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Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022)

| December 7, 2022

Nobody two people ever really see the same movie, despite looking at exactly the same images.  It is the fascinating mystery of the cinema’s effect on the human brain.  Our noggins are so wired into expectation but never-the-less we are all separated by experience.  We see what we want to see, and no one ever sees the same thing.

This thought kept running through my head as I watched Nina Menkes’ thought-provoking documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, a journey into the power of the male gaze throughout cinema history that has been molded by male-dominated industry that puts women’s bodies into a framework that is titalating for some and dangerous and troubling for others.  What do we see when we see images of women’s bodies as objects of desire and sexual violence?  Why are they framed that way?  What are the outward results of such images?  What permissions do they seem to give?

These are questions raised but rarely answered, it’s not the point.  Menkes’ wants to jog your brain rather than run at a conclusion.  Herself a filmmaker trying to break the mold of the male-dominated images in films that have existed since Wall Street got involved in the film industry after talking pictures suddenly needed money, she wants us to understand how and why certain images are framed for the enjoyment of a male audience but rarely with any regard for the women.  “The design is gendered,” she says, and indeed we see sex scenes in Super Fly and Straight Time in which two people engage in sex but the camera focus, caressingly, on the women’s back, breasts and buttocks.  It feels from the male point of view, and this is an image that occurs over and over.  The alternate is the man who is seen in a course of action, usually full bodied and doing something.

Menkes’ wants us to get involved in understanding that this is the norm, that 98% of all films that have sexual content frame women in just this way.  That’s largely because the film industry has been dominated by women, and very few women have been directors.  Oh, they’re here, many of them interviewed but they all admit to the hard and difficult glass ceiling that they have been unable to break.  Many who deviate from the normal patterns found themselves out of work.

Even films that have been celebrated as having been helmed by women have been affected.  The Hurt Locker, for instance is the first film to every grab a Best Director Oscar for a women, Kathryn Bigalow, but the point is made that the head of every department on that film – the editor, the composer, the cinematographer, the costume designer – was a man.  Two steps forward and two steps back.

Pulling further from the images on the screen, Menkes makes the point that such images give a permissiveness to a male-dominated culture, one in which such things as the Me Too movement have been called for.  Such images give us a sense of women as objects, framed in images of women as objects that men simply do not get.  Of course, much of what we see needs to be seen in context.  The persistent look at women’s bodies in a film like Phantom Thread is of concern but it pulls us away from what that film was really all about, that the heroine got the upper-hand by the film’s end.  

The point, at least from my perspective, is to see film from another’s eyes, to see film as a universal rather than individual experience.  It can say something to a young male that the women at the opening of Carrie are frolicking in the locker room butt-naked, but what does it say to a female audience?  What are they suppose to take from that?  We all see films differently but if we understand the on-sidedness of such discrimination, we can them share in the empathy that film is heir to.

Of course, the film is not perfect.  Menkes wants to offer a perspective, and to get us thinking on this subject, but her film lacks a narrative drive – she tends to make the same statement over and over and over, that women can’t get a toe-hold in the film industry and that film is largely interested in a male perspective.  In that way, I think this is a think piece, a film that offers a point-of-view and then invites you to decide how you feel about it.  I had a lot to think about when this movie was over.  I think that was the point.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary