Under Her Spell

With a new documentary premiered at Sundance and a touring retrospective of restorations, filmmaker Nina Menkes is in the spotlight.
Caitlin Quinlan

The Bloody Child

A vast, arid desert, a noisy casino, a sun-lit motel room, a glittering dance floor in a small town dive bar: this is the world of Nina Menkes. Universal spaces made intimate and confined, these locations mark the sites of socialization for the American experimental filmmaker’s wandering, lonely characters. Mostly women, and mostly marginalized by the gaze of a dominant male world, Menkes’ ghostly souls search for community and release in these symbols of rural Americana.

With a new documentary, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022), that premiered at Sundance in January and a retrospective of her restored films hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this month, Menkes has found a fresh spotlight. Despite Brainwashed’s movement away from the filmmaker’s compelling fiction-hybrid work, the opportunity to reconnect with her oeuvre is a welcome one. Exploring gender dynamics and their interplay with sex, violence, and capitalism, Menkes operates in an explictly feminist sphere. There is something hallucinatory, even sorcerous, about her filmmaking practice which seems indebted to a lineage of witchcraft in its centering of women’s stories within a world of spectral fantasy.

Recurring formal devices populate her work: haunting voice over, ellipsis, repetitive scenes that overlap and blur narrative coherence. But it is the dark glamor of Menkes’ imagery that stands out as her directorial signature, from the thick kohl shrouding the eyes of her sister and frequent collaborator Tinka Menkes to the textures of satin or lametta, in shimmering fuschia or violet, that layer her films with hypnotic sparkle. Candles set in colored glass glow in churches, a lilac scarf complements a turquoise shoulder bag, string lights shine through silver tinsel lining the mirrored walls of a bar—there is a feminine pageantry and radiance woven into her otherwise harsh and gloomy stories, like pinpricks of starlight on a shadowy sky. It’s a style that feels similar to the work of photographer Nan Goldin and her magnetic portraits of individuals with an ethereal, lost quality. 

Raised in Berkeley, California by parents who had fled Nazi persecution in Europe as children, Menkes later attended film school at UCLA. Her work feels attached to these two halves of her familial and cinematic upbringing—there is the weirdness of Los Angeles as a city, a vision of capitalism and stardom enmeshed with a kind of occult underground sensibility, and the trauma of her family’s history as German and Austrian Jews in the 1930s and the lasting impact of such a violent oppression.

Menkes’ first four films, made between 1983 and 1996, are certainly attuned to this duality and particularly showcase her otherworldly aesthetic. In The Great Sadness of Zohara (1983), a mid-length work made after an earlier Super-8 short, haunting wails follow a young woman (played by Tinka) as she leaves her life of isolation in Jerusalem behind to wander in the desert. Menkes follows her watchful stare through crowded streets, her figure hovering on the edge of the masses. This estrangement from a community and feeling of otherness permeates the film and its successors while the visual direction introduces a ghostliness that has both an artistic beauty and references of historical trauma.

Magdalena Viraga

Tinka plays a similarly outcast and marginalized figure in Menkes’ first feature-length film, Magdalena Viraga (1986), as sex worker Ida who murders her pimp and drifts between lonely bedrooms, bars, and a prison cell. Comparisons are often made between Menkes and her more widely-recognised contemporaries, in particular Chantal Akerman, and Magdalena Viraga seems, in many ways, influenced by Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Not only are the simple plot details involving a sex worker and a death similar, but Menkes’ circular, psychological navigation of the inner life of Ida feels aligned with Akerman’s entrancing and controlled portrait of a housewife. While Akerman utilizes a critical rupture—some overcooked potatoes—to initiate Jeanne Dielman’s narrative unraveling, Menkes, as in her other films, prefers a visual shift. Repetitive scenes and images unfold to create a sense of routine turmoil and confinement to interior spaces, and then break to a moment of striking surprise. In Magdalena Viraga, this moment occurs as Ida joins a friend on the edge of a swimming pool, a new space for the film, and curved, inky black wings form above her shoulders. In The Bloody Child (1996), a black stallion provides the majestic visual severance from the routine of images concerning a soldier who has murdered his wife and attempts to bury her in the Mojave desert.

The desert is a mythic space in Zohara and The Bloody Child, and would continue to be in later film Queen of Diamonds (1991), a study of a Las Vegas croupier whose missing husband and abusive neighbor interrupt the mechanical routine of her daily work. The whirrings of the blackjack table take Menkes’ hypnotic style to a new high—hands with lavish lacquered nails deal cards with nimble ease to an orchestra of slot machine jingles and roulette wheel spins. Gamblers glow blue under the gaudy casino lights as their money and luck disappear on the table. Tinka appears here again, playing another of Menkes’ wandering misfits with what Catherine Damman in BOMB Magazine describes aptly as “a glamourous sulk.” Queen of Diamonds feels like the height of Menkes’ glamor, a film balanced on the thin line between tackiness and beauty that Las Vegas as a city has come to embody and exposing the grittier underbelly of lives lived under the bright lights. 

Space works on three levels in Menkes’ films, contrasting open space, intimate space, and spaces of the mind. Which category each location precisely fits into is unclear—the high-paced casino in Queen of Diamonds or the motel room in The Bloody Child, exploded in floral decoration, have both an intimate and imagined quality to them, while the openness of the desert becomes increasingly closed after the act of violence in the latter film, too. Space is fluid and multi-layered within the films, but repeated across them to create a milieu in which Menkes’ characters all operate. Their lonely existences play out in lonely rooms, hoping to escape the violence of the world outside and within.

Menkes turned to black and white cinematography for Phantom Love (2007), adding a noirish chic to the same kinds of motel rooms, bars, and casinos as before, and Dissolution (2010), which introduced Menkes’ first male protagonist, an Israeli Jew who lives in a mostly Arab area of Tel Aviv. Still, her directorial approach spotlights their solitariness and disillusion with the society around them. In Brainwashed, the documentary form allowed Menkes to examine her own disillusion as a filmmaker with the industry around her and its rampant sexism. Here though, an unfortunate lack of nuance or expansive thinking confined the film to a TED Talk-esque breakdown of film scenes throughout history that did little in favor of the project’s overall argument. Her catalog of past work does so much more to express the failings of a world that oppresses women and the struggles faced by those caught in its grip. 

Beyond her characters’ marginalization, Menkes has said she sees her films “as existing largely on the outskirts, in an existential sense, of contemporary cinema.” Her position, then, as an art film director who hasn’t necessarily received the same kind of attention as someone like Akerman, seems fitting. And nor do her films neatly align overall with Akerman’s or the work of predecessors such as Marguerite Duras or Catherine Breillat (perhaps Maya Deren is the closest comparison), despite some of their shared interests in the female psyche and themes of isolation. There is something unclassifiable about Menkes’ incisive style that demands your attention, even from the edge of the frame.

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