Last week I watched The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, a documentary made by Sophie Fiennes and starring Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. I’m not quite sure where the pervert part comes in, unless if maybe there’s something inherently perverted about watching Žižek talk for a little over two hours (quite possible). It also occurs to me that Žižek is calling himself a pervert, since this is his guide to ideology. In that case, he probably knows best.
This is essentially Žižek’s take on ideology, compressed down to 2 1/4 hours and presented via the plotlines of various feature films. As Žižek popularizing Žižek, it’s very successful—it’s entertaining, and Žižek and Fiennes manage to work in a lot.
Basically, the way this film works, is Žižek finds ways to get his points across by borrowing plots and images from various famous movies (mostly big budget Hollywood flicks). So, for instance, the film starts with some scenes from the infamous alien-invasion B movie They Live. The idea of that film is that the protagonist, Nada, one day discovers sunglasses that let him see the “truth” behind appearances. So, when he looks at what you and I would perceive as a wholesome billboard showing people enjoying their consumer products, what Nada sees (and what we really see) is a big sign screaming “OBEY.”
Žižek calls these “ideology glasses” because what they really let Nada do is cut through all the layers of ideology to perceive the actual statements that people are making. This is Žižek’s basic point about ideology: it’s a kind of layering up of discourse that comes between us and what is actually being said. A lot of Žižek’s work as a philosopher is in figuring out why certain ideological stances succeed and perpetuate themselves in our world (which is driven by the ultimate ideology, capitalism) and determining what, if anything, is actually beneath the ideology. The bulk of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is Žižek trying to explain and cut through various predominant ideologies in the West—Christianity, democracy, market capitalism, etc, etc.
Watching Žižek in this film is a lot like reading him: he’s got this relentless, headlong pace that makes you wonder when he has time to breathe. His tone is utter deadpan and no-nonsense, which works really well when he’s saying something ostensibly ludicrous (often), but he also has this cute, teddy bear aspect to him that’s really kind of endearing. Žižek does this wonderful thing where you know he knows how absurd everything about this movie is, even though at the same time he seems to be acting completely sincere and serious. It’s probably the only right way for Žižek to approach the material he’s trying to dicuss.
Like Žižek’s books, the chain of logic in this film can be a little mystifying at times: Žižek likes to jump from explaining one phenomenon to another, and while each individual explanation is pretty coherent, sometime the logic of moving from one to another can be murky, or convoluted. That’s Žižek.
Definitely one of the highlights here is the section that compares the post-WWII Soviet film The Fall of Berlin to James Cameron’s Titanic (for the similar mechanics of the love story). The Fall of Berlin is pretty amazing: it includes an actor playing Stalin, who gives a young Russian peasant love advice. It also includes an actor playing a farcical, vicious Soviet parody of Hitler. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich was forced into doing the music to atone for making actual good music (which the Soviets of course hated because it sounded nothing like Socialist Realist music). And, apparently (according to Žižek), some essential scenes toward the beginning were destroyed because they contained footage of former secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, who was disappeared and officially became a nonperson. So, in other words, this film is a colossal train wreck. Watching Žižek discuss it all and show how freakishly similar it is to one of the biggest successes of capitalist cinema ever is loads of fun!
If you’re a fan of Žižek and are familiar with his books, you’ll notice a lot of his best lines in here. Unfortunately, his discourse on the different ways that European toilets display shit doesn’t make the cut, but there is a scene where Žižek is sitting on a stall in a men’s bathroom (from Full Metal Jacket). (And, while I’m on this subject, I’m pretty sure that, toward the beginning, when he’s talking in front of a dumpster, some dude in the background takes a leak onscreen.) He does, however, make his oft-repeated declaration that “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Also, much like reading Žižek, when I reached the end of this movie I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about. Which isn’t exactly a critique. In my limited reading of Žižek (and, honestly, who among us can claim to have read the majority of Žižek in the world?) his books tend to have really compelling takes on individual things, but to not really add up to a whole lot. Which, I guess, may be part of the nature of the beast, when you’re trying to honestly deconstruct capitalism from the inside out.
Anyway, this is fun, educational Žižek cinema. I recommend it to you! You can see a list of all the films Žižek discusses at the film’s Wikipedia page. And here’s a link to the film’s 15-minute-long “extended” trailer.