Guest post by Joan Hawkins, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University.
“For me, cinema is sorcery,” Nina Menkes says, “a creative way to interact with the world in order to rearrange perception and expand consciousness, both the viewers’ and my own.” To begin to understand her work, it’s important to take this quote seriously. Menkes isn’t interested in simply affecting or persuading people with her art. She really is trying to effect a kind of permanent transformation in the audience. In some ways, this places her as a successor to Antonin Artaud, the Surrealist critic who once famously claimed that cinema was a kind of witchcraft. It certainly places her in relation to Bertolt Brecht. Not that Menkes herself welcomes such comparisons. As Berenice Reynaud once wrote, “Menkes does not inscribe herself in a recognizable avant-garde tradition, she has no master and no disciples, which forces her to reinvent the history of cinema in her own terms, to struggle alone with formal and conceptual issues. This loneliness — both aesthetic and economic — is also embedded in the texture of the work.” What Reynaud calls Menkes’ “loneliness” has made it difficult to see her work. She’s not often taught in classes or included in retrospectives of the American avant-garde. And in that sense she’s one of the best filmmakers whose work simply isn’t known, even by cinephiles. She is also a feminist, who confronts and expresses violence, in an unusually direct way. She controls every aspect of her work, and takes full responsibility for what we see. And what we see is simply stunning.
Menkes (1963-) began her career working in super-8. Magdalena Viraga (1986), her first 16mm feature film, about a prostitute who kills her pimp, established her as an important emerging auteur. That film, made while she was still in film school, won an award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and paved the way for more awards and grants to follow. Bloody Child (1996) uses the murder of a Marine’s wife in the California desert to mount a hallucinatory meditation on femicide and violence. And Queen of Diamonds (1991) is a demanding look at the inner life of an alienated Las Vegas Blackjack dealer.
I said earlier that Menkes controls every aspect of her production, the implication being that we need to take her seriously as an auteur. That is true. But it is also true that she sees some of her most provocative and compelling work as the product of collaboration. The fact that she sees no contradiction here is one of the hallmarks of the radical feminism of her project. For years she worked closely with her sister Tinka Menkes, who was both her actress and creative partner, and she credits Tinka for many of the key radical aspects of their work.
Menkes is a first generation American, who received two DAAD Artist in Residence in Berlin Grants (1996, 2009). During her residencies in Berlin, she was forced to come to grips with her brutal family history. Her mother’s family were German Jews, who fled Hitler’s genocide and settled in Jerusalem in 1933. Her father’s Austrian family were killed, and much of her post-1996 work deals with trauma, alienation, and the relationship between murderous violence and the State.
From February 4-11, IU Cinema — in collaboration with the Writers Guild at Bloomington — is pleased to present two films and a Jorgensen lecture by Nina Menkes, which comprise the series Nina Menkes: Cinematic Sorceress of the Self.
Dissolution (2010) will be virtually screened at 7 pm on February 4 with an introduction and post-screening Q&A with Menkes. The film is an experimental adaptation of or meditation on Dostoyevsky’s famous novel Crime and Punishment. Set in contemporary Jerusalem and shot in Jaffa, the film won the Best Drama Award at the 2010 Jerusalem International Film Festival.
On February 11 at 7 pm, Ms. Menkes will present her talk “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression” as part of the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Series. The talk has been presented at multiple high-profile venues including AFI Fest, The British Film Institute London, The Rotterdam International Film Festival, Cannes, and Sundance. It is currently being made into a feature documentary film.
A new 4k restoration of Menkes’ Queen of Diamonds will also be available to stream Feb. 4-11 in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room. Only those registered for the February 4 virtual screening of Dissolution or the February 11 Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Program with Menkes will have access to the film.
Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at IU. Her most recent book is an edited collection, William S. Burroughs Cutting Up the Century. She has written extensively on horror and the avant-garde, and regularly teaches courses on women directors and contemporary independent cinema. She has loved Nina Menkes’ work since she first happened on a Chicago screening of Bloody Child, a viewing experience that she really did find transformative.