Theory is hard.
If you are in a field where you have to read Marx, Freud, Foucault or heaven help you, Derrida, you know what I am talking about. If you are not in one of those fields, count your blessings, but read on anyway. Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian Freudian-Marxist theorist who tries to make it those theories easier to digest. As a writer, not so much. His writing is still very dense and hard to read, although it is easier than reading Lacan. I think.
But in his films, he does an excellent job breaking down theory into manageable bites by using other films to illustrate his points. And he is very funny and charming. He is frequently shown in his bed in a rather sparse room that resembles a cell, perhaps to show how we are held captive by ideology or in a teacher’s office next to a book case or in front of a computer.
The film is directed by Sophie Fiennes, one of the sisters of Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, a very high brow and literate show-business family. She sometimes appears in the film as well, as a silent partner to Zizek, as in the picture of them on an otherwise empty plane together.
This film was, in fact, Sophie Fiennes idea, a follow-up to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which features a very memorable explanation of the Marx Brothers as the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. In an interview in Filmmaker Magazine online, Zizek explains that the goal was “to demonstrate how psychoanalytic cinema-criticism is still the best we have, how it can generate insights which compel us to change our entire perspective.” He goes on to say that the word “pervert” is not in the usual sense that people take it, to mean someone who is sexually deviant, but “rather refers to perverting – turning around – our spontaneous perceptions.” In the same interview, sounding very much like an academic, Fiennes herself says that she is not an academic at all, nor a theory head (my word), but that she wanted to get at belief and the ways that we constitute ourselves as subjects – why do we believe what we believe? How do we take what we believe for granted? Using words like subject and interpolated, I don’t fully believe her when she says that she is not an academic, although maybe she has just been hanging out with Zizek too long and has picked up the lingo. Theory is insidious like that.
A real treat for me was to see them revisit the film They Live, a film from the early 1980s starring then-wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper. It’s ok if you don’t remember Rowdy Roddy. Few people do. It’s also ok if you don’t remember the movie. I would think that I was the only person who actually saw it in the theater, but I swear there were at least two others in the movie theater with me. If you haven’t seen it, the Pervert’s Guide will make you want to. In particular, Zizek discusses the scene in which Rowdy Roddy puts on these glasses that enable him to see who the aliens among us actually are. It’s pretty easy to see that Zizek is using this as a metaphor for being able to see the ideology inside of films. I actually just saw a take-off of this on Facebook that shows how the world looks to Donald Trump which was quite hilarious. Google that one as well as the two aforementioned films.
To talk about fearmongering, Zizek and Fiennes pair up Leni Reifenstahl’s Nazi classic Triumph of the Will with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, two films that at first blush you would probably not associate with each other. In a related section, they discuss The Eternal Jew from 1948 and Cabaret together, which does make more sense on the surface, when they talk about “The Abyss of Suspicion.”
Most of the categories of the films won’t really shock most people. Probably the most unlikely one is in I, Legend, where Zizek talks about the ultimate consumerism, which again, is not something you would associate with a film about the end of humanity. But seeing the films paired with other films and seeing the way that Zizek talks about them can help you to see them in a new light and become a more careful viewer of film. One thing that Roland Barthes said about myths in the modern world is that most people can see through the myths, but subscribe to them anyway.
How many women among us did not root for Bridget Jones to end up with Mark Darcy, at least the first 30 times you watched the movie, even if you are a feminist and do not subscribe to those kinds of ideologies in your regular life? The sweeping camera angles, the romantic songs, which are throwbacks to melodrama, the depressed montage of her walking around in her lonely apartment, are all designed to make you accept the love story they have put in front of you. Your hard-bitten ideological defenses can only take so much! That is where you need SuperZizek and Sophie Fiennes to help you realize what is happening.
One critique is that the movie does start to seem kind of long. And at 136 minutes, not including extras, it is kind of long for the average American’s attention span. Perhaps it was because I was initially watching it during finals week, and so I fell asleep before the end of it the first time through. The good thing about The Pervert’s Guide is that you don’t have to watch it all in one sitting, if that is too difficult for you. You can watch it section by section, taking time to ruminate over what you have just watched, or just taking time to go the fridge for more snacks.
On Rotten Tomatoes 77% of the people who reviewed it liked it. It also has a 91% rating on the Tomatometer, whatever that is. The venerated critic Roger Ebert gave it three stars in a much-too-quotable review to even being to quote from, lest I completely plagiarize the entire thing. Suffice to say that the public and the critiques alike have given The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology pretty good reviews. The reason for that is that it is enjoyable watching even if you are not a theory head. It is kind of like watching a Michael Moore video, except that Zizek doesn’t go and confront CEOs of major studios about the ideology hidden (or not) within the films, although that would be great to see. (Imagine the head of Sony being confronted with Freudian-Marxist accusations about the films they release! Sir! Sir! Do you realize the impact you are having on the superegos of the alienated youth of America?) But he does tell the story with clips and humor. It’s so fun that you will forget it is educational. How often do you get to say that in college?