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Sex Education

Sundance Institute

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022)

Important questions need meaningful debate, which means passionate advocacy, which means polemics that present carefully angled opinions as facts without balance. This isn't the system failing, it might be the system working – as long as the person getting the lecture recognizes it for what it is: One set of views to be thrown into the intellectual mulching machine, grist for the mill between your ears, to be endorsed or modified or just given the boot. Nina Menkes's documentary "Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power" describes the way images of women in film have made direct and very negative alterations to way society (meaning men) treats women in real life, and presents that topic not as a question for debate but as an established fact. Which is entirely its right, even though the correct term in this contested territory must remain "opinion," no matter how firm the assertion in the title.

Ms. Menkes is a filmmaker and speaks as someone recognizing the system's problems from within: "I didn't even know I was in prison," she tells an on-camera audience, echoing all religious converts everywhere. Using film clips to make its case, the film contrasts the way females have been framed, lighted and directed in decades of motion pictures with the way that males have been treated at the same time, and usually in the same film. Some of these are examples you might predict: Halle Berry's bikini in "Die Another Day," Jane Fonda's "Barbarella" striptease, Brian De Palma's view of Carrie White and by extension Sissy Spacek's body in "Carrie," objectification of Joi (Ana de Armas) in "Blade Runner 2049." Some are less expected, such as Ms. Menkes's dissection of the editing in Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" to show the different treatment of Robert De Niro and Cathy Moriarty. Visual language, gender-based employment discrimination and sexual abuse are presented as having a direct connection, three solid white lines connecting those three things in one of the film's early graphics.

As with many presentations in the social sciences, the lines could equally be dotted. "Extensive research over decades has shown that after watching sexually identifying media, men are more likely to engage in sexual harassment," says Ms. Menkes, a statement that comes with a citation from Psychology Of Women Quarterly but avoids a hundred questions about which men, or which media, or the other studies that have said something different. And if the film's certainty over statistics feels unwise, then its certainty about art is just depressing, closing off endless avenues of potential for the films in and of themselves. Ms. Berry's bikini was answered and countered within the James Bond series, while "Raging Bull" is specifically about the relationship between a man of violence and a woman, so detecting a troubling tone is more likely to reflect its artistry than its evil. Labeling Mr. De Palma as an actual voyeur getting his rocks off is so old hat it should only be said by a lecturer who theatrically blows the dust off her notes — Chris Dumas's book "Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible" is the text to consult for counter-arguments in detail. And as for "Blade Runner 2049," being a current rather than archive example it exists in our modern panic about the difference between a misogynist film and a misogynist character, a situation in which things the writer has blatantly put in place for you to think about are decoded as hidden proof of wickedness.

There's enough real life wickedness in the industry making the films to be going on with, as testimony here from an angry Rosanna Arquette about Harvey Weinstein makes clear. Ms. Menkes equates Mr. Weinstein with Abdellatif Kechiche making "Blue is the Warmest Color" and "Mektoub, My Love," referring to coercive methods on set and a wish for unsimulated sex scenes: "Choosing to assault somebody in the name of art, the director says he wanted authenticity. Well that's not the realm of drama." No, but it is the realm of law. Many of the societal and industrial ills being traced back to the movies by this documentary are illegal. If they are not detected and addressed and prosecuted then the police and justice system is failing in multiple ways which don't in the end have much to do with Ms. de Armas's arse. Laura Mulvey, still as sparky as ever, is in Ms. Menkes's film to discuss the male gaze, the fundamental hook of long standing on which all this hangs. Her theory wasn't uncontested even at the time, and it might be a good moment to politely contest it again. To ponder whether, as has always seemed possible while sat in a dark cinema, the one being gazed at is you.


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