Nina Menkes: Cinema As Sorcery


The UCLA Film & Television Archive presents “Nina Menkes: Cinema As Sorcery”, a survey of the filmography of lauded independent filmmaker Nina Menkes.

Nina Menkes, working with her sister, muse and collaborator Tinka Menkes (featured in many of her films) created six highly personal feature films, which she directed, wrote, shot, image and sound edited. All six will show at UCLA. (February 18- March 7)

The self-taught iconoclast Menkes’ films (in Super-8, 16mm, 35mm and HD) have been featured at the Rotterdam, London, Viennale, Locarno, Sundance, San Francisco, Edinburgh, Cairo and Toronto international film festivals, and shown at La Cinematheque Francaise, The British Film Institute, the ICA in London, the Beijing Film Academy, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, and LACMA and MOCA in Los Angeles.

Menkes has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants including a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, an American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Award, a Media Arts Award from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, three Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowships, an Annenberg Foundation Independent Media Grant, and two Senior Fulbright Research Awards—one to the Middle East/North Africa, and one to India.

A DAAD Artist in Residence in Berlin Award allowed Menkes to confront her family history. Her mother’s German Jewish family fled Hitler’s genocide, her father’s Austrian Jewish family were gassed to death. Menkes’ experimental documentary “Massacre” (Massaker) about the Sabra and Shatila massacre premiered at the Berlinale in 2005 and received a FIPRESCI Award.

An MFA from the UCLA Film School, Menkes has taught directing at the USC film school, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and is currently a faculty member at CALARTS.

Menkes’ latest “Dissolution” (“Hitparkut”, 2010) Inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment, won Best Drama, Israeli Cinema at the Jerusalem International Film Fest 2010.

Set in a hypnogogic Yafo, the Arab section of Tel Aviv, Menkes’ version of Raskolnikov, an intense morose Jew known as “R” (played by Non -pro Didi Fire, languishes in his SRO. He doesn’t work, and makes end’s meet, albeit temporarily, pawning remnants of some jewelry he has acquired somehow. His suspicious pawnbroker prefers not to let him in her apartment “Pawnshop”. He owes his landlady rent. He avoids her hectoring ways, although she shows up and feeds him occasionally. In a lightly surreal sequence he sharpens his lone knife to a metronome, in order to carve up the pathetic cut of beef lung, which is all he can afford to buy from the local butcher. While pawning a watch, he robs the pawnbroker. It’s surprisingly easy, which lures him to return, murder her and ransack her treasure trove. He hangs out at a large empty tavern, taking with a hooker (Menkes’ Sonya) and a prescient policeman (Menkes’ version of Detective Porfiry.)

Against this minimalist plot, Menkes introduces a subtext of violence that seems like a “Rayogram” of the suppressed rage in the oppressed, “occupied” Arab sector of Modern Israel. The landlady and her husband are heard having a violent fight. A flower vase sails through the air and crashes on the stairs (R salvages the flowers.)  Several aerial shots from his balcony follow a mortal head-on car accident below. A jealous neighbor stabs his girlfriend who’s removed by paramedics.

Fixed camera’s and zooms increase the existential chill of R’s world. He sits in a dark cavernous bar as electronic music compete with the sparse dialogue. As in her earlier film work Menkes uses her digital camera, and single focus compositions, to portray then inner state of her characters.

Menkes’ camera lurks in the hall when R talks his way into thee pawnbroker’s place and kills her. We hear a mortal cry, a thump. By the time the handheld camera enters her bedroom we see a pool of blood. He enters, kneels on the floor and forces open her chest, sorting her valuables into silk scarves.

A flashback or dream shows the young R watching in horror as a draft horse is stoned to death and his passive father looks on.

Unlike Doestoevsky’s work, the young man doesn’t justify his murder, nor does redemption seem to figure, other than a visit to a Church. He hides the loot, sickens from guilt (as in the novel) but stops short of incriminating himself.  Like Doestesky’s work, which links the imagistic squalor of Petersburg with Raskolnikov’s fevered tormented state of mind, Menkes’ impressionistic Tel Aviv is a portrait of R’s decaying state of mind.

But miracles, or Gods’ hand seem present. Gutting a fish, R pulls out a bejeweled ring! Incrimination from above. Wandering through a church cellar he seems to discover a mysterious labyrinthine sacred zone.

