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BLOODY CHILD, THE(director/writer/cinematographer: Nina Menkes; screenwriter: Tinka Menkes; editors: Nina and Tina Menkes; cast: Tinka Menkes (Captain), Sherry Sibley (Murdered Wife), Robert Mueller (Murderer), Russ Little (Sergeant), Jack O’Hara (Enlisted Man); Runtime: 85; Mirage; 1996)
“An amazingly strange film …”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An amazingly strange film, confusing and not thoroughly enjoyable, but a film I found more interesting than I thought possible after a first viewing. This experimental film in minimalist storytelling, consists of disturbing visualizations and almost no dialogue and a concept that was greater than how the film turned out. It felt at times like I was watching paint dry on the wall, but the reward for sitting through those excruciatingly redundant scenes was in seeing something different, something that cast a troubling spell over a terrible incident. I believe the film in its unique voice does justice in commenting on the violence in American society, especially against women. The film uses its impressions of the U.S. Marine base as a metaphor for the social violence in today’s American society. The marines were used as the actors. It was filmed at Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., the largest Marine base in the country, which is located in the Mojave Desert.

The plot is simple. It is about a real incident that happened to a marine returning from the Persian Gulf War who murdered his wife and was caught at sunrise digging her grave in the Mojave Desert by a military patrol. The filmmaker tells her story by showing the military police standing by the murder site making small talk while awaiting for the arrest to be completed while the camera is cutting back to show the marines off-base relaxing in a country-and-western lounge, as some lewdly dance in front of some female patrons. The boredom is broken up by camera shots of marines in conversations that we can’t hear in its entirety but are treated to little snippets of, hearing mostly their curse words. The captain in charge of the arrest is Tinka Menkes, the director’s sister. She tries to get the male marines to take this incident seriously and act professional, as they treat her as an outsider but with proper military respect. Because the film had no linear story and followed no chronological order and stressed the mundane life experienced on the base, and did not follow the usual way a murder investigation is filmed — it appeared surreal.

For whatever reason, Nina Menkes (The Great Sadness of Zohara (1984)/ Magdalena Viraga (1987)/Queen of Diamonds (1991)), a director I am not familiar with, has chosen to put parts of “Macbeth” into the film (the disembodied voice of the murdered wife is heard at times as the voice of a violated spirit), along with scenes from northeast Africa (Tinka is sitting naked in the forest clearing, writing unreadable words on her arm). There is also a riderless black horse going on the base, and the film ends on a quote from the Book of Genesis, about Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back. I thought these additions seemed to serve mostly as an unneeded arty pretext.

The arrested marine is not seen in total, but is viewed from side glances of him in the same car as his bloodied dead wife. A military policeman is seen shoving the marine’s face into his dead wife’s bloody lap and yelling some nearly inaudible obscenities at him. The film tells nothing about the why and how of the murder but touches on the reality of life on the base, making it seem like a wasteland inhabited only by those sent to purgatory. The unsettling milieu in which the crime took place, speaks volumes about why the murder might have taken place.

The film seems to be telling us that it’s up to us to make sense of what we’ve seen. Though the film did not move me while I was watching it as much as it did afterwards it, nevertheless, made me think of life on a military base, the Persian Gulf War, and of marital abuse without the usual concepts I bring to the table. Does that make this a great film? No. But it makes it an interesting one, a film that I can’t easily dismiss. Its filming of the arrest is so chilling and memorable because what is so dull and ordinary about the crime scene is the understated reason for the origin of the violence, contrary to the way Hollywood films portray violence. Here it is a part of the landscape that one regularly sees but, perhaps, one doesn’t really understand or want to understand what kind of a banal evil our modern society has created.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”