Even if you have never read any of Slavoj Žižek‘s books you probably have seen his face somewhere. Maybe on a youtube video passed around on your Facebook news feed or an article re-tweeted by a critical theorist friend. He is what a friend of mine, who is studying for his PhD in Cultural Studies, would call the “philosopher rock star”. He has successfully penetrated the pop culture sphere through his numerous talks, videos, books and in recent years through film. His breakout film hit was in 2006 with the ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema’, a cinematic journey through a Zizekian lense where he talks about the psychoanalytical themes behind films such as ‘The Matrix’ to Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. Zizek’s is back now with ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’, another exploration of film this time through an ideological filter. Here Žižek is back in his element and delves into the ideologies behind some of his most beloved films starting with 1988’s ‘They Live’ to Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’. I was afraid that his approach on this would have been more pedantic but was literally stuck to my chair for two hours absolutely engrossed by this bearded philosopher’s take on the ideologies behind some of the films of the last 100 years of cinema.
For some, Žižek’s nervous ticks and paroxysmal energy are a bit too much to take. His ego can be overbearing and the poster for the film is no help. It is Žižek front and centre looking more like a dictator himself than an old school philosopher. However, Director Sophie Fiennes has an incredible way of keeping Žižek’s restless energy some how in check. It is not to say that he presents his views on each film in an apathetic way he is completely in the zone in this film but Fiennes seems to get him to relax a bit more in the role of presenter. This was not the case when he came on for the virtual Q & A at the Ritzy in Brixton where I thought he might launch himself off his plastic chair smashing through the roof only to fly high over the Brixton sky. All of that boundless energy is tamed in this sequel and makes for a pleasurable viewing experience.
Regardless of your opinion on the so called ‘communist psycho-analyst’, he makes some really compelling arguments for how we are constantly being tantalized by an overpowering ideology that creeps into our brainwaves through various forms of media. He starts with John Carpenter’s science fiction film set in LA called ‘They Live’ a film about a guy named ‘Nada’ who roams the streets LA only to find through his ubber-cool black sunglasses which reveal to him that all the upper classes are basically aliens controlling all human behaviour through messages in the mass media. He calls it a film which “shatters illusions” and the “greatest critique” of ideology there is. He seamlessly moves onto ‘The Sound of Music’ and labels that big Broadway hit ‘Climb Every Mountain’ just a metaphor for Sister Maria’s (played by Julie Andrews) irrepressible sexual desires . It is a hysterical observation and so is Žižek who addresses us in a priest’s robe on an identical set as the original ‘Sound of Music’ showing that he knows how not to take himself all to seriously.
Fiennes choice of recreating the movie scenes which Žižek is psycho-analysing is absolutely brilliant and just the right touch of comedy to make this film more accessible to everyone. Later on in the film as he talks about the symbolism of the class struggle through the blockbuster hit “Titanic”, we find him shivering and sitting in a little boat with twinkly stars overhead. He refers to that great tragedy as ‘petrified enjoyment’ and makes the case for the fact that the “rich need the poor to bring back their vitality.” This is precisely, in his opinion, what Rose is doing with Jack; rejuvenating herself with this poor working boy’s joie de vivre! Does this seem far-fetched? I ‘m not so sure. His arguments are explained while you watch those infamous scenes of Rose on the upper deck smoking cigarettes out of those fancy cigarette holders and we see Jack waiting for her longingly on the lower decks. He transitions from here to the “Fall of Berlin” which Stalin co-wrote with Mikhail Chiareli in 1950. Žižek is dressed in a Stalinist costume and makes the argument for the importance of the couple at the centre of these mainstream propagandist movies. Here it is a love story at the heart of the Russian victory over the Germans. The couple is the “key element which keeps the whole film together”.
‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’ jumps from the dogma behind romance films to the hidden themes behind major action movies like “The Dark Knight “where he equates Batman and his men to the governmental institutions who must lie to us in order to keep us in order. There is a poetic moment earlier in the film where Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is soundtracking the scenes of the riots in London in 2011. The entire cinema went quiet as we watched these young people ransack shops as Žižek explains his ideas of the functionality of cynical ideology which according to him states ‘I know very well what I am doing but I am still nonetheless doing it’. Somehow he makes a convincing link to the classic “West Side Story “ 1967 musical hit “Gee, Officer Krupke” where the NYC gang recognizes the fact that they are in the wrong but blame it all on their parents. He talks about how David Cameron responded to the riots pointing out that “the truly horrible thing was that they were taking objects without paying for them” Zizek says “(the riots) were a reaction of people who are totally caught into the predominant ideology but have no way to realize what this ideology demands of them so it is a kind of wild acting-out within this ideological space of consumerism.” Consumerism , waste and other consequences of Capitalism are other subjects which run throughout the film.
Although one of my intellectual heroes, Noam Chomsky has criticized Žižek for ‘theoretical posturing’, I would have to say I disagree with the MIT scholar. In these films, Zizek is at his best because unlike the swervy, long-winded tangents he can sometimes go on when he is giving talks, he is giving controlled arguments and theories which help to move the film along. The two hours fly by and even if you are not completely convinced by some of the theoretical threadings he finds between one movie and the next, he manages to hold your attention because his passion for film also inadvertently shines through. I would recommend it if not for his persuasive notions on the 23 films he waxes poetically about but to maybe discover the 23 films he talks about. Many of which are masterpieces. ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’ might not be a masterpiece but is definitely a fun, intellectually stimulating ride.
‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’ is showing at the Hackney Picturehouse. For listings please visit here