Menkes’ other films study her alienated wounded feminine, portrayed by her sister Tinka. “Dissolution” is her first film featuring a male protagonist and Israeli first-time actor DidI Fire reportedly contributed to the script and the edit.

Menkes captures R in countless long shots, dwarfed by his surroundings.
Itai Marom’s cinematography, which its dense blacks, adds to the parable quality of the tale, sometimes reminding one of illustrated mid-century novels. 

Women meet the camera’s gaze and stare back. A mysterious girl, perhaps an angel, or perhaps bellicose Israel’s (and Menkes’) exiled “feminine”, leads a herd of horses down the empty street.

Nina Minks’ “Queen of Diamonds”, her most visually arresting film, contrasts washed out desert vistas surrounding Vegas, with the cacophonous din, the hallucinatory lights and mirrors of a 70’s casino.

As in ‘Dissolution” which featured a Scorpion skittering across R’s room, and the dreamlike horses, Menkes’ surreal animal shots seem like sigils from her mind’s landscape: a dead cat carcass in the moonlight, elephants swaying back and forth outside their trailer at the site of a fatal car accident as a throng of lookee-loo’s are held back by the cops.

In “Queen of Diamonds” sister Tina plays Firdaus, a blackjack dealer. Her troubled subtext is never explained. She cares for a dying old man who lives in her tacky motel. Her job becomes that of death angel but she remains impassive. A loud, fighting couple of neighbors disturb her. The enraged husband appears at her door and berates her, “She’s my fiancée. Get it? and we want some sleep.” She watches him like a TV screen. In a later scene he puts the moves on her at a bus stop, crooning  “Since I Fell for You” She doesn’t respond. Nor does she respond to the advances of a young man who strolls with her in the desert. A shot over his shoulder, as he declares his interest, shows an out of focus woman lounging like an odalisque.

They see a flaming palm tree (it seems like a biblical vision on a Gothic altarpiece). In a long hypnotic sequence (shot on fine grain 33 mil stock) they watch the distant tree. As it cools down, throwing flaming gobbets of fronds onto the ground, he leaves, she remains.

Firdaus, a sort of white-trash drifter, is so inactive she hardly reads as a protagonist in a classic sense, since she gives us little to identify with. We become voyeur. Standing in front of the epic, flashing “Wheel of Fortune”, she seems seem like a existential Dame Fortune, asking nothing, expecting nothing.

Menkes, who began as a dancer, is interested in letting the body speak. Dialogue never figures. When it does, it’s flat and buried in the soundtrack. We eavesdrop in an anthropological way. The music is also imbedded. It doesn’t move us.

Long static shots, interspersed with zooms (as in the 17 minute blackjack set piece) pick out details of Firdaus: her long painted fingernails flicking cards, the ceaseless, repetitive play of cards. We never seem to study her face, rather her experience, from a distance. Menkes creates a kitsch bedecked portrait of entropy.

Menkes attacks linear narrative. Her displacing edits, her sense of time (reportedly inspired by her time spent with a Bedouin tribe in the Sinai) all add mystery.

Firdaus eludes meaning. The narrative slides off her. None of the men she meets have their way with her (only the camera does). They seem like interruptions on her journey. There’s a wedding, and then, like Varda’s Vagabond, she hits the road.

Nina Menkes: Cinema as Sorcery: Dates & Times:

Dissolution (Israel, 2010) February 18, 2012 – 7:30 pm Billy Wilder Theater
In-person:  filmmaker Nina Menkes.
Directed by Nina Menkes
Inspired by Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment, Menkes’ most recent feature (named best Israeli dramatic film at the 2010 Jerusalem International Film Festival) concerns a desperate Israeli man who ruthlessly robs and kills a Tel Aviv pawnbroker. Shot through with remorse, he wanders the city longing for redemption, finding connection with a policeman who senses his moral vertigo. This quiet, observant film is perhaps Menkes’ most fecund exploration of mankind in microcosm.
Producer: Michael Huffington, Marek Rozenbaum, Itai Tamir. Cinematographer: Itai Marom. Editor: Nina Menkes, Didi Fire. Cast: D. Fire, Nadia Tarazi, Filina Klutchkin, Slava Bibergal, Zeynab Muchareb.
HDCam, b/w, 88 min.

