Where to begin with Nina Menkes

A beginner’s path through the alienated Americana of cinematic sorceress Nina Menkes.

Magdalena Viraga (1986)

Why this might not seem so easy  

American independent filmmaker Nina Menkes has always operated outside of the mainstream. In her work as writer, editor and director, she’s cast her unique gaze on troubled souls, people at the forgotten fringes of society and the failed odysseys they undertake. Her experimental, low-budget films focus on the lived experience of women and the problematic dynamics of power that run their worlds.

So often in film history, men have had the honour of portraying drifters, cowboys and lonely souls. In Menkes’ cinematic world, women also get to be the nomads, failures, survivors. Her films defy comparison – sometimes, even to one another – but like the works of another independent feminist filmmaker, Chantal Akerman, they make you acutely sensitive to the unfolding passage of time. This can be hypnotic or maddening, but it’s always visually enchanting. 

Nina Menkes

A self-described witch, Menkes channels her sorcery to create worlds that feel both true to reality but also like dream states. They incorporate found texts, eerie voiceovers and unflinchingly long takes that adhere to atmosphere rather than plot point or logic. Her films speak in the language of silence, where the absence of words is even more powerful for drawing attention to the voicelessness that many women feel.

Menkes has balanced her filmmaking with teaching as a film professor at institutes including CalArts and USC, which has made her film output understandably sporadic. There was almost a decade-long gap between 1996’s The Bloody Child and 2005’s co-directed feature Massacre. There’s also the issue of availability. Menkes’ body of work has sadly gone largely undetected to audiences outside of the film festival circuit. Her films have been difficult to find online or to watch outside of the US, despite recognition by critics and festival juries.

Thankfully – with a retrospective of her work in the UK, the release of her latest film, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, and the arrival of a new US Blu-ray box set – that’s starting to change.

The best place to start – Queen of Diamonds 

For a sumptuous dive headfirst into Menkes’ world of bewitching loners and haunted desert highways, Queen of Diamonds (1991) is the first port of call. Restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation in 2012, it stars her sister and loyal collaborator Tinka Menkes as an alienated and nameless blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas that is more heatstruck ennui than carefree Sin City.

Queen of Diamonds (1991)

Beneath the roar of the dizzying neon lights and among the repetitive whir of slot machines, we witness the thankless female labour that greases the wheels of this hedonistic adult playground. With an alabaster white face and red lacquered nails, our protagonist is like the Phantom of the Casino. One scene uses an intensely long take on Tinka’s croupier as she works, situating us alongside her in the gruelling banality of shift work, where time can feel endless. This is her purgatory, and we have no choice but to be chained to her world; her hypnotic liminal space.

Queen of Diamonds has all of the characteristic touches of a Menkes film: feminist critique; spiritual decay, loneliness and dislocation set against a visually gorgeous backdrop; time as something that changes shape; the weight of the past on the present, and the heaviness of silence.

What to watch next 

The Great Sadness of Zohara (1983)

Her first film, The Great Sadness of Zohara (1983) is a short (at 38 minutes) and spooky initial exploration of Menkes’ characteristic style and themes. Tinka here plays an Orthodox Jewish woman/punk outsider on a mysterious pilgrimage in Israel, looking to connect to her past in an electric blue buzzcut and club-kid eyeliner. The old world versus the new. This unnamed woman never speaks as she wanders around labyrinth streets and ancient ruins, the only sounds being the bustle of the market where she stands out among the locals like an alien from another world, or the soundtrack of the whistling wind accompanied by disembodied female voices, poetic and disturbing. The shadow of history – personal and collective – looms large.

Continuing in this vein, Menkes’ first feature film, Magdalena Viraga (1986), fuses found texts from the likes of Anne Sexton and Gertrude Stein to weave together the tale of a sex worker (again played by Tinka) accused of murder. Magdalena Viraga plays with time through flashbacks situated across bars and bedrooms and the prison cell. Here, sex and power are transactional entities, both with the ability to render the female body simultaneously exposed and invisible.

In The Bloody Child (1996) Menkes again uses nonlinear time as a device to portray the confinement of gender roles in Gulf War-era America, whether female victim, male aggressor or male ‘saviour’. Tinka stars as the marine sergeant investigating the brutal case of a marine who has allegedly murdered his wife. It juxtaposes fragments of events leading up to the crime with the grim interrogation of the suspect, culminating in a visceral meditation on the ambiguity of violence.

The Bloody Child (1996)

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022) is the latest in Menkes’ oeuvre, and also the most different. Veering from her portraits of alienation, it is instead a galvanising cine-essay call-to-arms, adapted from the 2018 illustrated lectures ‘Sex and Power, the Visual Language of Oppression’ that she gave at Cannes and Sundance film festivals, among other places. Menkes takes on film theorist Laura Mulvey’s influential male gaze theory – explained in Mulvey’s 1973 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ and every film studies lecture hereafter – and expands it to present a history of the pervasive sexism of cinema, from how shots are set up to discrimination in hiring behind the scenes.

Although it stands apart from her other films, using archival clips and talking head interviews with other female critics and filmmakers, this cine-essay allows Menkes to express her political and personal stance as a filmmaker, reinforcing the notion of her own films as spaces where the women gaze defiantly back.

Where not to start

Although Dissolution (Hitparkut, 2010) is a searing look at masculinity, in its bleak monochrome Dostoevsky-inspired vision of a Jewish man’s guilt and redemption in contemporary Tel Aviv, it lacks the dreamy neon-soaked images and female character study that is Menkes at her most recognisable. One to come back to and savour after devouring her female-quest films first.

Cinematic Sorceress: The Films of Nina Menkes runs at BFI Southbank in May 2023 and on BFI Player.

Nina Menkes will appear in conversation at BFI Southbank following a preview screening of Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power on 10 May.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 12 May.

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