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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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If The Bloody Child was a pitch in a baseball game, it would be a curve, high and outside. The ball smacks the catcher’s mitt and then the batter swings furiously and futilely. The ball again arcs into home from the pitcher’s mound in fits and starts, covering the same ground over and over. Occasionally, it will reverse and fly forward, but now it’s not a baseball but an orange (however it’s an orange painted blue, which we infer as the baseball’s dream). Eventually, it reaches back to the pitcher who is a woman wearing a Yankees away-game uniform, cap pulled down on her head tight and mean. She knuckles the ball, studying the batter while reading the signs from the catcher. The batter, who’s now wearing a cowboy hat, taps the plate and draws his bat into position. The screen goes to black... end of film.

Seeing this, your average Joe Multiplex will mutter “What the hell was that?” but your elite Art House cinephile will nod and say “Yes, brilliant.” My own take on The Bloody Child was “close but no cigar.” But it was close, oh so close.

The brilliant parts are definitely there and surely brilliant. But also present are a raft of unnecessary, repetitious and amateurish scenes. For instance, what’s with the black horse at the crime scene? Well, why not? This is an experimental film and should not be judged by the same yardstick as the average workaday movie.

Painted Desert

What's with the black horse at the crime scene?  Well, why not?
What’s with the black horse at the crime scene? Well, why not?

The Bloody Child is nominally about a U.S. Marine who has just killed his wife and is caught while trying to bury her body in the Mojave Desert. It was based on an actual event that director Nina Menkes read about in the L.A. Times in the early 1990s. In the manner of a Debussy tone poem, The Bloody Child is mainly about mood and atmosphere, in this case the American culture of violence and alienation particularly as it pertains to a Marine’s world and women in that world.

Menkes is effective in capturing this atmosphere because she used real Marines in the film. None of this pussyfooting around with actor types. The Bloody Child is so real in this respect that it verges on a documentary. The one exception to the cast is Menkes’ sister, Tinka Menkes, who plays the officer at the crime scene. Including Tinka is a regular feature of a Menkes film and she does make a striking lady Marine.


The Bloody Child remained an enigma to me until I saw the accompanying interview with Menkes and then the parts fell into place. She is an intuitionist by her own admission and that is demonstrated by her inability to express herself verbally about the film. She can not explain what she’s made because she’s not really figured it out herself. I wouldn’t demand that an artist has to be able to explain what she has created. Indeed I’m a little suspicious of people who are too facile with a rationalization of their visual art. Being too verbal is perhaps best demonstrated by the Conceptual Art movement of the last 30 years; it’s got good solid theory behind it, but the art leaves a lot to be desired.

If The Bloody Child is any indication, Menkes has got a lot going for her as a filmmaker. She says she trusts her intuition and I’d say that most of the time her intuition is right. Often the scenes in The Bloody Child are visionary. What’s missing is that thing that all the mainstream pedestrian films seem to have too much of, control.

(Too much control isn’t good either; in fact the one thing that popular media strives to avoid is surprise. Perhaps that’s why when a film comes along that does offer some novelty, it is such a hit. I suspect that most unexpectedly successful films happen when someone in the approval process has not done their job and squashed the project on the spot.)

What Menkes needed was a peer group like the current crop of Mexican directors who watch each other’s films and provide some kind of useful feedback. Letting someone else critique your work is a tough thing to do especially when you pride yourself on your personal vision. The trouble with personal visions is that they can get so personal, even the artist doesn’t know what’s going on.

DVD Extras

There are two important extras: a useful Facets Cine-NotesÂȘ booklet, and video interview with Menkes. A photo gallery slide show is nice, but not essential. There is also an audio clip “The Dead Iraqi” in which the Marines (all of whom were vets of Gulf War I ) are talking about their experiences in that war.

Picture and Sound

The cinematography is often stunning but the sound misses the mark. At times the blurry sound leaks out a coherent phrase and at even rarer intervals it’s effective. Most of the time the sound is just a muddy effect and detracts from the film, Menkes’ visual intuition let her down on the audio.

How to Use this DVD

It’s hard to say wether first watching the Menkes’s interview will enhance your viewing of The Bloody Child or not. But if you do view the film, the interview is a must-see. Be sure to listen to the audio clip.