The Thinking Man’s Guide to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Directed and produced by relative newcomer Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is above all a vehicle for the ideas of its oddly charismatic presenter, Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian intellectual billed in this film’s opening credits as “philosopher and psychoanalyst,” who has risen to prominence for his deft fusions of popular culture and Lacanian theory. Touching here on a number of his favored directors including Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Andrei Tarkovsky, Zizek moves through an idiosyncratic cross-section of film history in three parts: focusing on the unconscious, the libido, and the realm of appearances, respectively.

Throughout, the film’s most compelling cinematographic technique is to place Zizek within the sets and spaces of his chosen films: as he discusses Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) we find him poking around the fruit cellar of the Bates home, and as he discusses The Birds (1963) he trolls Bodega Bay in a small boat. When talking about David Lynch, he waters a suburban front lawn (Blue Velvet, 1986) and stands on a theater stage in front of a red curtain (Mulholland Drive, 2002); he later finds his way aboard an austere spaceship (Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 1972) and settles into a comfy-looking leather chair (Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix, 1999). Such shots, which comprise at least a third of the film, don’t exactly put our hero on location—after all, the cast and crew of these various films have long since moved on with their lives. Rather, they place Zizek as if he were on location, an effect that works best when staying true to the pretense of its own fiction. Quite distinct from cinéma vérité, The Pervert’s Guide strikes a pose much closer to cinema fausseté. While these impressions can be silly at times, and are perhaps slightly overdone, I quickly found myself wanting more of them, and in those rare moments where I felt bored I proceeded to engage in a fleeting game of speculative interpolation (or, as Zizek might style it, “introjection”): how would this have gone over in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), or Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), or, better yet, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984)?

Zizek cuts an entertaining figure as leading man, simultaneously dashing and haggard, providing a supple mixture of intellectual rigor and arch comic relief. His wardrobe proves equally versatile: here in a silk shirt, there in a smart suit, Zizek has different outfits for every shot, though his harangue is constant. Bright colors and bold sets abound, and short cuts mix adroitly with long takes. Drawing strength from the dozens of movies that he in turn re-invigorates with his presence, Zizek does a salutary job in translating J. Hillis Miller’s literary-theoretical notion of the “critic as host” to a cinematic context. Watching him drift purposefully in his little skiff, one can’t help wondering: is Zizek feeding off The Birds, or will The Birds be feeding off Zizek?

To devotees of Zizek’s inimitable style, much of the ground covered here will be familiar from general studies such as Enjoy Your Symptom! (1992) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan . . . But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock (1993) to more specialized monographs including The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime (2000), on Lynch, and The Fright of Real Tears (2001), on Kryzystof Kieslowski. In such works Zizek operates on a middle ground, “between,” as he has styled it, “theory and post-theory”—sometimes using his knowledge of popular culture as a point of departure for more abstruse theorizing, and sometimes using his penchant for abstruse theorizing as a pretext for further adventures in popular culture. But as comfortable as Zizek seems with print (he has published around thirty books since 1990), film may suit him even better. More conversational than most authors, Zizek here proves more authorial than most conversationalists. Because his voice remains consistent in the transition from page to screen, this cinematic recapitulation of his written efforts depends as strongly on its medium as it does on its message—as a cinematic critique of cinematic art, The Pervert’s Guide accomplishes certain effects that no piece of writing, no matter how brilliant, could achieve. Zizek’s on-screen on-stage discussion of Cecil B. DeMille’s on-screen on-stage appearance at the beginning of The Ten Commandments (1956) packs a semiotic punch extending well beyond mere language, as Zizek’s nonchalant curtain call effectively undercuts the gravitas implicit in DeMille’s grandstanding. Just as Alexander Pope required versification to achieve the full range of genius evident in his “Essay on Criticism” (1711), so too Zizek needed the aid of the camera in order to put his entire range of critical faculties on display.

A few years ago, Zizek asserted that “we should not oppose something just because it was appropriated by the wrong guys; rather, we should think about how to re-appropriate it.” This accurately describes the mission of The Pervert’s Guide: to take back post-code Hollywood’s unwritten codes for cultural criticism—even for the left—while turning various independent and international films on their heads in the bargain. “Cinema,” Zizek explains in the opening moments of the film, “is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire; it tells you what to desire.” Perversion at the movies, then, doesn’t mean that you cleave to the content of a given desire, but rather that you try to elude the cinematic injunction to desire x, y, or z. It makes for a rather intricate game, and as it happens the perils of the cinema apply to imaginative engagements of all kinds. This is nicely encapsulated by Zizek’s reading of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a film in which an intrigue that begins as something known to be fake, inauthentic, and artificial becomes so interesting that one gets caught up in the game, until such point that appearances finally overtake reality.

The Pervert’s Guide works best when Zizek treads lightly and moves nimbly, engaging in capsule analyses that offer opportunities for quasi-desultory philosophical speculation. Of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), he wonders in regard to Edward Norton’s self-flagellation if “in order to attack the enemy you first have to beat the shit out of yourself.” And with respect to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which Zizek discusses at some length while sitting, fully clothed, on a toilet, contemplating the flushing mechanism, he ponders the notion that “the eye is the window to the soul,” asking: “But what if there is no soul? What if the eye is simply a window to the abyss of the netherworld?” At any given screening, half of those in attendance are likely to lean forward, trying to figure out where they stand on such conjectures, while the rest are likely to lean back, trying to figure out what Zizek is doing on the can.

