Nina Menkes: Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022) | featured image
Nina Menkes in Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance 2022: ‘Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power’ Indicts Hollywood’s Male Gaze

In Brainwashed, Nina Menkes intersperses film clips and candid interviews to open our eyes to the myopic viewpoint present in our most cherished Hollywood films.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
Nina Menkes
20 January 2022 (Sundance)

Perception is not whimsical, but fatal.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is a crash course on the male gaze. More specifically, it explores how Hollywood-shot composition has defined the female form. Director Nina Menkes intersperses film clips and candid interviews into her collegial presentation, building a compelling case against cinema’s “propaganda for patriarchy”.

Even more damning is Hollywood’s reluctance to allow female filmmakers into the club. Though flawed, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power should open eyes to the myopic viewpoint presented in our most cherished films.

Think of Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power as the An Inconvenient Truth of cinematic impropriety. Much like Al Gore and his famous PowerPoint presentation, Nina Menkes cobbles together 175 film clips to support her thesis that Hollywood has denigrated our concept of femininity. After Wall Street saw the financial potential of early ‘talkies’ in Hollywood, female filmmakers were shoved aside in favor of their male counterparts, who created the cinematic visual language we still see today. Cis male filmmakers continue telling stories from a cis male perspective for primarily cis male viewers.

Brainwashed is a workshop in film school techniques that would be useful for cinephiles even beyond Menkes’ primary objective. Using examples dating back to Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo), moving through Scorsese (Raging Bull) to modern-day (Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria), Menkes details the mechanics of what film theorist Laura Mulvey dubbed ‘The Male Gaze’. Carefully chosen elements of shot design dictate the viewer’s visual and narrative perspective. The clips are genuinely instructive, though sometimes one wonders if they were plucked from films with complete disregard for context. Calling out shots from Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) for their objectification, for instance, seems disingenuous considering objectification is a primary theme of the film.

At the core of this perversion of the female form are two issues Hollywood continues to struggle with: inclusivity and abuse. While film schools boast a 50:50 ratio of male to female students, only nine percent of Hollywood filmmakers are female. It’s a shocking disparity that indicates systematic bias. Even worse is the abusive environment that drives female filmmakers from the business. Rosanna Arquette’s harrowing hotel encounter with Harvey Weinstein is the stuff of nightmares. Also, consider the case of actress Lara Dale, who refused to film an unscripted sex scene and has never worked in the business again. These types of horror stories make it easy to believe the unbelievable statistic that 94% of women in Hollywood report being sexually harassed or assaulted.

There’s no doubt that Menkes is doing good work here, but she also commits the egregious sin of self-aggrandizement. Showing clips from her films (Magdalena Viraga, 1986, Queen of Diamonds, 1991) to demonstrate the appropriate use of perspective feels unseemly. It’s a regrettable misstep, but it doesn’t diminish the power of her message. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power rips down Hollywood’s visual imagery to the studs. Here’s hoping a new generation of female filmmakers will rebuild it for the better.

RATING 6 / 10