“Brainwashed” director Nina Menkes connects film language to real-world sexism



TTwenty years ago, filmmaker Nina Menkes began to deliver a lecture as a member of the film faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, exploring a hypothesis she had long held instinctively but had only recently begun to flesh out in earnest. Her talk posited that the way most mainstream movies are photographed and edited — the basics of composition, lighting, framing and camera movement — is inherently sexist, and that those fundamentals of cinematic style have real-world consequences, in Hollywood and beyond.

Informed by the groundbreaking work of such theorists as Judith Butler, bell hooks and Laura Mulvey — who in the 1970s originated the concept of a “male gaze” in cinema — Menkes kept refining her talk, loading it with clips from films considered masterpieces and urging her students to look deeper than narrative structure and subject matter to how films are staged, photographed and put together. Her thesis: Virtually since its inception, filmmaking has hewed to unconscious but inviolable “laws” wherein women are routinely reduced to hyper-sexualized objects, even when they’re the protagonists of the story.

In 2017, Menkes wrote an essay for the cinema journal Filmmaker connecting the aesthetic language of film — the voyeuristic habit of cameras panning up and down female bodies; the predatory metaphor of fragmenting those bodies into close-ups of breasts, behinds or other body parts; the flattening of women’s facial images into airbrushed, lifeless masks — to the behavior of former film producer Harvey Weinstein and his fellow executives in real life. “Within this system,” Menkes wrote, “men are subjects and young women are objects for gratification/consumption.”

Menkes’s essay, titled “The Visual Language of Oppression: Harvey Wasn’t Working in a Vacuum,” became a viral sensation. And it led to Menkes’s being invited to film festivals and conferences around the world to deliver what by then had become a provocative one-woman show propelled by germinal insights, galvanizing outrage and hundreds of film clips from some of the most beloved films in the canon. In January, Menkes debuted “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” the documentary version of her lecture, at the Sundance Film Festival. (The film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, will have a special screening at Sun Cinemas in Washington on Nov. 9.)

In early October, Menkes discussed “Brainwashed” during a two-hour Zoom session. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Nina, in your introduction before the Sundance screening of “Brainwashed” in January, you said that making this film was an “act of liberation,” adding that “I didn’t even know I was in prison.” You’ve been working with this material for over 20 years, and yet this was a process of discovery for you.

A: My early films were automatically confronting that so-called male gaze way of filming intuitively, from very early [on]. And later, after three or four films, I did get introduced to Judith Butler and Laura Mulvey and bell hooks and all these great people who helped me articulate what I was feeling. And then I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to take this to my production students,” because there’s very often a split, I find. The production students never read film theory, and the film theory people generally don’t make movies. So, I was looking for clips to show my students, and that’s how the lecture developed, [and later] how the film developed. So, you’re talking about a person, myself, who is very well aware of all these issues, has made films that confront these issues, has felt on my skin the oppression of all of this. And yet sitting there for two years and reviewing 600 film clips and putting them together one after the other, was like, “Oh my God.” This poison has been sitting in my blood. It’s not that I’m completely free of it, but I’m more free of it.

Q: One of the things that “Brainwashed” illustrates is just how disorienting and even damaging the act of movie-watching can be for women, because we’re constantly asked to internalize a point of view that is often leering or mocking or reductive or violent. Do you remember the first time you experienced that disconnect as a spectator?

A: I grew up without a television. We had no TV at home. My mom was against TV. She thought it was a horrible thing. And obviously, when I grew up, there was no internet and no DVD store down the street. So I wasn’t exposed to this barrage that people are now. And, for whatever reason, I never got pleasure from those scenes. I was not the person who got pleasure and then woke up later and said, “Eew, that’s gross.” When I did see films, and it wasn’t that often, I remember seeing films with [images of] young, beautiful girls and I would dis-identify with them. They bothered me without [my] having a label for them [as sexist]. I remember having this thought that I’d better get married by the time I’m 25, because otherwise I’ll be too old. So thoughts like that I remember getting directly off the screen.

