Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Is a Lecture Like No Other

Your reaction to The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the latest cine-lecture from Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek, will depend almost entirely upon your response to Zizek himself, a Slovenian philosopher whose appearance suggests a homeless lumberjack on speed.

Yoking together disparate topics with critical theory, Zizek’s fixation is revealing the social and psychological prejudices latent in pop culture. The film features Zizek parsing a number of films and their relations to history; keeping us visually stimulated, Fiennes has Zizek inhabiting the set of each film as he discusses it.

In essence, the film is a lecture, but Zizek’s associative thinking and understanding of the applicability of psychoanalysis makes it a lecture like no other. Linking West Side Story to the 2011 London riots (rebellious cultural movements’ self-aware exploitation of liberal ideology), The Dark Knight to WMDs and the Iraq War (the “noble lie” required for the sake of cohesive narratives), even Jaws to the Holocaust (stunning, but yes — the object that is manipulated to take the place of all fears), Zizek’s critiques illustrate how pop culture implicitly advances ideologies without us even being aware.

Zizek’s goal is to fulfill a role similar to the first film he discusses, They Live: Like the sunglasses in that picture, he’s interested in revealing the inherent systems of thought we unwittingly buy into. This critic expects that audiences willing to take a highly unusual cinematic journey will be seeing things rather differently as they leave the theater.


Careful, Artist at Work: Anselm Kiefer and his Blowtorch in Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

“We’ll start with this” are, fittingly, the first words spoken by German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, nearly 30 minutes into Sophie Fiennes’s immersive look at his artistic process. Except for an opening intertitle noting that Kiefer set up his studio in 1993 in an abandoned silk factory in the southern French town of Barjac, where the documentary was shot, and an interview with a German journalist, in which the artist exalts boredom, there is no explication in Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (a marked contrast with Fiennes’s previous doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a logorrheic lecture by Slavoj Zizek). In equal parts mesmerizing and disorienting, Over Your Cities (the title comes from the biblical story of Lilith) plunges viewers into the earth, wind, and fire of Kiefer’s massive-scale projects: bulldozed terrain, dust and ash being tossed onto canvases, a blowtorch used to solder and liquefy metals. The artist himself—owlish, lean, riding into the studio dressed in linen pants and a flat cap on a pink bicycle—appears to be a model of equilibrium. Though he’s occasionally tetchy with his six assistants, the amiable Kiefer expresses frustration with a work’s progress as quiet heartbreak: “It’s not the sculpture that it wants to be.”


Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss

Lecturing at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival after a screening of The Great Sacrifice, the hallucinatory romance directed by the notorious Veit Harlan, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek declared Harlan the one great Nazi-era German auteur whose films “cannot be redeemed.” It was not a simple condemnation: Zizek also once named Sacrifice as one of the three works of art he’d take to a desert island.

The only Third Reich filmmaker to be tried on crimes against humanity (he was acquitted, twice), Harlan’s anti-Semitic 1940 hit Jew Süss is credited with getting the German moviegoing public onboard with the Final Solution. The question of whether or not Harlan can be redeemed posthumously—as either a filmmaker or as a human being—sits at the heart of Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, Felix Moeller’s documentary about Harlan’s life and work, told primarily by the extended family he left behind.

All of the Harlan children and grandchildren seen here concur that Süss was used as a “murder weapon,” but they disagree over whether or not the filmmaker intended it as such. Was Harlan—who often cast second wife Kristina Söderbaum as an Aryan goddess, embodying “purity, unspoiled nature, and idyllic romance” and inevitably tainted by outside forces—truly sympathetic to the Nazi cause? Or was he a gifted, passionate filmmaker who could only practice his trade by sucking up to Goebbels?

Stuffed with talking heads, Harlan is overlong and redundant, but its core questions are worthy. It’s easy to dismiss a live-action cartoon like Süss; it’s harder to deal with Harlan’s swoony melodramas like Sacrifice, epic commercials for German supremacy that nonetheless play to universal, apolitical, and resolutely human emotions. How does such romanticism reconcile with such evil? And how can relatives think clearly and logically about the moral culpability of someone they love, without interrogating that love itself? “If the question is, ‘Who in Germany is guilty?,’ the fact is, many millions were slayed by us,” Harlan’s niece, Christiane Kubrick, says somberly. Harlan’s family can go around in circles debating his merits and intentions, but that “us” cuts to the quick.


NACL’s Odd Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes Is a Study in Confusion

The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, a performance piece by the North American Cultural Laboratory, does indeed pose many mysteries: Why is Inspector Lestrade playing the drums? Why is Dr. Watson wearing a silk negligee? And why didn’t writer-director Brad Krumholz take more care in crafting this detective-story/rock-and-roll/circus-arts/steampunk mash-up? One conundrum, at least, offers an easy solution: Why does Brett Keyser’s Holmes sport a pompadour? Because it looks awesome.

