“Bloody Femininity: A Visceral Point of View” by Julia Tinneny
Nina Menkes’s Crazy Bloody Female Center (2000) is a Labyrinth Project that uses database narration to create a digitally interactive story-set, spanning multiple previous films and projects of Menkes’s. This project is accessible via CD-ROM. Because the software is nearly two decades old, my colleagues and I accessed the CR-ROM via emulator on a Mac.
Viewsers are introduced to the database story with a text that reads, “This is the story of a woman haunted by circling images trapped in violence / She asks you to enter her experience and search for release” (Figure 1 and Figure 2). The text itself is an accurately ambiguous representation of the database’s exercise in storytelling and viewership, prompting questions such as: What is the viewser’s responsibility? Who is the woman? What does release look like and can we help? Or are we just voyeurs, deriving pleasure from her pain? Are we here only to enter her experience and view her search for release? Finally, what are we being asked to do and what does the technology allow us to do?
Menkes stylizes and story-tells to depict an interior world while placing a character within an external one. She does the former by using voiceover narration and close-ups to achieve internal focalizations (Figure 3), and the latter in longshots of the landscape where the characters are difficult to locate (Figure 4), perhaps alluding to a real or imagined perception of the world’s external value on the character. Within the stories is a certain nuanced depiction of femininity: not illustrated and imagined to be pink/cute and not cast under a male gaze to be sexy/pornographic. It is a dark and bloody femininity, in which perhaps the images aren’t necessarily “imagined,” but a regretfully unforeseen realistic distortion within male-dominated mainstream film media.
Within Crazy Bloody Female Center, as in all of Menkes’s work, the body is political. What does this mean? It is a site of oppression, it is a vehicle of labor (sex work), it exists as part of an economy (service industry), it is limited by the law (we hear a woman read her Miranda Rights), it is marked by religion and the nation (depicted in hints of war and navigating territory), it performs certain roles (the caretaker/satisfying the male’s presence regardless of how detached). The body’s power and constraint are depicted in life, death (or near-death), and sometimes its power/constraint is in generating harm or even in just keeping the body itself alive.
One technique Menkes employs is diegetic (and non-diegetic) mantras. It is difficult to know if these are internal, external, flashbacks or in real-time. The mantras on loop allow insight into the character’s thoughts, feelings, consciousness and perceptions to an audience that may be having a difficult time following a story. Other times the audio is the most effective tool to locate a character in a scene, locating a character within the story. For example, there is a clip of a woman who is asked if she understands her rights, so we understand this woman has run into trouble with the law, which we wouldn’t know by the image alone. In this scene, the male who is speaking to her is not pictured, in it, he tells us she’s in trouble, not the character herself). This subtle act of him telling instead of her could imply the power roles determined in speech acts of those in positions of power.
What does interactivity do/what is interactivity’s role?
In this story, interactivity doesn’t ask us to be responsible for the character, nor does it allow us to vote, escape, or pull her out. In this way, the experience is representative of the isolation that the viewsers witness. No one can help the character “escape.” Instead, our only agency is to go deeper, to try to understand what she is showing us, and to further explore the stories within them… and to do so again, and again.
The CD-ROM’s interactivity grants certain freedom to a viewser, viewsers enter her experience as deeply as they are willing to. Clicking on small graphics drives the piece in the absence of a “full story,” which is presumably what an observer would be looking to string together. Within this database format is a shift from other cinematic viewings of these films (because of course, the films that compose this can be seen on their own). The viewser is mobile in some ways and constrained in others. This cohesively prompts emotional insight (and even cognitive response) into the constraint of the bodies we see and what they can enact, as well as their agency/freedom.
relating to course texts:
Toni Dove describes that with a “responsive interface,” the operational body allows for an experience of a character to be embodied (Dove, Toni. “The Space Between: Telepresence, Re-animation, and the Re-casting of the Invisible” 210). She describes this in contrast to the traditional viewer or “physically passive” voyeur (Dove 210). Menkes’s work complicates this a bit, not only because Dove’s analysis references her own work, which is built to be within a responsive interface, but because Menkes’s emotionally provocative films were screened for passive voyeurs.
I’d argue that within Menkes’s Crazy Bloody Female Center Labyrinth Project, the viewser is still a voyeur, but the responsive interface connects and invests the voyeur in for a unique experience, if only slightly different from Dove’s. However, it does evoke resemblance to Dove’s concept of a viewer being “stuck” to a character: Crazy Bloody’s physical act of clicking, with the cognitive recognition of a landscape changing as a click’s result, does evolve a viewer’s connection to the story (although not character) through its response to their actions (Dove 210).
In participating with this piece, I was reminded of Toni Dove. I experienced a transition within my role. Towards the beginning, I was a viewer, but through my clicking journey, I became a “viewser.” I took on a skeleton of what Dove describes being “stuck” (I’m not sure if this was exactly being “stuck” to a character or just a very invested and disturbed voyeur). After mechanically clicking and emotionally investing in the story, by the time I first saw the miscarriage scene, I audibly responded. My response was visceral, as if I was in a haunted house, watching someone else be haunted, instead of myself being scared.
As I conclude, some of my final questions are my first questions. They relate to Dove and the uncanny. Who is the woman who is searching for release? Is this just Menkes? Or is it metaphorical for any woman with trauma? Is something gendered about actually experiencing this piece? Is there a pre-condition of trauma in accessing this work?
group Dynamic, SoundCloud audio, and presentation
Viewing this project was an important group activity for me. While navigating Crazy Bloody Female Center, my peers, Mary and Yuanbo and I asked each other questions: How do we navigate? Or, what just flew across the screen? In response to the images, we asked each other questions about years/nationality/politics. Our responses were individual and unique to our experiences (where we are from, what year we were born, our perceptions of an image and why it surprises or strikes us).