Q: For me, it was the scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that you use in “Brainwashed,” when Robert Redford’s character is about to rape Katharine Ross’s character at gunpoint, until it’s revealed that they’re already lovers. I was probably 10 years old when I saw that movie, and it totally confused me. I understood that I was supposed to find it funny and sexy, but I was also deeply uncomfortable with the latent hostility of it.

A: I remember when we found that example, because the process of hunting for clips was quite massive, obviously. And we wanted to find a sexual assault kind of scene from an A-list film, but that didn’t — and this is very on point for our whole discussion — that didn’t [trigger] people who’ve been raped.

Q: It’s also the classic cake-and-eat-it-too that Hollywood has engaged with for decades. How can we get the titillation, but with a fig leaf?

Q: Another idea you explore in “Brainwashed” is how our notions of what’s good and beautiful and of high quality cinematically have been bound up with what the men who control this art form consider good and beautiful and worth looking at. For me, as a critic, that’s been really hard to unpack. I fall into that trance along with everybody else.

A: As a film viewer and a filmmaker, I didn’t get seduced by those images. But as a person who had to go on a date with a man who I knew was looking at me like that, I couldn’t navigate it. I remember saying to my psychoanalyst [while I was] making the film that it suddenly occurred to me that when I would go out on a date, I would leave myself at home. If you think about what is allowed for a heterosexual man in our culture, they’re allowed to be full-on human subjects who are also sexual beings. They don’t turn into objects when they’re having sex; they stay subjects. But the idea that a woman would just be a full-on human subject who’s also sexual without doing that little swivel to the object position, I don’t see a lot of films where we get examples of that.

Q: To me, that’s a function not just of what’s come to be accepted as film language, but the gatekeepers saying, “That’s what I want to see.” I’ve gotten to the point where I think all mainstream cinema is fetish filmmaking. It’s all just what those guys want to see and what turns them on.

A: Are you going to segue into “Blonde” right now?

Q: Actually, I’m going to loop back. When you talk about the split, I think a lot of women feel that way — that we have to leave our authentic selves behind if we want to be loved. But there’s also an element of play. There’s a pleasure we get from looking pretty.

A: But why is that objectification? I think that’s really important to distinguish. Let’s say it’s Academy Awards night and Mr. So and So is going and he might get an award. Is he going to take a lot of time and get his best suit and maybe go have a massage [and] make sure he gets a haircut or probably even a manicure, and look as flawless as possible? I would say yes. Getting dressed up for a special occasion is not objectification. Even getting dressed up to look nice for work, that’s not objectification. Wanting to look good is a normal human thing, and men want to look good, too. I think that what’s wrong is when looking good is the number one point and the only point, and the main determining point for, like you said, love and companionship.

Q: One thing you dissect in “Brainwashed” is something I’ve long been vexed by, which is the degree to which women filmmakers have internalized these values. Let’s talk about “Hustlers,” about strippers who mastermind a credit card theft scheme. When I saw that movie, I was in that trance, where I was just blown away by Jennifer Lopez and her physicality and her mastery and her ferocious screen presence. She’s such a charismatic performer and dancer, I didn’t have the presence of mind to unpack it the way you do in your movie, so please walk me through “Hustlers.”

A: [In] “Hustlers,” we have these women who are supposedly self-empowering through their own self-objectification. But if you look at the camera in “Hustlers,” most of the shots in the strip club have the men foregrounded so that we understand that [Lopez] is being looked at. So she’s embodying to-be-looked-at-ness. Also, this film brings up something that I have noticed is a key point for a lot of people, which is: Is self-objectification empowering? Studies have shown that teenage girls and young women who self-sexualize or self-objectify have higher levels of body surveillance and body shame. It also leads them to be desensitized to the victimization of girls and women in real life, and it translates into an increased tolerance for sexual violence and harassment. Another psychological study found that the more girls consume such images, the more they will suffer from low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. So you have this incredible image of JLo, but she’s there as a sexual object. I think we just have to question why that has to be the way that women are empowered.

Q: It also exemplifies that cake-and-eat-it-too syndrome I talked about earlier. Now we have this concept of “agency” that is used as a narrative dodge, while leaving dubious sexual politics intact. I’m thinking of the movie “Red Rocket,” about a porn actor grooming a teenage girl, and the way the filmmaker gets buy-in from the audience is to have the girl make the first sexual move.