Krumholz follows the lead of philosophers like Umberto Eco and Slavoj Zizek, who use the Sherlock Holmes stories to discuss notions of semiotics, authorial intent, and linguistic free play. While of theoretical interest, these notions make for less than scintillating drama. The script calls on Holmes and Watson to investigate the deaths of Jeremy Nietzsche and Kevin Freud; a bewigged P.I., Jacqueline Derrida, offers her aid. Occasionally, the story pauses so that the cast can perform rock-and-roll songs or demonstrate tumbling. The songs relate to the action tangentially; the somersaults do not. In The Valley of Fear, Holmes posits, “There should be no combination of events for which the wit of man cannot conceive an explanation.” But I’m afraid Krumholz’s amalgam of disconnected elements has left me rather stumped.


Springtime for Zizek

It’s not exactly like being the heavyweight champion of the world, but for my money at least, Slavoj Zizek is the undisputed spritz master of international cinema studies. Zizek, who has also lately been something of a documentary film star, will be seen to splendid effect this season in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema— a two-and-a-half-hour illustrated lecture directed by Sophie Fiennes having its local premiere with a weeklong run at the Museum of Modern Art in April.

Nothing if not a polymath, Zizek has written on Communism, Christianity, and the “obscene object of postmodernity.” His thick, sibilant accent and rapid-fire rant unavoidably reminiscent of Borat Sagdiyev, Slovenia’s leading Hegelian-Lacanian theorist holds forth in Pervert’s Guide on the nature of cinematic fantasy. As Zizek characterizes The Birds as a movie in which reality is torn asunder by “a foreign dimension,” so the shaggy philosopher regularly inserts himself into the films he’s analyzing. Zizek is a sensational performer and he can also be quite funny, not least because he presents himself as an unsmiling madman—even when comparing the magic moment when the lights go down before a movie starts to the experience of staring into a toilet bowl and waiting for something to appear.

The Pervert’s Guide offers a Zizek crash course. As texts, he favors mainly horror flicks ( The Exorcist, Alien), heady sci-fi ( The Matrix, Solaris), and psychosexual dark comedies ( The Piano Teacher, Fight Club). Not surprisingly, his key directors are Alfred Hitchcock and especially David Lynch (he of the terrifying father-figures and “ridiculously violent comedy”). But Zizek can also be quite moving with his offhandedly cinephilic readings of Chaplin ( City Lights is “too sophisticated for the sophisticated”), Andrei Tarkovsky (whose “pre-narrative density” is an attempt to make tangible “time itself”), and Lars von Trier ( Dogville is concerned with the problem of persuading people to “still believe in the magic of cinema”). And it’s hard to think that Freud wouldn’t have appreciated Zizek’s use of the Marx Brothers to explicate the workings of the unconscious.

Punctuated by a chorus of Rorschach tests, Zizek’s discourse has its own particular free-associational logic. He characterizes the image of Kim Novak in the middle of a florist shop, glimpsed by Jimmy Stewart through a door partially opened onto an alley, as the “most beautiful” shot in Vertigo; 15 minutes later, in the context of Blue Velvet, Zizek exclaims that he personally finds flowers “disgusting.” They’re an open invitation for insects to come and have sex. (There’s a thought for spring.)

For Zizek, cinema is a way of thinking, or rather it’s a machine that plays with (and domesticates) fantasy to instruct the viewer how to desire: “We need the excuse of a fiction to state what we truly are.” Exposing the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz does not dispel the illusion on the screen—according to Zizek, that’s the essence of movies, a fiction “more real than reality itself.”

Opens March 23 The latest feature by Iranian director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold) is a quiet sensation. Dramatizing the ban that prohibits Iranian women from attending soccer matches (or any other public sport), Panahi sets his story against the backdrop of the Iranian national team’s World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. The movie is at once a spirited social critique, a vivid character comedy, and a technical tour de force.

‘The Real Edie Sedgwick’
March 31–April 8 Mediocre biopic notwithstanding, Edie really was a star—not to mention Andy Warhol’s muse. More than any of the other personalities who put themselves before the unmoving camera in the Silver Age of the Factory, Edie Sedgwick could hold the screen simply with the power of her coolly frenzied and bizarrely vacant personality. All the 1965 great ones are included in this series: Vinyl, Restaurant, Beauty 2, the half-out-of-focus Poor Little Rich Girl, and the double-screen triumph Outer and Inner Space—not to mention a fragment from Ricky Leacock’s Lulu. Museum of the Moving Image.

