WHEN ANALYZING MOVIES, Slavoj Žižek generally employs the term ideology in the vulgar Marxist sense of a comforting falsehood and uses pervert to mean one who is a counterintuitive thinker. What, then, is the ideology underlying The Pervert’s Guide to Ideologythe second film essay that British filmmaker Sophie Fiennes has made in collaboration with the voluble and prolific Slovenian philosopherand how is it twisted?
The Guide begins by sampling John Carpenter’s 1988 They Live, a movie that posited the Reagan Revolution as a virus from outer space. (Žižek calls the film “one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood left” but doesn’t make the link to his old favorite The Matrix .) In one scene, a willfully obtuse homeless guy forages for dinner in a Dumpster: “The name of this trash can is Ideology,” Žižek explains. Got it!
The most baroque of (erstwhile) Marxist Freudians, having substituted the gnarlier Hegel and Lacan for Karl and Sigmund, Žižek typically draws out in his writings sharply defined contradictions, only to resolve them in a mist of categories imported from Georg and Jacques. Žižek’s sense of ideology as not imposed but spontaneous, desired, perhaps necessary, and even a form of fun, drenches Jacques Ellul’s venerable notion of “sociological propaganda” with a secret sauce: chef Lacan’s objet petit athat is to say, Žižek’s own evident, if deadpan, jouissance.
Over the course of his Guide, Žižek takes pleasure in consuming and spitting out such ideological bonbons as The Sound of Music (1965), Seconds (1966), Brazil (1985), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Dark Knight (2008), and the Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, 1940). A number of these “fee-lums” (as the word is rendered in his thick Slavic accent) were marshaled as exhibits in his recent books, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009) and Living in the End Times (2010); conspicuously absent from Fiennes’s film is any reference to the 2008 DreamWorks animation Kung Fu Panda, a movie that factors in both texts, in part to explicate the notion of objet petit a. As an annotated-clip parade, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is not nearly as perverse as Jean-Luc Godard’s majestic Histoire(s) du cinema (1988–98). Nor is it as coherent in making its own ideological points as Adam Curtis’s enjoyably demagogic BBC screed The Power of Nightmares (2004). A word surfer who approaches each new Žižek tome via the index, I have no right to complain, but The Pervert’s Guide often seems kinda obvious. Will anyone be surprised to hear that Coke is selling something more than a sticky, fizzy drink, or that Starbucks has figured out a way to make people pay for their social conscience? That Taxi Driver (1976) is a crypto-remake of The Searchers (1956), the shark in Jaws (1975) an all-purpose nexus of anxieties? Would that Žižek went a bit deeper, or waxed more perverse, as he does in maintaining that the fatal iceberg protects the illusion of eternal love in Titanic (1997) just as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia saved the dream of reform communism.
Žižek’s take on The Sound of Music is also pretty hilariousand informative: Apparently, hypervigilant Yugoslav censors cut the inspirational dirge “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (sung by the mother superior to persuade Julie Andrews to leave the convent and fuck Christopher Plummer). As a professional wild and crazy guy, Žižek is always interesting on what used to be called “existing socialism,” pointing out, for example, that Miloš Forman’s Czech films were notable less for ridiculing Communist leadership than for mocking Communism’s “big Other” (Lacan’s term for a morass of unconscious received wisdom or sacred-cow cliché), namely, ordinary people. Indeed, the only thing more perverse than this throwaway take is Žižek and Fiennes’s decision to end The Pervert’s Guide with a stirring rendition of the 1917 Bolshevik anthem “Boldly, Comrades, in Step.”
If the stand-up philosopher king dares you to find his kicker ironic, Žižek does know that he’s funny: He appeared in Astra Taylor’s 2008 philosophy doc Examined Life, railing against the ideology of ecology beside a colossal trash heap (“We need more alienation from nature!”). As in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), Fiennes humorously places Žižek in simulated movie sets. Usually dressed in the drab tunic of a country priest (or of Joseph Stalin), her star holds forth from Hitler’s plane from Triumph of the Will (1935), Travis Bickle’s hovel, the milk bar from A Clockwork Orange (1971), and the deck of Quint’s boat from Jaws. With his unsmiling, bearish demeanor, and incessant sibilant delivery, Žižek is something of a creature himself.
Some years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, I made a mad dash down Bloor Streetfrom a theater where Borat Sagdiyev was trying to stuff Pamela Anderson into his “wedding sack”arriving at the Royal Ontario Museum in time to catch Žižek in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema holding forth on the “disgusting” sexuality of flowers. Granted that Borat is an “idiot” and Žižek is a genius, it was for a moment the same fee-lum: That’s Entertainment!
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology opens at the IFC Center in New York on November 1.
J. Hoberman’s most recent book, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?, was published by Verso last year and is due out in paperback this month.