A: [Film producer] Amy Ziering calls it reversal of desire. “Lolita,” “Red Rocket,” there are so many examples where the young woman is the aggressor. What they’re trying to say is that this object, this underage person, is a subject when she’s not a subject. She’s the object of a predator, and yet they’re trying to make it okay by spinning it.

Q: Another film that engages some of these issues but lands much more ambiguously is Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick.” The protagonist isn’t a teenager, but she’s childlike. And she’s on this mission to explore her sexuality.

A: “Sharp Stick” actually starts with fragmented close-up body parts [of actress Taylour Paige], which I was like, “Really, again?” However, it does then cut, and we understand that the point of view is the sister filming her, so it a little bit mitigates it. I can say that on the level of shot design, it does not reinforce the male gaze, with the exception of that opening shot, which I’m really not sure had to be there, to be honest. Why do so many films start with that? “Lost in Translation,” “Titane,” “Sharp Stick,” the list is long.

Q: I want to get back to the fig leaves. In addition to “agency,” there’s the dodge of “commenting on.” And this is where I want to talk about “Blonde,” Andrew Dominik’s movie about Marilyn Monroe. To me, that movie is such a bad-faith exercise in a filmmaker doing the thing he’s pretending to critique.

A: Let’s look at it from the “Brainwashed” perspective. Let’s start off with point of view: Is the film from her point of view? When we’re talking about shot design, no, it isn’t. Is she objectified within the shot design? Yes, she is. The most extreme examples are the shots taken from the interior of her vagina [during an abortion]. They do it twice, first in black and white and then in color. It’s anatomically impossible for that to be from her point of view. So, okay, it’s got to be from the abortionist’s point of view.

Q: I thought it was the cervix’s point of view, because the speculum was coming toward the viewer. But maybe I’m misremembering it. Actually, I’ve been trying to block it for weeks.

A: Oh my God. It’s worse than I thought. Whoa.

Q: This gets into my own challenge unpacking pleasure. In “Brainwashed,” you use those creamy shots of Rita Hayworth in “The Lady From Shanghai” as examples of 2D versus 3D lighting, where men have crags and shadows and women look like these magazine covers. And even watching your film, while you’re critiquing it, I’m thinking, “Oh, God, she is so beautiful.” And I have the same experience watching Marilyn Monroe. So tell me, where do we put our pleasure in all of this?

A: Well, to return to something I said in “Brainwashed,” if you are a male director and you want to shoot someone’s derriere, I am not the sex police. I am not saying don’t do that. I’m just pointing out that, unfortunately, the vast majority of films we see do that. I don’t think that by itself there’s something wrong with seeing a shot of a beautiful woman. It’s just that it’s part of this tsunami of images which have created a situation where women are the only oppressed people who are a majority on planet Earth. We’re 51 percent [of the population] and we earn less, we have fewer rights, we can’t pass the ERA in this country. So this beauty thing is just loaded down with all this massive baggage that is all around it and on top of it and under it, and it’s damaging. Does that mean we can’t have beautiful women in films? No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying let’s let consciousness illuminate and see what happens.

Q: One film where I think we saw consciousness being brought to bear in a transformational way was “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” with Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack. Consent and humanism are just woven through that film in a way that feels hopeful to me.

A: Yeah. One of the incredible things about “Leo Grande” is that, basically, the whole movie’s about sex and having sex and sex scenes and she’s 60 and she’s a subject. It’s like, wow. That’s absolutely revolutionary. The fact that [ “Leo Grande”] was made and got a lot of attention is very hopeful. The fact that “Nomadland” won an Academy Award starring a 60-year-old woman and it’s her perspective — whether you like the film or not, it doesn’t really matter. It’s like, there was this 60-year-old woman in a leading role and it was her vision and feeling about life. I’m not saying you have to make a film about a 60-year-old woman, but just that it exists can also give young women, when they go to the movies, the idea that life isn’t going to end when they’re 35. Maybe it’s 45 now.

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