Filmmaker Nina Menkes has made a powerful documentary that might alter the way you look at films. In Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, Menkes discusses the pervasive objectification of women through the visual language of film, analyzing the ways in which shot design, camera movement, lighting, sound and narrative all perpetuate an imbalance of power. What makes her argument so compelling are the many examples she presents to illustrate each specific point, with clips from over 175 films. Even if one questions the connection she makes – which I think is valid – between the visual language of cinema, employment discrimination and sexual abuse, the visual evidence of the objectification of women in films is undeniable.
Narrating the film, Menkes speaks from a very personal perspective of “drowning in a vortex of visual language” which she then grounds in solid examples from films. The documentary is based on Menkes’ lecture Sex and Power, the Visual Language of Oppression, and scenes from her talks are interwoven in the film, along with her narration, clips from films ranging from 1896 to 2021, and interviews with film scholars and filmmakers. Taking off from film theorist Laura Mulvey’s term “the male gaze” (from Mulvey’s 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema), Menkes demonstrates the way that movies are made with a cis heterosexual male spectator in mind. In clip after clip, she shows the ways that women are filmed differently than men. The camera lingers over their bodies, they are filmed in fuzzy, 2D lighting that eliminates shadows and wrinkles, their bodies are fragmented in frames that reduce a person to a torso, a pair of legs.
Discussing the pervasiveness of this perspective in film and the impact on women filmmakers and actors, are a cohort of film theorists, directors, and actors, including Laura Mulvey, Eliza Hittman (Never, Sometimes, Rarely, Always), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Joey Soloway (Transparent), Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight), and Rosanna Arquette. It’s important to note that this visual language of oppression may be seen in films directed by women as well as men, and it’s not just a relic from a misogynist past. There are several clips of contemporary films by women directors that employ the visual language described by Menkes. Most striking for me was the clips from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray is seen in a close up, every wrinkle and scar visible, enriching the expressiveness of his face, while Scarlett Johansson is fragmented, with a close up on her buttocks encased in see-through underwear.
The insidiously dangerous aspect of this visual language is that when we see something everywhere, all around us, it becomes normalized. Most harrowing for me to view were the examples of a recurring narrative trope in which a woman says no to a man’s sexual overtures, he insists, and then she is shown as happily accepting and participating, usually with music cuing in the emotional shift from no to yes. It was especially disturbing to see this in scenes from films I admire, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, juxtaposed with a clip of Yale University fraternity pledges shouting outside a women’s dorm: “No means yes!”
Yet Menkes is not attacking filmmakers or their films. Her critique of the visual language is not intended to detract from the value and quality of an entire history of film. As May Hong HaDuong, Director of UCLA’s Film and Television Archive says in the film, “it’s OK to still love and see a film” yet note and be aware that it has “some issues.” Menkes calls our attention to an aspect of film we might have not noticed, an aspect so ubiquitous as to be invisible, and invites the viewer to question the pervasiveness of this visual language and its impact.
Filmmaker Nina Menkes will be present for the screening of her film at Docaviv on Thursday, June 2, 2022, and Saturday, June 4, 2022. Tickets may be ordered on the Docaviv website.
USA/2022/105 min/English with Hebrew subtitles
Director and Producer: Nina Menkes; Editing: Cecily Rhett; Cinematography: Shana Hagan, ASC; Music: Sharon Farber, Tim Disney