All in the Family

Andrew Hultkrans on Slavoj Žižek at the NYPL

New York

Left: Slavoj Žižek. Right: A view of the stage at the NYPL. (Photos: David Velasco)

With all due respect to the cantankerous Dr. Ž, I was more attracted to last Wednesday’s event—“They Live! Hollywood as an Ideological Machine” at the New York Public Library—by its title than by its star. John Carpenter’s They Live is one of my favorite cult films, a tacky sci-fi gem that built on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and made The Matrix’s point a decade before the Wachowskis hipped gamers to “the desert of the real.” A withering satire of Reaganite America, They Live boasts perhaps the longest fight scene in cinema history and is certainly the only leftist critique with a professional wrestler (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) in its leading role. The movie is understandably beloved by film theorists of a certain stripe, Slavoj Žižek among them, so I was eager to hear his take. Admittedly, I was also curious to get a closer look at a man who resembles a Slavic plumber but somehow managed to marry an Argentine lingerie model half his age. Sure, her parents were Lacanians, but really.

NYPL Public Programs director Paul Holdengraber welcomed the full house and read aloud Žižek’s self-penned bio, which identified everyone’s favorite Slovenian as a “philosopher and psychoanalyst with three basic orientations: a Hegelian in philosophy, a Lacanian in psychoanalysis, a Christian materialist in religion, and a Communist in politics.” (That’s, um, four, but who’s counting?) I doubt this cleared anything up for NYPL season-ticket holders, and, as perhaps the world’s most famous public intellectual now that Baudrillard and Sontag have passed, Žižek required no introduction to his fans. On Holdengraber’s exit, the twin screens bookending the stage came alive with a clip from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, in which Groucho has his belated Lacanian “mirror moment.” Žižek’s prerecorded voice boomed from the speakers, positing the brothers as incarnations of Freud’s holy trinity—superego (Groucho), ego (Chico), and id (Harpo). Filmed segments showing Žižek from a distance, standing in a white void (a nod to The Matrix) were intercut with the brothers’ antics.

Having flashed his virtual calling card, Dr. Ž appeared, characteristically schlumpy in brown pants and a black T-shirt bearing a tilted C (Cinergi Pictures? Communism?). Taking his seat in front of a lectern, Žižek cryptically dubbed the NYPL a “mix of spiritual obscenity” and began his talk in a sibilant, heavily accented voice, further impeded by audible sniffles. Now, Dr. Ž is an intellectual heavyweight. His breadth of reference, high to low, is admirable, if at times absurdly diffuse. But his thesis this evening—that disasters, attacks, and upheavals in Hollywood films serve to unite romantic couples and reinforce nuclear-family ties—was kid’s stuff. You don’t need critical theory, psychoanalysis, or even Leonard Maltin to recognize that in a Hollywood happy ending, the boy always gets the girl and the splintered family always reunites.

Nevertheless, aided by the relevant clips, the scales fell from our eyes as we learned that ET was really about a missing father figure, that Jurassic Park’s velociraptors transformed a remote patriarch into a loving dad, that Schindler rediscovered his sense of paternal duty with his list, as did Tom Cruise while tangling with illegal aliens in War of the Worlds. Accusing Spielberg films of promoting family ideology is like calling Hitchcock films suspenseful. I expect more complexity from a Lacanian Christian Communist, and you should, too. Things improved slightly when Žižek compared the iceberg that sunk the Titanic (and Leonardo DiCaprio) in James Cameron’s blockbuster to the Soviet tanks that crushed the 1968 Prague Spring. Both catastrophes preserved the idealistic illusion of what might have been—Cameron’s “fake Marxism” and Prague’s “liberal socialism” each obscuring the “vampiric exploitation” lurking around the corner.

After a pat riff on Warren Beatty’s Reds, which equated the October Revolution with a sex scene between Beatty and Diane Keaton, we were treated to the highlight of the evening, a clip from the rarely screened 1949 Soviet film The Fall of Berlin, in which a dopey Russian steelworker, right before the Nazi bombs begin to fall, solicits dating advice from Stalin, played by an actor so identical to the Georgian dictator that he could have been a security double. According to Žižek, Stalin cowrote his character’s lines, cried at the performance, and forbade the actor from ever playing another role. The film stock had the quality of watercolor, and the (roughly translated) dialogue featured such immortal lines as, “Can I give you a kiss, Comrade Stalin?” Then it was back to Planet Platitude, as Žižek informed us that disaster films create couples, though he displayed his flair for provocation by saying, just as Deep Impact’s tidal wave was about to engulf the Twin Towers, “Enough of fun, let’s move to the serious stuff.” This was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which, alert the media, created a couple.

Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life rolled in the background as Žižek rambled inconclusively, at one point saying that “all good Holocaust films are comedies.” Finally, Žižek addressed They Live. Running the scene where Piper first dons the sunglasses that reveal the modern world in its true form—a grayscale cultural wasteland, populated by yuppie aliens, in which billboards read OBEY, CONSUME, and MARRY AND REPRODUCE, magazines read NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT, and dollar bills read THIS IS YOUR GOD—Žižek quipped that the glasses allowed one to see Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns.” Of the famous fight sequence, in which Piper is forcibly trying to get his friend to put on the shades, Žižek said, “the fight dramatizes the resistance to being liberated from ideology—liberation hurts.” I knew I should have taken the blue pill.

During the Q&A, Dr. Ž demonstrated why he is (in)famous in academia, engaging in rapid-fire rhetorical combat with his interlocutors. Chestnuts included: “The Book of Job is the first critique of ideology”; “The death of Christ was God’s way of saying, ‘I can no longer guarantee meaning for man’”; Zen master Suzuki was an imperialist war apologist; “The real Western cultural imperialism is believing that Eastern religion promotes balance and harmony”; Sontag was wrong about proto-fascist content in Leni Riefenstahl’s pre-Nazi films; and German industrial rock band Rammstein aren’t Nazis, but critics and parodists of Nazism.

Outside the library, I overheard some grad-student types speculating about whether Žižek was on crystal meth. I always thought speed was Virilio’s poison, but given Dr. Ž’s manic marathon of a performance, it’s possible. By the end, even his disciples were exhausted.