The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Hyperintellectual lecture playfully tears apart movies from within
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Directed by Sophie Fiennes
Just how much of a film fanatic are you? The answer might easily be discerned by your interest in, and ability to digest, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. The film is basically a documentary-style discourse by noted Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is known for expounding on a number of subjects, from political theory to psychoanalysis—often at a whiplash-inducing pace. But his passion is film. In 2006 he teamed with British director Sophie Fiennes (sister to Ralph and Joseph and very likely inheritor of some equally good bone structure) to make The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Now the two are reunited for another head-spinningly entertaining think piece.
Watching The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a lot like listening to a lecture by your favorite college professor—the one who wasn’t afraid to wear crazy hats or weird costumes to class in order to jazz things up. Zizek starts it all off by talking about John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi film They Live, which he calls a “forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood left.” The film makes for a nice springboard from which Zizek can launch into his various theories. At the very root of it all, our nutty professor is talking about how ideology—the way in which we think, usually en masse—colors everything we see and do. Prevailing ideologies are exposed by both our dreams (speaking in a Freudian sense) and by the artwork we are attracted to (speaking in a pop cultural sense). From They Live, Zizek leaps, helter-skelter, among topics: The Sound of Music, Coca-Cola, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Jaws, Fidel Castro, Triumph of the Will, Kinder Surprise eggs, Taxi Driver. He accomplishes all this free-association while hanging around various film location replicas. One moment he’s dressed like a nun talking about the conflict of pleasure vs. enjoyment in The Sound of Music. The next moment he’s relaxing in the Korova Milk Bar discussing Little Alex’s musical tastes in A Clockwork Orange. Later he’s lounging in Travis Bickle’s dingy apartment analyzing the connection between Taxi Driver and the Vietnam War. This fun visual gag allows Zizek to deconstruct the films—be they Lindsay Anderson’s If... or James Cameron’s Titanic—from within.
I’m not saying The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is easy to follow. Most of the time it seems as if Zizek is letting random neurons fire off in his brain and simply rambling on about every single subject that crops up. But he’s playing a long game here. The longer you watch the film, the more he loops back to connect the dots. Take, for example, his discussion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (a choral adaptation of the old German hymn “Ode to Joy”). Zizek points out that the tune was a favorite of the Nazis. It’s currently the unofficial anthem of the European Union. Shining Path, the infamous Communist Party of Peru, saw it as an ode to the proletariat. It’s a recurrent theme in A Clockwork Orange. It’s also quite prominent in Die Hard. So how can so many different ideologies use this work of art for so many different purposes? That’s part of the gist of Zizek’s argument. The point is driven home in a discussion of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. What precisely does the shark represent? The fear of foreign invasion? The threat of Mother Nature unchecked? For Cuban leader Fidel Castro—who allegedly loved the film—the shark was a clear symbol of big business exploiting ordinary Americans. So which interpretation is right? None of them. Or to put another spin on it, all of them. In order for a symbol to mean something, it has to be in some sense “devoid of meaning.” And ideologies of all kind love empty symbols ... which brings us back to They Live, a film that shows what the world would look like if we were to strip away all those empty symbols.
It should probably be noted that Zizek is using the word “pervert” at the top of his thesis not to indicate any sort of sexual transgression. He’s using the term more in the sense of “to twist the meaning or sense of” or “to turn away from what is generally done or accepted.” That is, after all, what ideology does, in both a positive and negative sense. Racism, capitalism, Catholicism, libertarianism, Nazism—basically all your “ism”s—are capable of shaping words, art, culture and facts to their own ends. Zizek argues that ideology is an unconscious fantasy that structures our reality whether we realize it or not. That false consciousness often leaks through in A) our dreams and B) our visual narratives (hence Zizek’s obsession with post-Freudian psychoanalysis and Hollywood film).
Do I grok everything that Zizek is laying down here? No. Far from it. You probably won’t either. But this film-cum-lecture will definitely wake up your brain. It’s like every late-night, coffee house, post-film discussion you’ve ever had all rolled into one tap-dancing bundle. And with a little luck, it will have you looking at art in a whole new light, contemplating the questions that Zizek dredges up—How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on Earth than a modest change in the economic order? How do we change the way we dream?—for weeks to come.