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    The Pervert's Guide to Cinema

    The Wizard of Id

    An engaging documentary about the pop culture-obsessed Slavoj Žižek, with enough meaty clips of classic movies for those who might not necessarily subscribe to the Slovenian psychoanalyst's vision.


    "Cinema is the ultimate pervert art," says Slavoj Žižek. "It doesn't give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire." Movies, according to Žižek, arouse desire in order to play with desire, but they operate by domesticating it, by "keeping it at a safe distance." In Žižek's world, a cigar is never just a cigar. Hitchcock's attacking birds are "raw incestuous energy." Groucho Marx represents the Superego, Chico the Ego, and silent Harpo, of course, the Id " all its radical ambiguity."

    Directed by: Sophie Fiennes.
    Produced by: Sophie Fiennes, Georg Misch, Martin Rosenbaum, Ralph Wieser.
    Written by: Slavoj Žižek.
    Cast: Slavoj Žižek.
    Cinematography: Remko Schnorr.
    Edited by: Sophie Fiennes, Marek Kralovsky, Ethel Shepherd.
    Music by: Brian Eno.
    Production design by: Ben Zuydwijk.

    Related links: Official site

    Ostensibly an open-ended, three-part guide to the hidden language of cinema, "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema" is secretly a character study of Žižek himself, one of the strangest and funniest post-Marxist philosophers. The pop culture-obsessed Slovenian is trained in psychoanalysis, and he embodies a bundle of contradictions so ungainly it would give Freud or Lacan a headache. He's a prominent leftist who writes the copy for Abercrombie and Fitch catalogs. He's married to an Argentinean model who is also a Lacanian scholar. His views on fantasy and reality are confusing even to seasoned poststructuralists. He's as much a celebrity as a scholar of celebrity. By his own definition, he's probably a pervert.

    "Pervert's Guide'" features footage of Žižek in the film's original locations — boating along the bay in "The Birds," hanging out in the theater from "Mulholland Drive," sitting in an armchair in the cellar of "Psycho." It's like watching any other documentary narrated by a rockstar scholar — Simon Schama or Robert Hughes or Oliver Sacks — only on acid, or maybe in a deep hypnotic trance induced by an opiate-addled shrink. In short, it's actually kind of scary, and kind of funny at the same time. Despite (or maybe because of) his bushy beard and tormented, Slavic look, Žižek exudes a trippy jollity. His odyssey into the underbelly of film has the cheerful, almost accidental surreality of Disney's 1964 "Mary Poppins" with Julie Andrews.

    The Pervert's Guide to Cinema  

    In Part 1, Žižek tends to be frustratingly insular at the expense of sociopolitical critique — everything, for him, seems to revert to some Freudian wound, some trauma of mortality experienced by various dimensions of the self. He uses each film as an introduction to concepts like the libido or the death wish, without interrogating the director's own conscious and unconscious understanding of the material, the unique dimensions of his or her cultural situation, and the societal trauma or panic that shapes "perversion." In this way, it's thin compared to Adam Simon's 2000 "The American Nightmare," which features fascinating interviews with the directors of grisly '60s and '70s horror films, and firmly situations their art within the context of current events and moral panics — Vietnam, the gas crisis, free love and the ensuing moral panics, the corrosion of stable ideas of government, country, and family. Žižek's analysis of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," for example, entirely overlooks the film's menacing satire of Cold War mores. And, while his examination of Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" offers an interesting account of the film's ambiguity, it overlooks the darker social implications of that ambiguity — the horror of the crowd turned to any end.

      By his own definition, [Žižek's] probably a pervert.

    In Part 2, the inquiry expands to include encounters between two people, and the functions of fantasy. Žižek explores what he calls the "philosophical night of the world," the confrontation with the abyss, the unknown, behind the face of another person. He addresses gender, concepts of "woman," and concepts of artifice. But he doesn't give us a sense of who came up with these concepts, and why, and the worlds they lived in. (In the "night of the world" case, it's Heidegger quoting Holderlin on the absence of god.) It's interesting enough to link this to "Vertigo," but it also calls for a bit of theoretical sleight of hand. The more interesting story is, again, the Oxford-shirt-clad Žižek, the venerable continental philosopher, fumbling sweatily through Hitchcock's California locations.

    There's a brief scene of him trying to talk to some guy on a dock, who obviously doesn't understand his accent and has never heard of "Vertigo." "To confront subjectivity is to confront femininity," says Žižek later. "Masculinity is a fake." He assumes "male" and "female" as two generalizable categories, with only the most off-hand mention of homosexuality, let alone intersex people or the oppressive history that has constructed these rigid ideas. But watching Žižek, in this human encounter, or joking about how flowers are disgusting vagina dentatas as he waters his tulips and drinks from his garden hose, complicates his own jargon-y categories. We each confront life in a human body, sure. But it's probably different to live in Žižek's body than, say, Anna Karina's body, or Kate Bornstein's body, or Nelson Mandela's body, just as it's different for my Vietnamese friend to watch "Apocalypse Now" than it is for me. Film, and art in general, inhabit a queasy and paradoxical role between the individual and the collective, and they are inescapably political, inscribed with the history of slavery, bigotry, homophobia, and the widespread subjugation of women. Žižek's earnest, chipper ability to ignore that (while appearing not to) is one secret of his success as a theorist. He finds a political dimension in nakedly political films (like Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible"), but overlooks the Orwellian fact that, to an extent, "all art is propaganda."

    The Pervert's Guide to Cinema  

    Part 3 examines film turned in on itself. Žižek begins with the premise that all modern films are about the possibility of making a film. Here he finally gets to the subject of the directors, the cinematographers, the men behind the curtain pulling our strings. He still skims the surface of the political, social, and economic worlds that shape and are shaped by the cinema, but this is a provocative meditation on what film is. Hitchcock, creepily, thought that sometime in the future we would not need film. We'd be plugged directly into a machine, and the director could literally push buttons to control our emotions.

      We each confront life in a human body, sure. But it's probably different to live in Žižek's body than, say, Anna Karina's body, or Kate Bornstein's body, or Nelson Mandela's body.

    Even for viewers who don't entirely subscribe to Žižek's vision, Sophie Fiennes' documentary is engaging in its own right. It's a good reminder to revisit thought-provoking, entertaining classics. The clips from every movie included are big and satisfying enough to honor the original works, like when a concert film doesn't skimp on real footage of the band playing, and remembers that fans want to hear entire songs. Ultimately, though, it's a portrait of one of the most successful living theorists and scholars, a man whose high theory has been embraced, dragged into the light of day, and fed to people outside of academia. Fiennes' documentary raises as many questions about contemporary intellectual legitimacy as it does about film.

    MAY 7, 2009

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