a passive, powerless state is one part of the power dynamic. A reduction to a diminishing materiality is another, to emphasise body over mind or soul, to reduce someone to a sexual plaything who otherwise might have been considered an active, loving human being. Moreover, the dynamics of Borders of Love and Art Talent Show reveal that objectification is just one part of gender oppression. Another we ignore at our cost is the way films and their consumers may visualise the actions of others as transgression, as the abominations of slut or creep, thereby invoking puerile tropes of bourgeois conventionality.

It might seem churlish to criticise Menkes for what she left out, considering the wealth of telling analysis and examples to match that she managed to include. It is nevertheless a backhanded complement to the strength of her work to consider the rich possibilities raised and hence questions left unanswered: the places this work might lead where we have yet to venture. One potential line of ‘what’s missing’ criticism I would like to lay to rest, however, that examples are selected to suit the analysis, thereby overstating her case. I don’t find this terribly compelling, on empirical – albeit intuitive grounds. Perhaps this can best be stated in the form of a question to those who watch the documentary: Do the examples used not resonate in all their familiarity, with the accumulated knowledge we have as film lovers of conventions and methods we have ourselves seen time and again? I think we know with some reliability that these are far from being isolated examples.

What is passed over a little quickly by Brainwashed is something so very important, so very difficult, so very central to all of us as human beings and yet too often discretely avoided: desire, as well as its various negations, be it fear or loathing or disgust. Desire represents the central problem of politics in a way. It crops up the moment someone says, ‘I can’t help how I feel.’ It ends in the cynical invocation of an inviolate human nature prohibiting their genuine emancipation. New ‘rules of attraction’ can be developed.

There will be no socially progressive, emancipatory reprogramming unless we bring desire and its qualities and workings into the open. We can at any rate thank Menkes for making a significant contribution to that important project.

Brainwashed? It is not as though some fiendish miscreant has unluckily washed away the benign perspicacity of our otherwise perfect brains. They are perpetually washed in the sometimes regrettably filthy tides of the social order, which forms – for good or ill – our via medium. To cry ‘brainwash’ can thus be a lament as well as a call to action. ‘Get your mind out of the gutter!’ they used to say. Most of our brains are in need of a good wash with a proper attention to its motors, such as they are, of mutual love and respect.

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