‘Brainwashed’ Review: Documentary Takes an Incisive Look at Cinema’s Male Gaze

Nina Menkes’ fascinating examination of the visual language of the movies should be seen by anyone who loves or cares about film

Kino Lorber

Early in “Brainwashed,” filmmaker and cinema studies professor Nina Menkes quotes author James Baldwin when she says, “Nothing can be changed until it is fixed.” But before a broken system can be fixed, it first needs to be acknowledged. That’s Menkes’ job, and she does it so well that her lecture — which forms the basis of the movie — should be seen by everyone.

As a substitute for a Feminist Film Studies 101 class, “Brainwashed” gets the job done a lot more quickly and cheaply than if you registered for grad school. In sharing her academic talk, “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression,” Menkes gives us a base from which to understand the visual language of movies. She interviews seminal theorist Laura Mulvey, who popularized the concept of the “male gaze.” And she talks to a range of filmmakers, academics, and performers, who expand on what that concept has meant to them professionally. 

What’s most effective, though, are the many examples she shares, along with the inescapable realization that there are literally thousands of others from which she could have drawn.

She begins by explaining, in clear terms, four basic structures that help build a narrative: Subject/Object Definition, Framing, Camera Movement and Lighting. Her thesis is that men and women are consistently filmed differently, which leads to a wide range of issues both on- and off-screen.

You have surely noticed, she suggests, how often actresses are shot fully nude, and how rarely actors are. But have you taken the time to consider the power differential this solidifies? Have you also realized how often we see full male forms, compared to female body parts? How regularly the camera pans up or down a female body? How women are consistently shot to be passively looked at, while men are shot actively looking at them?

Even if you’re thinking, “Yes, of course I know all of this,” there’s a better than decent chance that you haven’t noticed any of it nearly as often as Menkes has. And because she’s made this a focus of her career, she’s also drawn some pretty damning conclusions.

So too have her thoughtful and eloquent interviewees, who include directors like Julie Dash, Joey Soloway, and Catherine Hardwicke, as well as performers like Rosanna Arquette. All of them look back at their own projects in dismay at the misogyny they felt pressured — by society or their industry — into accepting.

A decade ago, “Vertigo” was declared the Greatest Film of All Time by the hundreds of critics, programmers, and curators who participated in the British Film Institute’s prestigious “Sight and Sound” Poll. Menkes concedes how hard and even painful it is to challenge widespread opinions and beloved classics. And then she shows very clearly why “Vertigo” — and “Metropolis,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Superfly,” “Raging Bull,” “Blade Runner” and “The Breakfast Club,” among many others — all deserve new assessments, from contemporary perspectives.

She is well aware that people don’t like having longstanding icons challenged, and she’s not asking anyone to sacrifice their favorites. But she and the people she interviews also build a very strong case that the male gaze, and its ever-present impact, have deformed film and culture to such an enormous degree that they’ve simultaneously defined the norm and become virtually unnoticeable.

As the movie’s director, Menkes doesn’t bother opening up the lecture format too much. But she really doesn’t need to. She’s a compelling speaker, and the interviews and clips (hundreds of them, sharply edited by Cecily Rhett) provide enough additional material to back up her intent and keep us fully invested in learning more.

She does refer to her own films noticeably often, which inadvertently undermines her aim. It would have strengthened the movie considerably if she’d used more projects by other filmmakers that also challenge the patriarchal methodology she decries. And as is the case with virtually any academically-minded approach, there will be those who strongly disagree with some of her inclusions and omissions, while others might see some over-simplification to her streamlined assessments.

But if you’ve ever watched a classic movie and wondered why no one else seems uncomfortable with its portrayal of female characters, you’ll want to see “Brainwashed” as soon as possible. And if you haven’t — well, that may be all the more reason to seek it out.

Menkes isn’t trying to coerce anyone, or even undermine their nostalgic memories. She’s just suggesting that culture can only be improved if we approach it from a more objective — actually, make that humane — perspective.

“Brainwashed” opens in NYC and LA Oct. 21 via Kino Lorber.