Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is an expansive documentary essay on the gendered nature of film language, presented, written, directed and produced by filmmaker and CalArts professor Nina Menkes (Phantom Love). Using 175 snippets of footage from scores of films, as well as interviews with filmmakers such as Joey Soloway, Julie Dash, Catherine Hardwicke and Eliza Hittman, among others, it represents a slickly assembled bricolage of imagery and rhetoric, neatly edited by Cecily Rhett, that seeks to illustrate Menkes’ “understandings about shot design and the established cinematic canon,” to quote her director’s statement.
Clearly made with the best of didactic intentions, and especially affecting when paying tribute to “original gangster” film theorist Laura Mulvey, interviewed all too briefly here, the film is founded on a simplistic, poorly argued thesis that is way out to sea, many waves of feminist film theory behind from what’s going on these days in academic circles and feminist discourse. In essence, Menkes proposes here a watered-down version of Mulvey’s ideas about the “male gaze,” a term Mulvey coined in her foundational 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mind you, Menkes dispenses with all the juicy psychoanalytic language about phallocentrism and scopophilia Mulvey retconned from Freud, a foundation much debated in the last few decades but which at least provided a solid theoretical framework at the time.
Well-intentioned, but dated and reductive.
Brainwashed has many endearing qualities, such as interesting interviewees and pretty shots of Menkes strolling down the Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, but the presence of a solid theoretical framework is not one of its virtues. Menkes takes that central, so-basic-it’s-banal notion about who does the looking in film, and who is looked at, in order to mount a critique of the quintessentially patriarchal nature of film language. Which is fine, if ultimately so reductive and lacking in nuance that the model can’t really cope with films made by women directors who don’t fit Menkes’ strictures. Cheryl Dunye’s extreme close-ups of two women making love in The Watermelon Woman (1996) gets a pass of course, but Sofia Coppola’s long held shot of Scarlett Johansson’s derriere in the opening minutes of Lost in Translation (2003) is somehow too much like the male gaze for some reason. Kathryn Bigelow earns recognition for being the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2008) but gets dinged for hiring all men to supervise the key craft contributions for that film.
The film finds its feet on more persuasive ground when it engages with the realpolitik of the film industry, addressing the innate and persistent sexism in Hollywood specifically that’s challenged and humiliated filmmakers from Rosanna Arquette to Penelope Spheeris. Fellow director and activist Maria Giese talks informatively about efforts to use Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to find a legal path to reducing discrimination against women in the industry, a topic that deserves a documentary all its own. Intimacy coordinator Ita Obrien, who worked on TV’s I May Destroy You and Normal People, also helps to move the discussion into the 21st century given how filmmakers now can make films that express a female or even non-binary gaze, the latter a particular concern of Soloway’s.
It’s frustrating that these lines of inquiry aren’t pursued fully instead of offering up yet more clips from canonical male voyeuristic fare like The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and Blow-Up (1966) so as to make the viewer ashamed of enjoying them. Brainwashed seems very concerned with policing viewer pleasure and has no time to explore the complexity of desire the way, for instance, Mulvey herself did in one of her other seminal essays, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946),” which explored female spectatorship. As that iconic musical theorist of female desire Cyndi Lauper once sang, sometimes “girls just wanna have fun.”