The Great Sadness of Zohara (1983) and Queen of Diamonds (1991);
February 19, 2012 – 7:00 pm     Billy Wilder Theater

Queen of Diamonds (1991)
Directed by Nina Menkes
Menkes’ study of disaffected blackjack dealer Firdaus (Tinka Menkes) perfectly conveys the explosive claustrophobia of Las Vegas, where arid daytime landscapes contrast with its deceptively arid (if riotously mediated) interiors, emblematizing a mindscape in which real-world incursions such as the death of a friend are but momentary interruptions of a relentless daily grind. Queen of Diamonds stands as one of Menkes’ most visually and psychologically arresting works.
Producer/Cinematographer: Nina Menkes. Editor: Tinka Menkes, N. Menkes. Cast: T. Menkes, Irene Bowers, Jeff Douglas, Emmellda J. Beech, Kathryn Francomacaro 35mm, color, 77 min.
New print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive

The Great Sadness of Zohara (Israel/Morocco, 1983)
Directed by Nina Menkes
Shot in Israel and North Africa, the film follows a Jewish woman who leaves Jerusalem to sojourn in Arab lands. Changes to her body, and poetic suggestions of the incompatibility of two worlds, speak of the profundity of her journey, and her return. Cast: Tinka Menkes.   

Magdalena Viraga (1986) and A Soft Warrior (1981)
February 24, 2012 – 7:30 pm     Billy Wilder Theater
In-person:  filmmaker Nina Menkes.

Magdalena Viraga
Directed by Nina Menkes
Accused of murdering a john, prostitute Ida is hurled into a psychic vortex where incarceration, therapy and religion are employed to reveal her to herself but fall far short of the mark. Only solidarity with her friend Claire offers solace, as the two recite the essential details of the situation of women, to be both used and punished by men, masterfully revealing the film’s radical thesis with arresting candor.
Producer/Cinematographer/Editor: Nina Menkes. Cast: Tinka Menkes, Claire Aguilar, Victor Flores, Paul Schuler, Nora Bendich.
16mm, color, 90 min.

A Soft Warrior (1981)
Directed by Nina Menkes
One female figure comforts another who is sick or dispirited, assuming a dark aspect and offering whispered words of succor. The film is a beautifully realized ritual of compassion and identification with the suffering of another, and was produced by Nina Menkes when she was a student at UCLA. Cast: Tinka Menkes, Irene Bowers.
16mm transferred from Super 8mm, color, 11 min. Restored by Academy Film Archive. Print courtesy of Academy Film Archive.
The Bloody Child (1996) March 2, 2012 – 7:30 pm Billy Wilder Theater
In-person:  filmmaker Nina Menkes.
Directed by Nina Menkes
Revealed gradually in jarring and obtuse narrative shards, Menkes’ feature reveals a story of horror and mystery: that of a man discovered in the midst of a terrible crime, and the torpor of shock and banality that follow among the group of Marines who come across the scene. A masterful deployment of narrative bricolage, the film soberly suggests the futility of reconstructing or understanding cataclysmic events.
Producer/Cinematographer: Nina Menkes. Editor: N. Menkes, Tinka Menkes. Cast: T. Menkes, Sherry Sibley, Russ Little, Robert Mueller, Jack O’Hara. 35mm, color, 86 min.
Phantom Love (2007)     March 7, 2012 – 7:30 pm Billy Wilder Theater
In-person:  Filmmaker Nina Menkes.
Directed by Nina Menkes
“Phantom Love” presents Lulu, an alienated woman who works in a casino in Los Angeles’ Koreatown; a cacophonous space offering escape from an abusive relationship and a toxic brew of family traumas. As demands on Lulu are increased and complicated, she realizes the importance and possibility of psychic escape, as a succession of enigmatic symbols (writhing snakes and squids, galloping horses) suggest the power that lies within.
Producer: Kevin Ragsdale. Cinematographer: Chris Soos. Editor: Nina Menkes. Cast: Marina Shoif, Juliette Marquis, Yelena Apartseva, Lena Bubenechik, Adi Specktor. 35mm, b/w, 87 min.

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About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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