In our presentation activity, we wanted to give classmates a chance to try to piece these stories together with limited context, but with the collaboration of one another. This tactile activity gave some metaphor towards the relationship of the archive the works were founded in.
In this conversation, three women are responding to the darkness of femininity. We discuss war and a bloody body depicted on screen, we touch on this image’s reminiscence to current images we see of bloody bodies, specifically state of American police brutality and the war on black bodies. Mary shared memories of war pre-9/11 and the cultural politics surrounding the military. Yuanbo describes her perception of the military and China’s narration as an international actor. The film, in asking us to follow the woman what she’s seeing pushed us to share an intimate conversation: we asked questions, admitted to the individual’s consciousness failure to uphold public memory. Navigating this project prompted a conversation among three women: to figure out what happened to this body, or to consider other bodies and the politics affecting them. This social response makes sense in response to a deeply feminine piece — I don’t mean deeply feminine hyperbolically, but to describe Menkes’s bloody femininity, that is femininity that straddles internal and external, in which we are struck and compelled to understand the experience.
“The Crazy Bloody Female Center: Hovering around the Cinematic Palace of Feminine Psyche” by Yuanbo Qiao
The Crazy Bloody Female Center(2000) is an interactive movie directed by Nina Menkes, and it converges five pieces of footage from her past films: A Soft Warrior(1981), The Great Sadness of Zohara(1983), Magdelena Viraga(1986), Queen of Diamonds(1991) and The Bloody Child(1997). All of the above films feature the same main actress– Nina’s sister Tinka Menkes, and this creates an amazing narrative circle in their re-cut version in The Crazy Bloody Female Center. The interactive movie functions like a web page, while its settings and footage build a palace of traumatized women that encouraging the viewers to experience their desperation and to recognize feminine psyche in their shoes.
After viewing Nina Menkes’ The Crazy Bloody Female Center (2000) for the first time by myself, I felt dazzling and taxing because of its non-linear narrative structure and multiple variations of the narrative layers. On the second day, I got the precious chance to watch it with my talented group members: Mary and Julia. It was an enjoyable experience, and thanks for their timely reflection and valuable discussion, I managed to explore the film from a whole new perspective. Even if we have acquainted with the basic operations to interact with the film, we still shared the feeling of obsessed with information and tired of filling out the blank Menkes leaves us.
When I watched the film alone, I was impressed by Menkes’ spatial design and construction, and how it collaborates with the exploration of the female protagonists’ inner world. The film begins in a black and white photograph of a grand theater in a “panorama” scale, accompanied by an unknown woman’s voice-over, whispering the title around my neck. A yellow rhombus symbol replaces the mouse on the screen. A click brings me closer to the still image of the stage in a “close-up” shot, and I felt myself being absorbed into the scene, sitting in the middle of the first row. One more click on the curtain opens it up, and the colored film starts right on the stage. It reminds me of Toni Dove’s concept of “telepresence” that Menkes builds a palace and allows the views to navigate in the visual space and embodied in the screen. I participated in the discovery of the plot and served as an implied character. There were flowers, butterflies, and twinkling stars showing up around the stage, and they led me to different stories or a brand-new frame structure. Although the traumatized footage still keeps me in all kinds of feminine sufferings, a sense of relief and hope rises when I witnessed these surpass of the frame.
If we juxtapose the opening credits with Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), it’s interesting that their settings are alike, but they create almost opposite effects. In Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, the scene declares that cinema is nothing but a trick, full of fake and harmless illusions. And the spectators would never identify themselves with Uncle Josh, but to view it in an advanced modern perspective. While in The Crazy Bloody Female Center, Menkes dedicates to imply a concept that cinema is not only an experience in a theater but also a real space that the audience could dive into. By emphasizing the existence of the theater, the audience is aware of their position by this self-reflexive apparatus, which challenges the common sense of “what is cinema.” The viewers seem to be fixed on the seats of this dark cinema, like a cave or a prison, stressing on their imaginative presence. Only the ends of the story would bring them to an open sea, referring to death and rebirth. As for the narration, Menkes deliberately betrays the conventional editing methods that aim at reducing the trace of camera movements and the frame. She uses the presence of cinema and non-linear configurations to directly address the audience’s attention to the reality, to the unavoidable pain and invisible sorrow in feminine psyche.
The viewing experience with my group members altered my concentration on the plot. When we tried to figure out what is happening in the story, we found that we were using our specific and historical perspectives to approach the material. Like Lev Manovich’s conclusion on the relationship between objective and identification of interactive links, our psychological process of the same sequences and parameters varied. And it occurs to me that Toni Dove’s three spaces (narrative interior space, social space, and physical space) weave within individuals and in a broader scope of generation, nationality, and culture.
Critics said that Menkes’s film managed to work within a very low budget, and “when lacking financial resources, the most precious thing a filmmaker can offer the audience is his/her own body.”[i] I believe that is why we sense the presence of feminine body and psyche so boldly in her film. To conclude, I fully admire her construction of this cinematic palace and it is “an almost vertiginous exploration of sexual malaise and oppression.”[ii]
[i] Berenice Reynaud. translated by Thomas Meyer. Les Cahiers du Cinema, 1996.4. Online resource: http://ninamenkes.com/wp-content/uploads/1996/04/BC_cahiersCine0496.pdf
[ii] Holly Wills. “Crazy Bloody Female Center: The Cinema of Nina Menkes”, Senses of Cinema, 2002.10. Online resource: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/nina-menkes-experimental/menkes_willis/