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Thread: THE BLOODY CHILD (1996): A Film Conceived by Tinka and Nina Menkes

  1. #1
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    THE BLOODY CHILD (1996): A Film Conceived by Tinka and Nina Menkes

    It's ironic that a filmmaker as far from commercial cinema as Nina Menkes (born 1963) is based in Los Angeles. Her films boast the type of fragmented, reticent narrative that is an antithesis to what's produced in Hollywood. It's refreshing that such an experimental director hails from a place where “formula” is often the operative word.

    The four film collaborations between Nina and her sister Tinka are "conceived", as their opening titles state, not scripted (none has writing credits). These films are allowed to breathe at every step of the creative process rather than follow a rigidly enforced blueprint. They often seem simultaneously conjured through intuition and carefully thought out. The films of Tinka and Nina Menkes have a unique authorial imprint that demands and deserves to be explored. Typically the films are "conceived and edited" by both Nina and Tinka, who plays the protagonist in every film (two roles in The Bloody Child). Nina directs, produces, and shoots the films. She oversees every aspect of production including the films' often intricate sound design.

    The Bloody Child (1996) is by far the most critically scrutinized Menkes film (and the only one available on DVD). It's based on a real incident in which two military cops found a marine, just back from the Gulf War, digging a hole in the Mojave Desert at dawn. His wife's corpse was found in the backseat of his car. The man's arrest is shown in great detail, with the authenticity of documentary. However, the temporal order gets broken in the editing room and rearranged in a predominantly reverse chronology. Certain views are repeated like the chorus of a song or a poem's refrain. A highly dramatic recurring image is that of a cop who grabs the killer by the hair and thrusts his face into his wife’s bloody corpse bellowing with rage: "Do you see what you’ve fucking done!? How does that smell, uh? You better start fucking cooperating!" We never see a frontal shot of the killer's face and the murder itself is elided. Thus, violence is not exploited in order to provide the genre payoffs of a thriller. A view of the killer washing the blood off his hands and forearms, from a respectable distance, is the closest we get to the actual murder or to the perpetrator. In a Menkes film, the mind of an individual killer is unimportant next to the totality of cultural influences surrounding his killing.

    How does Tinka Menkes figure into this scenario? She plays the marine Captain in charge of the arrest, a woman who has carved a place for herself in the military hierarchy. The Captain is depicted as a figure who commands respect from the male marines because of her rank and authority while remaining isolated from their informal social network. Their chit chat at the arrest site and at a bar where they unwind associates the murder with the Gulf War and traditional notions of masculinity.

    The Bloody Child includes an alternative realm, set in northern Africa, which Nina Menkes imbues with a dream-like, surrealist quality. In this alternative modality, Tinka plays a fragmented character or one under many guises. Her first incarnation is that of a nude woman covered in sand who comes to a clearing in the jungle, lies down and traces letters in her arms. Is "female-in-Africa" the Captain's subconscious made manifest? Perhaps she is the spectral presence of that facet of the female psyche ravaged psychologically by patriarchal stricture. This notion provides thematic and ideological unity to the four films by Tinka and Nina Menkes. These characterological associations are possible because ofy Tinka's constant, compelling presence and her iconic performance style. Another guise of the female-in-Africa is a sullen woman with heavy makeup wearing the suit of a harlequin. The traditional multicolored suit of the theatrical buffoon is replaced by a black and white one worn by a woman who never smiles. She's a gravely silent witness to Third World misery.

    The title of the film makes direct reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth. The nobleman visits the witches to learn his fate and they conjure three apparitions or spirits. One of them is "the bloody child". The views of the corpse of the young, murdered wife link her to the titular child. She's seen alive once: a mirror reflection in which she play-acts (like a child would) wearing a princess costume. She doesn't speak in the scene but we hear her internal ruminations, mostly excerpted from theatrical texts like Macbeth. Thus this voice is attributable to the young wife. Or more accurately, to her disembodied spirit, hovering around and releasing her energy in malicious form, like the witches in Macbeth.

    The African footage and the literary references provide a poetic and mythological counterpoint to the central story. Do these imported components enhance the film or merely serve as a respite from the American horrors? Granted, not every African image and literary utterance signifies as intended. But generally, they are essential to the film's conception of violence as timeless, pervasive and contagious, like an ancient poison that seeps through every nook and cranny of human existence.

    The realistic locale of the marine's arrest and the alternative, dream-like realm merge when a beautiful black horse appears as if by magic and improbably trots around the crime scene. It's reminiscent of the hen that turns up in an upscale restaurant in Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour. A brilliant surrealistic touch that connects the industrial-military and the natural worlds and unifies the film’s scattered representational fragments. One hopes that The Bloody Child's availability on DVD (released by Facets Video) will provide some deserved exposure to the filmmakers and create interest in their other works.

    *This is an excerpt from a long essay titled "The Films of Tinka and Nina Menkes", written for a course in Orphan and Experimental Film.

  2. #2
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    Many thanks for that.
    Will definitely look for it.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  3. #3
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    I appreciate your post a lot. I just "discovered" Menkes and she's been around since the 1980s. She came to my attention because she was a member of the Jury at the last MIFF. I wish I could post my whole essay here. The screen captures I included would definitely generate interest from members and make the piece more fun to read. Menkes is a major talent and an absolutely original artist.

  4. #4
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    Yeah, we're kind of limited here. Screen captures always enhance the reviews. Good stills never hurt anybody...
    You don't want to write reams and reams of stuff because nobody would be interested. It's hard to pair something down when you know it's good, no?
    Never seen a film by Menkes.
    But I'm very interested now..

    I'll be sending you a roll of photos as soon as I figure out how to attach them to e-mail.
    I'm not a wizard on this internet technology but I'm slowly getting the hang of it.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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