Nina Menkes is an uncompromising filmmaker committed to a radical yet personal cinema. The combination of feminist politics and aesthetic rigor links her work to Chantal Akerman's, particularly the precise composition and framing. Menkes' bleak portraits of women are based on her explorations of women's reactions to their narrowly defined roles in society. Thematic motifs and formal patterns recur in Menkes' films, all of which feature Tinka, Nina's sister, as protagonist. Menkes' work is manipulative in a subtle, mystical way–like Maya Deren, Menkes uses cinema to create new forms and evoke new spiritual experiences. Menkes' films are challenging due to her unusually long takes and repetition of images. Viewers are asked to abandon preconceptions and expose themselves to imagery that's imbued with the power of consciousness-altering.
Menkes' career began with a 40-minute film, The Great Sadness of Zohara (l983), which follows the spiritual journey of a woman named Zohara from the streets of Jerusalem to the markets of Morocco and back again. Inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein and Mary Daly, Menkes' first feature, Magdalena Viraga is a discomfortingly complex film evoking a reality rarely depicted onscreen.
Set in seedy hotel rooms and decaying dance halls of East L.A., it's the story of an emotionally numb prostitute seeking acceptance in an oppressive world. The narrative revolves around the spiritual liberation of a prostitute, wrongly accused of murder. Menkes described the film as a “descent into the home of the 'monstrous feminine,' an journey through the vortex of unadulterated female space.” The film's longeurs reach an extreme in Magdalena, which also boasts a rigorous visual design.
Queen of Diamonds
In Queen of Diamonds, set in Las vegas' Par-a-Dice casino, the protagonist, Firdaus, is less victim and more onlooker. The film is punctuated by long takes and sparse dialogue, contrasted with Firdaus' expressive facial and body gestures. Some plot elements are suggested, but the emphasis remains on Fridaus' isolation. Within the casino, there's a cacophony of sounds and lights, poker chips, cards flashing across green tables, but outside, the lights are bright, the sand glaring white, and the sky dark blue. Night scenes bring eeriness (a dead cat and Christ upside down on a cross) and beauty (three elephants move with an amazing grace).
Said Menkes: “The difference between the two films is that in Magdalena, the oppressed woman recognizes what's going on, and she's really involved in battling against the oppressors, yet she desperately wants validation from them. Queen of Diamonds is light-years ahead of that. Firdaus has relinquished that desire; she's much less involved in that judgment. The self-hate is lifted.”
Menkes continued to explore alienation in The Bloody Child, her most powerful film to date. A meditation on violence, inspired by the real and infused with the surreal, it's loosely based on an actual incident in which a Marine was arrested for murdering his wife and burying her in the Mojave Desert. The murder represents an intersection of different kinds of violence. On the most obvious level, it's a case of homicide, but implicit in the narrative is an indictment of the mass media and the military for perpetuating violence.
Bloody Child is at once an anatomy of a specific murder and a meditation on violence, gender, and power. In most American films, violence serves as a plot point and is related to external events, whereas Menkes is interested in the “inner condition” of violence, the constellation inside individuals that causes violence. Rather than assign the blame, she is looking at the trap that links the victim, the perpetrator, and the investigator. Subtitled “An Interior of Violence,” the film examines the echoes of the shock waves that crime sets off in the lives of all those involved. Like ripples in a pond, the murder impinges on everyone. A collective portrait of damage, Menkes described the film as “a vision of hell, because the real evil goes unnamed and unrecognized.”
Menkes repeats one unsettling image: an enraged marine captain (played by Tinka) shoving the murderer's face into the bloody remains of his victim. The sequence implicates the viewers, forcing them to feel the murderous rage. Menkes explained: “It's not that there's one moment of violence and then it's contained and resolved. There's no sense of closure. The violence of the murder is ricocheting around and has nowhere to go.”
Tinka serves as Nina's alter ego, allowing the director to explore her own psyche. The powerful alchemy with Tinka may explain the intensity of Menkes's films. Is it like Cassavetes' relationship with Gena Rowlands, in which the various roles Rowlands played in his movies could be seen as one character on a single trajectory Is Tinka playing one evolving persona as she moves from one film to another
Menkes finds mainstream narrative to be as predetermined as a codified language. She quotes Angela Carter, who believes that women will be lulled by the propaganda of romantic stereotypes until they have the courage to believe in the truth of their own experience. For Menkes, that courage is the bottom line, because most people don't have access to their own experience. Menkes's fiercely personal oeuvre is marked by visual experimentation and feminist critique, along with intimate exploration of her own psyche. “My struggle as a woman and artist is to allow myself to be who I am,” Menkes said. That sounds easy, but it's not: “A lot of women are struggling with the idea of themselves as subjects.”
Menkes holds that power means “to not look in the mirror and say, 'I have a wrinkle, therefore I am less valuable.' To not internalize it.” She asserts: “Women are denigrated in our society, they're held in contempt, violence against women is rampant. As a woman, if you pick up on any of those vibrations, you will either become political, or you're going to believe there are some things not good about you.”
If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 200; paperback 2001).