Brainwashing: Sex-Camera-Power is an extensive documentary essay on the gendered nature of film language, presented, written, directed and produced by filmmaker and CalArts professor Nina Menkes (ghost love). Using 175 snippets of footage from dozens of films, as well as interviews with filmmakers such as Joey Soloway, Julie Dash, Catherine Hardwicke and Eliza Hittman, among others, it represents a skillfully assembled DIY of images and rhetoric, carefully edited by Cecily Rhett, which seeks to illustrate “Menkes’ understanding of shot design and established cinematic canon”, to quote its director’s statement.
Clearly made with the best of didactic intentions, and particularly touching when it pays homage to the “original gangster” film theorist Laura Mulvey, interviewed too briefly here, the film is based on a simplistic and poorly argued thesis that is far from the sea, much vague feminist film theory behind what is happening these days in academic circles and feminist discourse. Essentially, Menkes here offers a watered-down version of Mulvey’s ideas about the “male gaze”, a term Mulvey coined in his seminal 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Mind you, Menkes dispenses with all the juicy psychoanalytic language about phallocentrism and scopophilia that Mulvey picked up from Freud, a much-debated foundation in recent decades but one that provided at least a solid theoretical framework at the time.
Well-meaning, but dated and reductive.
Brainwashing has many endearing qualities, like interesting interviewees and nice shots of Menkes strolling the Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, but the presence of a solid theoretical framework is not one of its virtues. Menkes takes this central, so basic, it’s banal notion of who is watching in film and who is being watched, in order to mount a critique of the essentially patriarchal nature of film language. Which is fine, if ultimately so reductive and devoid of nuance that the model can’t quite cope with films made by female directors who don’t match Menkes’ requirements. Cheryl Dunye’s extreme close-ups of two women having sex in watermelon woman (1996) gets a pass of course, but Sofia Coppola’s long-running shot of Scarlett Johansson‘s behind in the opening minutes of lost in translation (2003) looks too much like the male gaze for some reason. Kathryn Bigelow is credited with being the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2008) but gets rung for hiring all the men to oversee the major craft contributions to that film.
The film finds its feet on more persuasive ground when it tackles the realpolitik of the film industry, addressing the innate and persistent sexism in Hollywood in particular that challenges and humiliates filmmakers from Rosanna Arquette to Penelope Spheeris. Filmmaker and activist Maria Giese talks informatively about efforts to use Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to find a legal pathway to reduce discrimination against women in the industry, a topic that deserves a full-fledged documentary. Intimacy coordinator Ita Obrien, who worked in television I can destroy you and normal people, also helps move the discussion to the 21stst century given how filmmakers can now make films that express a feminine or even non-binary gaze, the latter of which is a particular concern for Soloway.
It’s frustrating that these investigative leads aren’t fully pursued instead of delivering even more clips of canonical male voyeuristic dishes like The lady from Shanghai (1947) and Explode (1966) in order to make the viewer ashamed to enjoy it. Brainwashing seems very concerned with controlling the viewer’s pleasure and has no time to explore the complexity of desire as, for example, Mulvey herself did in one of her other seminal essays, “After Thoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Dueling in the sun (1946)”, which explored the role of female spectator. As Cyndi Lauper, an iconic musical theorist of female desire, sang, sometimes “girls just wanna have fun.”