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What Lies Beneath

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Dir. Sophie Fiennes, IFC Center

Now that rock anthems and gospel choirs have sung us into the Obama era, it’s tempting to think we’re waking to a glorious new day and slamming the door on our eight-year national nightmare. But philosopher-psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek wants to remind us that no matter how vigorously we repudiate our nightmares, they reveal something true and unavoidable about who we are.

The philosopher enthroned: Zizek on the set of Coppola's <i>The Conversation</i>.
The philosopher enthroned: Zizek on the set of Coppola's The Conversation.

Not so long ago Freud and Marx seemed condemned to history’s proverbial dustbin, the former made irrelevant by anti-depressants and the strictures of managed care, the latter by the glories of the global economy. Their love of paradox and Hegelian dialectic was distinctly out of place in a PowerPoint world. Now they’re making a bit of a comeback, in reaction to the moral insanity and economic horrors of the past few years, or maybe due to the pendulum swings of fashion. Hence Marxist-Freudian Slavoj Zizek’s blossoming career as a pop-culture guru.

Zizek, a native Slovenian from the former Yugoslavia, is a disciple of Jacques Lacan who eschews the typical Lacanian’s academic obscurantism in favor of highly entertaining critiques of politics, films, and popular culture. Originally a three-part series shown on British television, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, widens the audience for Zizek’s inspired and sometimes incoherent brand of dialectical materialism.

The film is a two-and-a-half hour lecture about the role of unconscious wishes in our movies and ourselves, delivered by a disheveled man with an asymmetric beard and a Mitteleuropa accent. That sounds deadly, but Pervert’s Guide is in fact vastly more entertaining than most Hollywood blockbusters because it scrutinizes our fantasies of revenge, escape, and sexual fulfillment rather than just endlessly recycling them.

Director Sophie Fiennes illustrates Zizek’s flood of talk with clips from dozens of movies, ranging from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to a Soviet-era musical about the joys of harvesting wheat, and cleverly inserts Zizek into the sets of the films he’s discussing. So one minute he’s in the armchair across from Neo in The Matrix, and the next he’s sitting on the blood-spewing toilet from Coppola’s The Conversation. (This gives him an opportunity to compare cinema to a toilet that, instead of flushing away our dangerous desires, pours them forth. When we go to the movies, “we are waiting for things to reappear out of the toilet,” he says. “We are basically watching shit.”) 

What is perverse about cinema, Zizek explains at the outset, is not that it shows us what we desire, or even that it tells us what to desire. “It tells you how to desire,” he says, which makes it “the ultimate pervert art.” The talk about perversion notwithstanding, the movie’s stance is pretty conservative, for Zizek finds in movies the same classic conflicts between men and women, mothers and daughters-in-law, fathers and sons, that Freud wrestled with a century ago.

For example, he posits that the malevolent fowl in Hitchcock’s Birds is a physical representation of the incestuous rage felt by the possessive mother of Tippi Hedren’s love interest. He maps the three Marx brothers onto the trinity of the superego (Groucho), the “rational, narcissistic” ego (Chico), and that combination of “innocence and utter corruption,” the id (Harpo). He argues that in Solaris and Stalker, Tarkovsky shows how the realization of our fondest dreams leads to the greatest horror we can imagine. Declares Zizek, “We have a name for fantasy realized: nightmare.”

To Zizek, film is uniquely important because it reveals and also helps us deny our fantasies. “We need the excuse of a fiction to stage what we really are,” he says. As a result, the fictions of film “are more real than reality itself.” Left unexplained are when the cinema attained this unique role—was this true in the days of silents?—and whether the other arts have ever served a similar function. In general, the political-historical side of Zizek’s thought isn’t much in evidence here, while Freud gets a vigorous workout.

And that’s the echt original Freud, not some new-fangled feminized Freud Lite. During the sold-out showing of the film I attended at the IFC Center, Zizek’s extended rap on the Dennis Hopper character in Blue Velvet and David Lynch’s other over-potent “phallic fathers” provoked one woman in the audience to a fit of increasingly raucous giggling. Was this a feminist critique of Zizek or evidence that he’d provoked hysterical anxiety? Either seemed perfectly plausible. (And what did it mean that throughout the “phallic fathers” discussion, Zizek himself repeatedly rubbed his nose?)

In Pervert’s Guide Zizek is riffing, manically leaping from one idea to the next, on fire with the joy of theory and uninterested in the donkey work of laying out a logical system. Not surprisingly, some of what he says doesn’t quite hold together. (No wonder there is an entire International Journal of Zizek Studies devoted to trying to make sense of his voluminous pronouncements.) Ideas tumble forth and he indulges in so many reversals—fantasy is more real than reality, desire is a desire to destroy, appearances are both deceiving and revealing—that at moments the entire project threatens to spin out into chaos. But then Zizek hurries on to his next point, and our anxiety about whether any of this really makes sense gets pushed aside by another dazzling juxtaposition, another hilarious apercu.

Expecting an entertainment like The Pervert’s Guide to present a thoroughly worked-out philosophical system or groundbreaking insights into the psychology of film would be absurd. It is, after all, only a movie. And perhaps, like other movies, this one also expresses a fantasy that we cling to even though it would be horrible if it were true: in this case, the notion that we really can make total intellectual sense of ourselves. It’s not the answers Zizek comes up with that make The Pervert’s Guide worthwhile, but the questions he asks, his insistence that we challenge the dreams the movies offer us rather than passively consuming them. As he observes, “Our fundamental delusion is not to take fictions seriously enough.”


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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