By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/25/22 – On March 24, 2022, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was a screening of Nina Menkes’ 1991 film Queen of Diamonds in a newly restored 4K print in a retrospective of the films of experimental American feminist filmmaker Nina Menkes hosted by the American Cinematheque. Queen of Diamonds follows the alienated life of Firdaus (played by the director’s sister, Tinka Menkes), a Blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas landscape juxtaposed between glittering casino lights and the deteriorating desert oasis. Negotiating a missing husband and neighboring domestic violence, Firdaus’ world unfolds as a fragmented but hypnotic interplay between repetition and repressed anger. The film hovers between experimental and narrative, fearlessly exploring the alienated feminine, the subconscious and violent patriarchal outer realities. The evening included a screening of Menkes’ early film “The Great Sadness of Zohara” (38 min., 1983) and “The Bloody Child” (1996) – along with an insightful Q&A with Nina Menkes.
Shot with a beautiful compositional rigor echoing Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), Queen of Diamonds is a remarkable and demanding masterpiece of American independent filmmaking. Heralded as one of the most challenging and subversive filmmakers working today, the re-release of Queen of Diamonds marks the start of a new critical recognition for Menkes’ groundbreaking body of work. Queen of Diamonds shares not only the formal sophistication and structural rigor of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) but also their themes: female alienation and the ways that passivity, muteness, and a refusal to engage can serve as forms of resistance to patriarchal oppression. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in 1991, it is a film worth revisiting. It is available on Kanopy with a LA Public Library Card.
Parched, tawny wastes; shriveled blades of aloe: Queen of Diamonds (1991), the second of six fiction feature films made to date by American director Nina Menkes, trades the Las Vegas of glut – of excessive barbarity and intoxication, greed and tempestuousness, lust and loss, expectation and disappointment – for the Las Vegas of lack. A single fan palm stands crowned by a garland of flames. Spindle-shanked masts ornamenting a trailer-park shantytown strain upward for high-frequency radio waves. A freight train edged by vacant billboards and crossbar power lines trundles toward a hazy mountain vista.
This is how Menkes describes her impetus for making the film: “I had the idea of this high-class casino worker, a more old-fashioned idea of what casinos were like in Europe. So I was like, ‘I’m going to go to Las Vegas.’ I had never been there. I wanted to go and walk around and just see it. I had this idea about this croupier. So, I went there and I was actually confronted by the fact that the concept that was in my mind of these high-end casinos with chandeliers and velvet couches or whatever was completely not Vegas. Vegas is the buffets for $3.99. And I thought, Oh no, this is all wrong, because it didn’t fit my idea. And then I went through this process thinking, Oh my god, but what is here is so incredible. That was a case where my inner image clashed with reality and formed a new thing, which was Queen of Diamonds.”
In Queen of Diamonds, Menkes offers a trance-inducing tour of an overdeveloped city – a stand-in for our overdeveloped country – by fixing her camera precisely on the castoffs of conspicuous consumption. Las Vegas’s totemic opulence flickers mirage-like only in the imagination. The hero of the film is named Firdaus. Played with taut disaffection by Menkes’s younger sister, Tinka, Firdaus is a croupier at the Par-a-Dice casino; between shifts, she drifts alone through the city’s outskirts. Her circumstances are otherwise vague. She lives in a one-room motel apartment. Her next-door neighbor routinely batters his soon-to-be wife, which she hears and sometimes sees. She is married, although her husband’s whereabouts are unknown, as eventually we learn, even to her. Firdaus doesn’t seem to care. As she moves about town (always on foot), strange men seize on her solitude as an invitation to trespass. Firdaus retreats into indifference. Her days wilt with apathy.
In one shot, a nameless character drives up to survey the reservoir’s view. “What the hell happened here?” he asks, his skin a leathered, artificial orange. “Boy, this is terrible. Used to be a beautiful place once.” Bleak, arid, plotless: these features of the film inhere not because Firdaus lives in the Mojave Desert but rather because her environs are those ravaged by capital and haunted by dispossession. Menkes’s camera returns again and again to the wrongness of the settler-built environment, even as she admits its paltry seductions. Menkes shapes the landscape by way of protracted immobile shots, in which cuts predominantly confer a change of locale. Alternating cloistered, nocturnal scenes—irradiated by phosphorescent blues—with desiccated, sun-beat expanses, Menkes tosses the viewer between dark and light. Days and nights pile up, are shuffled, and then re-dealt. The deck never changes.
Menkes’ movie borrows the name of its protagonist from Woman at Point Zero (1975), the renowned novel by the Egyptian physician, psychiatrist, and writer Nawal El Saadawi. In the book, we meet Saadawi’s Firdaus in a Cairo prison on the eve of her execution; following a life sodden with subjugation and betrayal, she has been sentenced to death for killing a man. This man had recently forced her to accept him as her pander, thereby stealing from her the sovereignty that after decades of striving she found she could approximate only by forgoing both marriage – “the system built on the most cruel suffering for women” – and socially accepted employment for sex work. Even in the face of death, Firdaus refuses to search out a pardon. For that she would have to apologize. She does not want to apologize. “I am a killer,” she says, “but I’ve committed no crime.”
The film shares little with the novel by way of setting or plot, but what links Menkes’s Firdaus to her namesake is her isolation, her invisibility. Both are diamonds, so to speak: forged by pressure, their glittering core has long been inhumed within a colorless, compacted, unyielding facade. The writer, in some ways, has the easier task; her medium is words, and Firdaus on the page relays her invisibility by describing it. The director, meanwhile, must contend with the pith of her own image-based medium: the protagonist must (literally) be visible if she is to be the protagonist at all. Menkes embraces the challenge: the screen-based Firdaus, who rarely speaks – the film contains little dialogue – appears in nearly every shot. Menkes triumphs by always framing Firdaus and her ashen complexion in medium and long shots; never do we see her face in close-up, that would provide a “transparent window to the soul.” Our Queen of Diamonds is the protagonist and at the same time a background character.
Firdaus’s noncompliance and indecision is thrown into sharper relief. She wants nothing and refuses almost everything. She neither hustles nor yearns nor strives. Most of her dialogue riffs on a fundamental recalcitrance, variations on “I don’t know” and “no.” Above all, she repudiates our era’s confessional logics, the notion that to make suffering legible, even to name it, could do anything to parry its impact. In the end, Firdaus leaves by cover of night, hitching a ride without ever hailing it. Her arms uncross only momentarily to open the stranger’s car door. It doesn’t really matter where she goes or how she gets there. And there would be no use asking her how she feels once she arrives.
Menkes, who grew up in California, studied dance and choreography before pursuing filmmaking at UCLA, which may explain the ease with which she relinquishes certain customs of American cinematic storytelling while remaining in a narrative mode. Queen of Diamonds’ steady assemblage of wide shots and long, static takes, in which Firdaus is often stationary or inanimate, conjures a claustrophobic restlessness. Will she ever move? As if she may settle in place, the ground giving way as she sinks gradually downward. Only once does the film’s torpor cede to freneticism: cards (an eight of clubs, a four of hearts) piled faceup on green baize, gamblers set in concentration, the glint of crimson-lacquered nails, Firdaus beset by shimmering catenary arches and mirrored tile, stacked chips, nervous tics. For seventeen minutes the anticipation accumulates. The discordant din of electronic slot machines abrades by the time the casino gives way to morning twilight, but no climax emerges to usher in a resolution. Nothing happens. There is no fulfillment, no virtue, no moral benefit that redeems the drudgery of a blackjack dealer’s long night. There is only futility.