Opens April 20
Nimród Antal demonstrated some Hollywood-friendly genre chops a few years back with his mystical Budapest subway thriller Kontroll. Now he goes for the real deal. A cute couple of newlyweds—Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson—check into a rural motel and discover that it’s the set for a snuff film in which they’ve been cast.

The Long Goodbye
April 18–24Just past his period as Hollywood’s Mr. Now, Elliott Gould gave his best performance as a sweetly anachronistic private eye in Robert Altman’s best movie—itself adapted from the best of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. It’s being revived for a week in a new Scope print with the promise that Gould himself will appear to accept accolades on opening night. Film Forum.

The Tripper
Opens April 20Speaking of the good old days, you gotta love this genre release for its premise alone: A “Ronald Reagan–obsessed serial killer” (is there another kind?) sets his telescopic sights on a group of “hippies” happily en route to a rock festival. To add to the fun, it’s a family affair. David Arquette directs and stars, along with wife Courteney Cox and brother Richmond Arquette.

Opens May 25Cyberpunk animation director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers) channels Sherlock, Jr. and uncorks his most complicated anime to date. A new sort of “psychotherapy machine” allows doctors to download and explore their patients’ dreams—which are variously represented as derelict theme parks, parading objects, or Hollywood movies. It also allows for something far worse. As the heroine exclaims, “Implanting dreams in other people’s heads is terrorism!”

Street date March 13 Alain Resnais’s 1963 masterpiece—subtitled The Time of Return—has indeed returned, for the first time on DVD. Time is of the essence in this boldly modernist story of people living emotionally in the past and historically in the aftermath of cataclysmic war. Muriel was Resnais’s first color feature, as well as one of the first French films to deal with the Algerian situation. Playing the widowed proprietress of a Boulogne antique shop, Delphine Seyrig won the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. In a way, her performance sets up for the single mother she’d play a dozen years later in Jeanne Dielmann.


The Mirror Sage

The exclamation point marks a broad joke about cheesy biopix, or perhaps a more specific anxiety about the film’s own place in the millennial raft of theoryporn, including the Pierre Bourdieu epic Sociology Is a Combat Sport and not one but two Derrida flicks. Or maybe it’s just about subject Slavoj Zizek’s tendency to take things to extremes, sometimes at high volume. “I try to go a little bit over the edge,” he tells me on the phone from his home in Ljubljana, Slovenia. “I try to be funny blah blah, but then, you know, a little bit too much in being tasteless or telling a joke without a point, that doesn’t fit.”

And he is funny blah blah: the least you could ask from a revered and reviled intellectual, a “card-carrying Lacanian” who speaks more excitedly about politics than Jacques Lacan’s revolutionary psychoanalytic ideas. “I am a mastodon,” he says. “I still believe in the big theories popular back in the ’70s. This distrust in big universal theory is the most dangerous ideology today. Look at all totalitarians, the really bad guys, Hitler, Stalin. Sorry, but none of them believed in big theory. Hitler was a historicist-relativist and so was Stalin! Often a reference to some absolute truth is necessary to resist totalitarian political power, so you can not lose hope.”

Insight, nonsense, provocation? Zizek! director Astra Taylor frames the film as an attempt to bring the passion of ideas themselves into the public sphere. “I’m not a Zizekian, whatever that would be,” she says. “I’m 26. Him attacking cynicism and apathy, these things I saw all around me, as ideological—I found his critique compelling, addressing things that seemed very palpable in everyday life. Whether Zizek’s ideas are useful or not doesn’t matter to me as a filmmaker. It does matter to me as a human being, but I think Zizek truly doesn’t care.”

Perhaps. On one hand, Zizek feels bedeviled by his own waxing fame (the film shows him speaking to huge audiences in various countries, always a bit uncomfortably). He looks a little like Castro, though the story climaxes, like so many tales of immigrants and rock stars, with a voyage to America): “Making me popular is a resistance to taking me seriously,” he says. And yet, here he is basking in the lens glare, admitting his fear that “if I stopped talking, the whole spectacular appearance would disintegrate.”

Zizek, theory itself, approaches and withdraws, a dialectical drama suggestive both of the child’s “fort-da” game that entranced Freud and Lacan, and of the endless motion of history. “The politics of multiple identity, each of us telling our story,” he says, turning on the gospel of multiculturalism, “is precisely how global capitalism functions at the level of ideology. I totally disagree with everyone who says that global capitalism is culturally uniforming. No! Global capitalism is strictly, infinitely multicultural. It’s niche markets.” In the film, noting public fascination with apocalyptic scenarios, he suggests bluntly that “today it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest change in capitalism.”

