Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Independent experimental filmmaker Nina Menkes has earned a name for herself through several attention-getting festival films, most notably Magdalena Viraga and Queen of Diamonds. Her general theme is the exploitation of women in the modern world. Most of Menkes' work features her actress sister Tinka Menkes in the lead role, as both a character and a symbol. The earlier pictures don't tell a story as much as they paint a specific state of existence for each of the women involved. They are very definitely feminist Art Films, the kind that attract filmmaking grants and win awards from progressively minded film critics.
1996's The Bloody Child has even less of a narrative than Menkes' previous efforts. It was inspired by a true murder incident on a Marine Corps base in the early 1990s. Military policemen arrested a Marine trying to bury his wife's body out in the desert. Ms. Menkes uses that event as the jumping-off point for a visual collage presumably intended to criticize the military mindset.
I say presumably because The Bloody Child is determined to remain stubbornly obscure. Its 85 minutes are divided between the arrest of the murderous Marine and various 'scenes' occurring before the day of the killing. We see a number of military vehicles parked on a service road. The prisoner (Robert Mueller) is handcuffed in a car. MPs mill about talking about the arrest or just chatting; we can't tell because most of the soundtrack is muffled. In non-linear intercuts, a military policeman screams profanities at the prisoner, jamming his face into the bloody body of his victim, lying on the back seat of the car. Other cutaways show cryptic earlier views of the prisoner and his child-like wife (Sherry Sibley) in their quarters. She dresses before a mirror while he drinks beer and watches the television. Almost all of the voices are unintelligible. We frequently hear what sounds like a small child whimpering.
One of the soldiers in charge at the arrest scene is an officer played by Tinka Menkes. In some of the flashbacks, she seems to be having an affair with the soldier under arrest. Ms. Menkes 'inhabits' the character well in that she affects convincing military poses. In many scene-shots, she simply stares blankly past the camera.
The Bloody Child alternates between these mostly static one-angle scenes, adding more overtly fantastic material along the way. We are shown a clearing in the scrub brush where a nude child-woman (most likely Tinka again) reclines amid the dead leaves. She stares at the ground as the camera circles. She appears to be covered in dry mud, like Rae Dawn Chong as the prehistoric woman in Jean-Jacque Annaud's Quest for Fire. There are also numerous cuts to an after-hours Marine Corps bar where corpsmen drink, play pool and talk dirty, although it is again hard to make out what they say. One Marine dances suggestively before a row of amused, seated women.
In other footage, Tinka Menkes is seen in a completely different persona, traveling in Morocco and praying in some kind of religious service. Reaching for specific meanings is probably not a productive activity in films of this sort, but the main idea communicated is that Tinka's character is meant to be a 'spirit of woman' unbound by the temporalities of a narrative. At one point a beautiful black horse appears on the road and approaches the arrest scene. This introduces a promising and unexpected element, until we realize that nothing will happen. If the horse is a symbol its significance goes for naught.
Quite early in the film we realize that the main scene in the desert has been arranged in an odd time sequence. Several military police vehicles are gathered around the arrest scene. Then we see just a few, and then the rest of the cars and an ambulance arrive. This happens several times in different takes from only slightly altered angles, leading us to think that Ms. Menkes simply re-staged the same realistic action and then jumbled the time sequence. The effect is similar to watching unedited dailies.
The Bloody Child begins with some murky shots of the actual off-road arrest of the Marine. Two Military Policemen simply walk up and lead him away. The film concludes with a more elaborate assemblage of the same action, shot both before dawn and in broad daylight. The fractured takes are again arranged in reverse order; we start with the man stumbling off screen in handcuffs, and eventually work our way backwards in time to the moment he's discovered digging a shallow grave. Again, it all seems an exercise in obscurantism. 1
Facets' DVD of The Bloody Child is a very good transfer of some sharply photographed material; the telephoto deep-focus images at the crime scene have a crisp, desert feel. Specific atmospheres -- the noisy Marine bar, a tidy but grim apartment -- are well rendered but the movie will be a tiresome affair to those uninitiated into the Nina Menkes filmmaking cult. The movie would be entirely incoherent without an external explanation of the crime that inspired its making. That said, it must be added that few independent/experimental films are screened without full de-briefings from the filmmakers.
An interview extra and the liner notes allow Nina Menkes to state her personal interpretation of The Bloody Child as a scathing criticism of the Marine Corps mentality, something only vaguely communicated in the film itself. She quotes the obscene and hateful lyrics to Marine marching cadences as evidence of an inhuman and misogynistic military culture. The film's poetic images don't begin to address these issues, if such was intended.
Another extra is an audio interview Nina recorded of some young Marines talking about their experiences under fire in Iraq. The young men are coarse and boastful and express plenty of personal sentiments that will not please anti-war advocates. But they also voice a range of attitudes and opinions that counters the shallow notion that the Corps is populated only with like-thinking automatons. We don't get many chances to hear combat Marines speaking off the record, so this is a welcome extra.
A final extra is a still gallery with many images of the visually interesting Tinka Menkes. It also includes a newspaper clipping referring to the original crime. The disc cover graphic shows Tinka riding the (symbolic?) black horse, something that does not happen in the film itself.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bloody Child rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with the director, Photo gallery, audio only interview with Iraq veterans, Liner notes insert booklet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 24, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. note 3.08.07: An article in today's LA Times reviews Nina Menkes' new film, calling it more accessible than her earlier pictures. An adjoining piece on the director tells us that in The Bloody Child, the Tinka Menkes military policewoman empathizes with and transforms into the spirit of the murdered soldier's wife, who herself was an Iraq War vet. This to me is the essence of inaccessibility: I paid attention during The Bloody Child, and failed to perceive any of that description of events. In film school I'd certainly conclude that the problem was my lack of perception, but I think this is a case of 'museum intimidation' -- one looks at a big blank canvas on display, and then consults the little text card to the side to find out how to feel about it.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson