In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Sophie Fiennes’ first cinematic foray into the intellect of Slavoj Žižek (popular culture’s favorite celebrity theorist), he discusses cinema as an instructive tool for desire — not as a way to satisfy our desires, but as a mechanism for teaching us how to desire. In the second collaboration between the filmmaker and scholar, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, cinema is used instead as a tool for exploring how ideology operates. The shared concern between Fiennes and Žižek pertains less to a capital-I Ideology (i.e., a propagated investment in partisan politics) but rather those moments in which we tacitly embrace ideology, openly recognize ideology, fall short at overcoming our subjection to ideology, or fail to recognize ideology altogether.
It is in this latter regard that Žižek offers an incredible amount of insight, opening Pervert’s Guide with a detailed reading of John Carpenter’s brilliant 1988 film They Live with the observation, “When we think we escape ideology into our dreams, at that moment we are in ideology” [See the clip down below]. The film unfortunately offers no intermission at this point for select viewers to scoop their brains off the floor.
As with their previous collaboration, Fiennes is not interested in the publicly known Žižek — world-traveling lecturer, public intellectual, and frequent guest on Democracy Now! To know of Žižek is to know of his celebrity, whether that consists of his provocative interviews, his blurbs on YouTube that elicit hits in the hundreds of thousands, or his recent spat with Noam Chomsky. There seems to be a Žižek that exists almost independently of his prolific written work, catered to anyone willing to recognize the charm of an abrasive yet funny personality presented in an unkempt beard and a thick, lisped Eastern European accent.
But unlike Astra Taylor’s focus on Žižek’s everyday working life in and outside the Ivory Tower in Žižek! and Examined Life, Fiennes takes an inventively stylized approach to the life of the mind by (once again) placing Žižek in scenes uncannily resembling the films he speaks of, from a window seat of Hitler’s plane in Triumph of the Will to Travis Bickle’s apartment from Taxi Driver to (in perhaps Žižek’s best ever onscreen moment) replacing Leo DiCaprio in the icy waters of Titanic. This is a purely cinematic approach to critical theory.
The choice is hardly a gimmick, as Fiennes’ technique lends a fascinating immediacy to Žižek’s interchangeably insightful, dense, abstract, obvious and redundant ideas. She materializes the thinker’s mind in a way that one of Žižek’s fevered lectures or difficult manuscripts never could. One leaves The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology with a lingering sense that this is how academic essay films (or at least the seemingly expanding Žižek subgenre, specifically) should be done in the 21st century.
Part of what makes The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology work so well is the playfulness by which Žižek approaches the subject. I’m not talking about a light tone by any means, but rather the engaging sense of rampant exploration that Žižek’s approach to thinking embraces, namely the possibility that anything from Beethoven’s 9th symphony to Rammstein carries a wealth of suggestions about the structures within which we live and understand ourselves (Fiennes thankfully reduces the “Žižek gag” moments this time around, and thus no longer interprets the meeting between popular culture and continental philosophy as a punchline in of itself).
All types of culture (but especially movies) offer for Žižek a tool for thinking out certain conceptual problems. What can The Sound of Music, Zabriskie Point, Seconds, The Dark Knight or Full Metal Jacket teach us about the structures and institutions that determine our lives in ways that so often go on unnoticed? The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology offers a grab bag of answers, but the film’s deft pace and playful sense of exploration make even Žižek’s less enthralling revelations pretty damned entertaining throughout the film’s 135-minute runtime.
The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology offer the two sides to the coin that is Žižek — the psychoanalyst and the Marxist. Neither of these are separable, naturally, but these two distinct areas of focus frame the strengths and limitations of each film. The earlier film is more explicitly about cinema, thus offering a reading of moving images that only Žižek could. But at the same time, it too often wants to be in on the punchline of making Žižek a Hollywood lead [watch this clip from The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema].
The newer film, by contrast, is hardly just about cinema, and as a result Žižek dives cerebellum-first into socio-political topics that include the London riots, advertising, the Third Reich, late-60s socialist protests in Yugoslavia, and (in one of the film’s finest sequences) a junkyard for forgotten planes in the Mojave desert. While the subject matter here is more expansive, some of Žižek’s observations — e.g., Rammstein’s recycling of ideological symbols; the problems of Starbucks’ charitable consumerism — feel less like his own specific conclusions and more like a survey of knowledge commonly shared in ideological critiques of culture. Still, the film provides a delicious cohesion of complex and intriguing ideas. After all, this is, in terms of form and content, something of a collage film.
Some smart person once said that pseudo-intellectuals obscure their ideas in jargon, while genuine intellectuals explain their ideas clearly so that the depth of their profundity can be transparent. Žižek, despite his clownish persona, is (to borrow Coke’s slogan) the real thing. That’s why the joy of watching this film is to see his ideas in action, fully realized by Fiennes’ captivating, uniquely cinematic approach to theory. The result is both a primer for those unfamiliar with Žižek and a useful summary for those with Welcome to the Desert of the Real sitting spine-broken on their shelves. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a convincing piece of evidence that the language of cinema is not only compatible with complex ideas, but animates them like nothing else can.