Elsewhere Zizek treads on thinner ice, especially in the second part, in which he makes a run of staggeringly dubious claims. Within twenty minutes, he asserts that “a mental rape can be much worse than a physical rape,” that “anxiety is the only genuine emotion,” and that “we don’t want our fathers alive—we want them dead”— a triad that will likely alienate not only many feminists but also certain family-values types, common-sense advocates, and a sizable portion of his audience more generally. Some of Zizek’s more global arguments also ring hollow. For instance, he counterpoises the simple cartoonish ingénues of silent films with the interiority, depth, guilt, and complexity of the protagonists that populate sound films. Anyone who has seen Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) would surely beg to differ here. Though Renée Jeanne Falconetti does not utter a single word in her portrayal of Joan of Arc, she provides the quintessential filmic instances of interiority, depth, guilt, and complexity. That said, Dreyer also knew how to harness sonic effects: there can be few films more adept in the use of sound than his haunting study of religious faith, Ordet (1955).

Offensive, reductive, paranoid, shopworn and/or willfully wrong at various turns, Zizek is nevertheless a source of piercing aphoristic insight at others. To list three examples: that “the fascination of beauty is a façade which covers up a nightmare” (cf. Oscar Wilde, Britney Spears), that “the ultimate abyss is the abyss of another person” (cf. your seventh-grade crush, or your current one) and that “when fantasy constantly runs into reality, hell is here” (cf. Disneyland, week-long raves). And among Zizek’s more interesting larger points is the one that ties most precisely into the mission of The Pervert’s Guide: certain moments of visual representation manage to achieve richer effects than those that can be achieved by mere narrative reality. Pointing to a lengthy string of literal cliffhangers from Hitchcock’s output, Zizek attributes the power of such visual instances to “the autonomy of cinematic form”—a complex aesthetic theorization that merits further development in Zizek’s future work.

“All modern films are about the possibility/impossibility of making a film,” Zizek opines toward the end of The Pervert’s Guide, pointing to Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003) as the example of moment. But meta-commentary on the creative process has long been a feature of the arts, and it’s not clear whether or indeed why this should hold more true of film than of any other mode. It’s utterly plain that The Pervert’s Guide is about this possibility/impossibility to a certain extent: Zizek’s extended reflections on the disembodied voice and the autonomous partial object—the corpus that replaces the corpus—speak not only to his prodigious oeuvre as a writer, but more pointedly to his growing screen presence, having also starred in the amusing and poignant Astra Taylor documentary Zizek! (2005). “The only way to get rid of this autonomous partial object is to become it,” Zizek declares in The Pervert’s Guide, apparently speaking from a considerable degree of experience.

Despite its sheen of newness as a critical endeavor, Pervert’s Guide ends up asking some very old questions about the role of imaginative representation in relation to human consciousness and development. Why do we identify with films? Why do we suspend our disbelief in regard to these obvious fictions? The answer, Zizek suggests—in a virtually neo-Aristotelian manner—is that we neither believe nor disbelieve, but rather, that we conditionally believe and allow ourselves to be emotionally affected in the meantime. Far from mere escapism, this is in fact a highly utilitarian method of self-realization. “We need the truth of a fiction,” Zizek concludes, “to enact that which we really are.” This “truth of a fiction” has been Zizek’s lack as a critic up until quite recently. But with the prose-bound cultural theorist now become a familiar talking head, it will be interesting to see how Zizek chooses to enact himself in coming years. Might his coming works be distributed strictly by print outlets like Routledge and Verso, or might they also find distribution through media outlets such as Google and The Weinstein Company?

Ultimately, one of the most curious things about this curious film is its subterranean gender dynamic: it’s the collaboration of a woman and a man narrated by a man who forswears all understanding of women. Zizek theorizes “the enigma of feminine subjectivity” and yet discourses at length on women’s psychic workings by glossing a series of films by men, most of which films are deeply fixated on women. Because Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Kieslowski’s Blue (1993) provide scintillating depictions of female consciousness, and because Zizek deconstructs them with such conviction and energy, it’s almost possible to forget that Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003) is the only work by a female director represented—apart, that is, from the work of Fiennes herself.

Gender politics aside, in an era when the notion of a viable public intellectual has faded even faster than the notion of a viable public sphere, Fiennes and Zizek have stepped forward to provide the age with precisely what it demands: a mediated public intellectual who speaks to an inevitably mediated public sphere. It’s a potentially reinvigorating aesthetic development for criticism and theory, but it could also prove catastrophic. At the point when print culture is beginning to yield to digital culture, opening publication to any frosh with access to Blogger and/or YouTube, Zizek has simultaneously raised and lowered the would-be point of entry for the would-be cultural critic. In his wake, writing opaquely will no longer be sufficient, but writing well will no longer be enough—or, more precisely, writing well will be too much of not enough for most of those raised on a steady media diet. As media forms proliferate and media criticism becomes more and more savvy in its attempts to address its objects on their own terms, significant ideas than cannot or will not translate themselves into post-print forms may begin to disappear.

Zizek is right to point out that “great cinematographers enable us to think in visual terms,” and he does well to attempt an explication of such work that operates to a large degree on these very same terms. In his hunch about the convergences between film and philosophy, he stands as living proof—or, rather, as autonomous partial proof—of his own hypothesis. One needn’t have read Terrence Malick’s translation of Martin Heidegger or Stanley Cavell’s work on moral perfectionism and the screwball comedy in order to gather that Zizek is working within a tradition, however inchoate and nascent it might yet be. In a generation or two, he might be more revered for his contributions to film theory than for anything else. For if he truly believes that “masculinity is a fake,” that “woman is subjectivity,” and that “male fantasy is incapable of catching up with female fantasy,” he has certainly made a gallant effort to belie such precepts on the strength of this fantastic cinematic production. That, at least, is how this thinking man sees it. But what do I know? Thinking women may well conclude otherwise.

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