The movie is an attempt to disseminate serious social philosophy, haunted by the threat one might be selling it out. Jokes mask ambitious investigations; serious gestures withdraw into self-negation; the specter of historical violence is omnipresent (he refers to his critical confreres as “a cell, the theoretical Al Qaeda”). Zizek, who finished fifth in Slovenia’s 1990 election of a four-person presidency, says he was offered various governmental positions: “Minister of education, health, I almost died laughing. There are only two posts I want: minister of interior, or secret police.” The certainty that he’s both making fun and utterly serious crackles through the international phone line. “The only way to signal you are serious is, at the level of form, to make fun of yourself. This pseudo-Heideggerian jargon, we live in fateful times, the destiny of humanity is threatened blah blah blah—I think you cannot talk like that.”

So how can you talk; what is philosophy for? “It’s not to provide answers, it’s to correct the questions,” says Zizek. “Terrorism, freedom, democracy: The duty of philosophy is not to explain what would be true democracy, how to beat terrorism, but to ask, is this truly the question? This is the only thing a philosopher can do. Other questions are for politicians—I mean, what do I know? Fuck it, who am I, what do I know how to fight terrorism? Every secret policeman, I give him moral right to know more than me.”


Doc Takes World Tour With a Rock Star Academic

A thumbnail portrait of international gadfly culture-theorist Slavoj Zizek, Astra Taylor’s debut doc follows in the tire tracks of Derrida—singing to the smug choir of post-structuralist academia, who have so few movies made for their matinee satisfaction. More of a widely worshipped name brand in Europe and South America than here, yet the memorable subject of a New Yorker profile a few years back, Zizek may’ve been almost elected president of the newly independent Slovenia, but his primary claim to fame is his post-Lacanian ecumenicalism. He’s fully capable— during what seems to be a 24-7, lifelong caffeine seizure—of talking rapidly about nearly anything: Stalin, utopianism, love, faith, Vertigo, commercial culture, suicide, capitalist politics, fame, himself.

Taylor traipses around after Zizek on a continent-hopping lecture tour, and we get a face full of the man’s tireless analysis, in a style that can only be characterized as hyperactive grizzly bear, complete with spit-spewing speech impediment. Hardly an effortlessly enjoyable talking head, Zizek is by some consensus less a seminal thinker than an inexhaustible polymath, and, honestly, much of what he blurts as a priori hardly makes sense. Maintaining that philosophy won’t help us if a meteor hits is a mild point to make (but he makes it as if it’s epochal); he might also be right when he indicts modern culture for complacent indulgences like sex-without-sex, cream-without-fat, and leftism-without-revolution. But I’m not sure what he’s right about. Still, the level of discourse is high, and we can all come away comforted that in academia, as in poetry and science, adored “rock stars” can be old, paunchy, and less than beautiful.


Are the War’s By-Products in Fact the Primary Intentions?

In this exhilarating, frustrating pamphlet-disguised-as-book, the Lacanian-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek gleefully points out that the proliferation of arguments for the Iraq war resembles the denials, concessions, and excuses in the joke about the borrowed, broken kettle: (1) I never borrowed the kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you intact; (3) the kettle was broken when I got it from you. The giveaway was that there were “too many” reasons for war—WMDs, Al Qaeda connections, democracy. So the disavowed reasons became almost embarrassingly obvious: oil, U.S. hegemony. Zizek also makes (he admits) “slightly paranoid” speculations about darker motivations. What if the supposed by-products of the war on terror are really, unconsciously, the primary intentions: the urge to legitimize torture, to repress “whatever remains of [the U.S.’s] emancipatory potential,” to alienate Europe (an economic competitor), even to neuter the Seattle/Genoa anti-capitalist movement?

While Zizek’s psychoanalytic method is devastating and rollicking good fun, many of his conclusions are familiar. “Who are you to do this?” he asks of the U.S. in Iraq, reciting the standard list of hypocrisies. And, because the rules of war seem to have been rewritten (or scrapped): “The true victims of the war are not the Iraqis, they are elsewhere!” Would Zizek still say this now, as hundreds of Iraqis continue to die in suicide/car bombings—and since things have gone so badly that the U.S. would (hopefully) think thrice before ever launching another unilateral “preventive” war?

Zizek is most radical—and ridiculous?—in the unwieldy appendixes. Politics has dissolved into “opportunistic pragmatism” passively navigating the allegedly “anonymous Fate” of global capital. Zizek remains a utopian. The left should not fight to regulate the excesses of the market, he says, but should “do nothing.” Only in this way can we “remain open to a revolutionary opportunity.”