A couple of years ago, I was rearranging my bedroom. After turning 16 I was hit by a sudden need to redesign my entire being, including, but not limited to, my bedroom. I used to have a huge desk, one which claimed one quarter of the space, a lumping hunk of varnished wood. When I eventually managed to move it to one side, I noticed some small dark, bluish dots on my wall. I knelt down and began to pick away at the wallpaper, tearing the crumbling flakes away to reveal an expansive network of black mould, scattered across my wall. Evidently, I had been living with it for years. This realisation was gut- wrenching, a sensation I felt again when watching Nina Menkes’ Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is a documentary derived from lectures and research from Nina Menkes. The film investigates the male gaze, a concept coined by famous film theorist Laura Mulvey. To briefly explain the gaze, Mulvey observes the quality of pleasure in looking in cinema, or scopophilia. In cinema, this is gendered, meaning that this pleasure in looking is distinctly male, as evidenced in the ways in which women are filmed in movies.
Menkes particularly focuses on aesthetic filmmaking techniques which perpetuate Mulvey’s theory, those being subject/object, framing, camera movement, lighting and finally, the composite of the aforementioned, narrative position. It is within these methods that Menkes exposes the engrained culture of objectification and misogyny in Hollywood cinema, stripping back layers to reveal the dark mould that has been there all this time.
The film is comprised of two filmic modes, namely a recording of Menkes giving her lecture on this subject, in this case arranged for the production of Brainwashed. The rest of the film consist of multiple clips of films, mostly pieces which any film fan will know and love. Menkes plays on the danger of nostalgia, mentioned in the documentary, enticing the audience to enjoy clips from revered films before unveiling the gendered hypnosis present in each example.
Hence the title Brainwashed! This is Menkes demonstrating the integration of gendered bias into cinematic language. The section on camera movement, for example, notes the repeated use of the close-up panning shot of a woman’s body in cinema. From Carrie to The Avengers, this shot is chiselled into the cinematic commandments. In isolating this shot, in pausing and actually looking at what a shot like this achieves, Menkes shakes viewers awake. It will be a shot most viewers have seen countless times, most likely without consciously noting its existence. Menkes points it out, marking the dangers it signifies.
Another sequence picks apart a scene in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. In the scene where boxer Jake La Motta (Robert DeNiro) is leering on the young Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), Menkes notes the absence of audio when the camera is on Vickie, as opposed to the dialogue the audience can hear when seeing Jake. Of course, in the film’s diegesis, they are far away from each other. Narratively, if we are taking the shot of Vickie as point of view, this makes sense. However, Menkes then drops a bombshell revelation. In the scene, Scorsese includes shots of Vickie’s male companions, each in close proximity to her in the scene. Yet, the audience hears them talk. Vickie is silenced. Whilst the men in the scene are given action, Vickie is objectified, truly object rather than subject.
That gut- wrenching feeling, similar to the sensation of riding a roller coaster, arises many times throughout the film. It is painful to watch the flaws of much-loved films laid out in plain view. Part of my brain resisted this, as I’m sure many would. Nobody wants to admit the errors in that which they love. But it is so important to do so, especially in this case, because of the consequences.
A diagram consistently appears in the film. It is a triangle, demonstrating how gendered aesthetic choices in filmmaking lead to sexual assault and prejudice in the film industry. 94% of women in the industry have been exposed to sexual assault or harassment, a horrific statistic which, in the light of the #MeToo movement, is not actually that surprising. It is okay to still enjoy the film’s that demonstrate these gendered signifiers, but the viewer owes it to themselves to question what is put before them. It is a tough pill to swallow but to acknowledge the faults of a film is to give it the full attention both the viewer, and filmmaker, deserve. Thus, instead of letting the adopted cinematic language flow through them, the viewer should wake up from their Hollywood daydream and question what is actually being displayed, for the benefit of all involved.
Brainwashed isn’t necessarily surprising. It is commonly known that Hollywood is deeply prejudiced, hence most film students’ familiarity with Mulvey. However, I don’t think Brainwashed strives for shock factor. Instead, the purpose of this film is, as I said before, to wake the viewer up. Menkes is showing that this problem is larger than Harvey Weinstein. It is engrained in cinematic language, and thus in culture itself. The 21st century is soaked in cinema, from Spiderman rucksacks to annual Star Wars conventions. So, in pulling back the wallpaper, revealing the ecosystem of mould eating away at the language which dominates modern culture, Menkes demonstrates internal issues not just in filmmaking but in society as a whole. One can attempt to rub away the black spots but the spores run deep. Brainwashed does not give a fix but it does identify the problem. The question remains, is it too late to change?
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film and TV Editor