THE STORY – Building on her influential cinematic talk, Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Cinema, film director Nina Menkes takes us on an eye-opening journey through the gendered politics of shot design. Using more than 175 film clips from canonical Hollywood favorites and cult classics as well as interviews with filmmakers and scholars, Brainwashed reveals a sinister framework of misogyny and paternalism that, from early cinema to the present day, infiltrates some of our favorite movies.
THE CAST – Nina Menkes, Laura Mulvey, Joey Soloway, Julie Dash & Eliza Hittman
THE TEAM – Nina Menkes (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
By Amy Smith
Not enough has been done to encourage women to work within the film industry, and the statistics to back that up are clear. In “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” director Nina Menkes invites a group of women from different aspects of the film industry to talk about the struggles they have faced and their perception of the industry at this current moment in time. From stories of actresses being forced to perform sex scenes that were not originally in the screenplay to filmmakers struggling to find a distributor due to telling a story from the female perspective, this documentary is at its strongest when it is focused on the individual stories being told by the people who experienced them.
It is clear that Menkes had the vision of making “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” the ultimate documentary about the film industry’s perspective on women, and with that, she partially succeeds. The fact that Menkes was able to get Laura Mulvey, the film theorist that popularized the male gaze in the 1970s, to appear in the documentary and support her arguments, adds integrity to this project. Menkes also makes it apparent in the film’s opening that she is risking a lot by just having this stage performance and talking about her feelings about the film industry, saying that she is risking her career for this. The opening scene highlights the importance of what she is about to say and sets up the scene before the audience has even heard an argument or the stance.
Throughout her talk, Menkes highlights some fantastic points regarding how women are and have been represented in many films. With the statistic that over 95% of cinematographers are men, it is not a surprise that Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze still applies to most films made today. Out of all the movies mentioned and aspects of filmmaking that Menkes talked about, Margot Robbie’s example in “Bombshell” best communicated her point and highlighted the poor treatment of subject matters such as sexual harassment and how it is captured for an audience.
Another way “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” frames itself as the ultimate documentary on the subject matter is the number of topics it tries to cover around women and the film industry. This documentary, which is under two hours long, covers decades of cinema in various genres and from all over the world. It highlights the issues within the film industry itself, from the lack of opportunities and the abuse that women experience on set to the way women are represented on film both as individual characters and their sexual appeal, and the filmmaking techniques used to establish dominance for their male counterparts. With over 175 film clips shown in this runtime, the documentary would have sustained more focus if it selected a few strong examples and emphasized the interviews instead.
With so many clips and a short runtime, there are several great points in the current culture which are brought up by Menkes that quickly get pushed to the side. The discussion around Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character in the MCU is a great one to have and one that is relevant to look back and reflect on, especially when compared to her male co-stars. Unfortunately, this is only brought up as a quick example, and there is no room for a nuanced discussion. Additionally, Menkes highlights several films that could be argued do not even fit her theories, perhaps only included because of what the camera shows on the surface. Early in the documentary, a clip is shown from Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” a film that many people judged early based on the trailers for its supposed explicit nudity and sexual nature. However, it could be argued that the sexual elements in “Hustlers” are not only relevant to the adaptation of a true story that was being told but that the male gaze that viewers had for the film is precisely how the gaze would have worked in real life. Coming from a female perspective with Scafaria directing, this clip was one of several that did not fit what Menkes was trying to argue.
There is plenty of room for discussion about whether all the analysis is precise or not. However, Nina Menkes’ “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” is still a documentary that should be watched and discussed. Sure, it could have been executed better if presented in a more appealing way or focused on a particular issue within the film industry, but this is a conversation starter. The more of these we have about women’s position in Hollywood, the better.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An essential subject matter with interviews that back up the hard-hitting statistics and stories that showcase little change for women entering the film industry. Menkes brings up great examples that highlight her points about how women are represented in the media to this day.
THE BAD – The format of using a stage discussion for most of the documentary is distracting and adds nothing to the information itself. For her arguments, some of the films Menkes chooses do not fit the presented theories.
THE OSCARS –
THE FINAL SCORE – 6/10