Brainwashed will make you mad about the male gaze in cinema

London Film Festival: The male perspective has dominated films for over a century. In her new documentary, Nina Menkes tracks how filmmakers have long objectified women – and why that’s so harmful.

A fully nude Mena Suvari lies atop a bed of rose petals while Kevin Spacey fantasises over her, in an infamous shot from then-first-time filmmaker Sam Mendes. It’s difficult to think of any examples where boys are shot like this,” Nina Menkes says of the scene from American Beauty (1999) in Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power.

In the director’s documentary, an extension of lectures she’s given to film students at California Institute of the Arts in quasi-TED Talk style, she draws a direct link between the male gaze in cinema, gender inequality and rape culture, taken from her own experiences in the industry. This talk is built on my sadness and my struggle,” says the independent filmmaker who began teaching as a film student to pay rent.

She uses a point-by-point checklist to show how, in over a decade of cinema history, shot design is gendered. Women in film largely figure as objects, rather than subjects; 2D lighting for women while men are lit in 3D; slow motion, camera panning and fragmented shots of the female form. Where men are sexualised in film, she notes, they are performing an action, while women are most often having actions done to them.

Much of what we absorb in cinema is subliminal. But this suspended-disbelief state, Menkes says, is powerful, as we have the highest knowledge gains and shifts in attitudes when we’re being entertained. The big screen can be like shouting through a megaphone. And these power dynamics have real repercussions in the industry – for example, the meagre five per cent of women composers and cinematographers currently working.

Things are changing, though, as shown by a rotation of woman-centric clips selected by Menkes: Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, 2017’s Looking For Oum Kulthum by Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, 2019’s Selah And The Spades by Tayarisha Poe, 2004’s Or by Keren Yedaya – and Menkes’ own Queen of Diamonds, from 1991.

We spoke to the acclaimed director about the creation of the doc, and whether Hollywood is fully having the post-#MeToo reckoning it so needs.

What was the starting point of the film, and how have you found the reaction to it?

It started as small presentations that I’d give to my students. When the Harvey Weinstein story hit in 2017, I wrote an essay for Filmmaker magazine which noted how the visual language of cinema ties into this whole epidemic of sexual assault and employment discrimination as well, which I myself have experienced from day one.

And obviously, I’m not alone. It’s a huge problem for all women in the field. That article, amazingly, went viral – it became their most popular article that year. And then I was invited to Rotterdam, Sundance and the BFI to give talks. Everywhere I gave it, people mobbed me and said: Please make this into a film, we want the whole world to see it.”

So it was really not my idea, it was more like a request coming at me. And judging from the reactions to the film, it has spoken to a need that people have. Here are all these A‑list films from the last 120 years, and it hasn’t really ever been exposed in quite this way.

Was it a long, arduous process of going through clips to demonstrate the point you make in the film?

We looked at 500 clips, at least, and then got it down to under 200. Every weekend, I would search something like young girls sexualised in film” on the internet. Or I’d ask friends for recommendations. Someone came up to me in Rotterdam and said: What about Magic Mike? With the men dancing, you know, they’re sexualised in that scene.” She thought it would undercut my point. When I went back and I watched it, I was like: Oh, this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about!”

As women we’re so indoctrinated and we’ve learned that this issue of [having to be] flawlessly beautiful is something that’s very hard to shake free of”

A powerful moment in Brainwashed is when you bring your own life into it, your experiences of dating as a young woman while being a go-getting filmmaker, and suddenly feeling like you’ve gone from subject to object. What’s that been like to work through?

I don’t think I’ve fully worked through it, ever. As women we’re so indoctrinated and we’ve learned that this issue of [having to be] flawlessly beautiful is something that’s very hard to shake free of. And when you get older… I’m no longer in the young hot babe” category, you know – then you get in the invisible category! [laughs]

When I started making Brainwashed, I thought maybe the idea is that we need to integrate subject and object. But then I realised, no, that’s wrong. Just be a subject, the way men are allowed to be full-on human subjects who also have a sexual part of their life and a sexual part of who they are. It doesn’t turn them into an object, it’s just part of who they are.

We as women have so much associated sexuality with being in the object position, that it’s very difficult to shake that off.

Are there any contemporary films you think really exemplify this idea of gendered shot design?

Blonde. It wins the prize for hitting every single one of the points in Brainwashed – 2D lighting on her, 3D lighting on the guys, not her point-of-view, fragmented body parts, the slo-mo camera work. She’s completely sexualised. There’s that famous scene where Marilyn Monroe is over a grate and there’s air blowing up her skirt. They recreated it in slow motion, and they play it over and over again. It feels like it goes on for 10 minutes, her bending over and showing her butt to the world.

She has an abortion, and there’s two scenes where they did CGI inside her vagina. I thought maybe it was the point-of-view of the abortionist looking up her vagina towards her womb. But no, it was the POV of the foetus. Either way, it was not Monroe’s point of view. It’s a #MeToo movie because it’s showing how she was abused and sexualised and exploited [by the industry]. But the film abuses and sexualises and exploits her.

Another recent film, which is in Brainwashed, is Titane, where the woman is on direct display for the camera. Whose point-of-view is it? It’s the camera’s, the ultimate male gaze. You can say: Well, that was on purpose, they’re trying to make a point.” And I get it, maybe it was on purpose. But the bottom line is that we keep seeing the same things in film after film.

What about new and current directors who are doing things differently, switching up this long-running dynamic?

Eliza Hittman certainly goes against the grain on many levels. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, it’s really two women subjects. Good Luck To You, Leo Grande by Sophie Hyde is basically one long sex scene, and it’s really from the woman’s point-of-view. She’s not objectified and she’s 60 years old.

There are the people who’ve been fighting this battle and making films that go against the grain for decades, like Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust, she made it in 1991, when I also made my film Queen of Diamonds. Her film recently got a lot of attention for how women, Black women and Black communities are portrayed. But at the time that it came out, it got very little attention. Some of my all-time favourites are Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, or Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl.

Has all this research made you feel even more pissed off when you sit down to watch a film?

Well, yes, but I felt that way from the beginning. I was really aware of it for whatever reason, starting at a very young age. I was always aggravated, you know? In the documentary, we talk about the situation where the content of the film is feminist, but you still get these shot design strategies which are retrograde, like in Bombshell.

On the other hand, films like Don’t Worry Darling – that film is actually very noticeable for not using those kinds of camera techniques. The women’s bodies are not objectified, they’re not fragmented, and we tend to be primarily in Florence Pugh’s character’s point of view.

But in that film, the content has some things we could really wonder about – [like] how feminist is it? An hour and 50 minutes of the film is this Stepford Wives world, then there’s about three minutes of revenge. That’s supposed to make up for the last hours I had to watch these women cooking, cleaning and having sex on demand.

Brainwashed screens on 15th and 16th October at London Film Festival. Ticket info. It will be released in the UK in spring 2023.

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