Sunday, October 6, 2013

'The Pervert's Guide to Ideology' (2012) directed by Sophie Fiennes

They all told me: be afraid of Slavoj Žižek, be very, very afraid.  They said he eats interviewers for lunch, stalking from country to country dropping cluster bombs of harshly complex Marxist theory on terrified audiences.  After reading The Sublime Object of Ideology it was easy to buy into this; while I got through the book, I felt like most of Žižek's argument as to what ideology is was whooshing right over my head.  So when I bumped into him angrily griping about people leaving to go to the bathroom during the credits of this film I jumped a mile and thought he was about to bite my head off.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is the sequel to the excellent The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, both films an extended visual lecture from Žižek on cultural theory through the lens of cinema.  He jumps between films like a ghost in the machine: one moment he's lying on Travis Bickle's campbed, the next he's sitting in the Korova milk bar the next perched on a frozen lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  All these jumps through the world of cinema lead us inexorably through a central argument: that every single reaction we have to the world around us is informed by an invisible lens of ideology.

Žižek's concept of ideology isn't limited to political systems like socialism, conversatism, communism or fascism, but functions as a cloak that swaddles us from morning to night.  He introduces this by explaining to us the central conceit of John Carpenter's 1988 cult classic They Live.  In this film an unemployed drifter named Nada played by 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper discovers a box of sunglasses in an abandoned church.  When he puts them on he sees into a world 'hidden' beneath our own.  Billboards just read 'OBEY', newspapers read 'SUBMIT' and money reads 'THIS IS YOUR GOD'.  Žižek's reading is that the fictional sunglasses are a symbol of piercing the veil of ideology - to comprehend the forces motivating what we think are 'our' desires.

When Žižek talks of a "pervert's guide" he's not referring to sexual perversion (well, not always anyway), rather that to understand his vision of an ideological world we need to approach everything in a perverted way - every piece of cultural detritus functioning as a Rosetta stone with a coded message about who we are and where we're at. As he skips between cinematic classics he painfully peels back their flesh to expose the ideological muscles madly twitching underneath -a process that seems immediately ridiculous yet quickly becomes convincing.  Travel too far down the Žižekian rabbit hole and you'll never watch a film the same way again.

It's astonishing how much ground Žižek covers over the course of two hours.  We compare the use of Nazi imagery  in Bob Fosse's Cabaret and the live shows of Rammstein.  He spends as much time dissecting a Stalinist World War II war film as he does understanding The Sound of Music's position on sexual hedonism, or the ways in which Beethoven's 9th Symphony is appropriated by pretty much every ideology under the sun. 

Perhaps the most gripping moment was his analysis of the 2011 London riots.  The screening I attended was at the Brixton Ritzy, so the audience was painfully conscious that the helicopter shots of chaos on the streets were hitting very close to home - like a Matroyska doll we could see the cinema we're in under siege.  Žižek compares the behaviour of the young rioters to the street gangs of West Side Story and the song Officer Krupke:
"Dear, kindly Sergeant Krupke you gotta understand

It’s just our bringin’ up-ke that gets us out of hand
Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!"
Žižek, sitting within Kubrick's Korova Milk Bar, explains that this song encapsulates the standard liberal response: that we must understand the riots as acts of delinquent vandalism arising from a deprived social situation.  Žižek argues that this behaviour is not merely the product of the perpetrators' objective social circumstances, but rather a symptom of an inescapable consumerist and ideological ideology that the rioters are trapped within.   It's powerful stuff, underlined by some beautiful stock footage of the riots set to the soundtrack from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Do you feel lucky punk?
The film is stuffed to bursting point with these fascinating arguments, but don't think this is some dry piece of cultural theory, The Pervert's Guide... is a damn funny film.  Žižek has a brilliant handle on deadpan, absurdist humour, never afraid to poke fun at himself or place himself in a ridiculous situation.  There are brilliant sequences where he explains the ideological underpinnings of a Kinder Egg, or holds court on the "excremental" qualities of Coca Cola.  My favourite was his pessimistic prognosis of Jack and Rose's relationship in Titanic.  He explains that Rose is vampirically feeding on Jack's proletariat joie de vivre and "after a few weeks of intense sex in New York" she'd leave him.  The high point of this sequence is where Žižek points out the absurdity of Rose telling the frozen Jack that she'll never let him go even as she pushes him off the raft into the ocean. 

The only problem with the film is that it doesn't seem to quite appreciate how visually compelling the films it discusses.  You have to work to keep up with Žižek for fear of losing the thread of his argument, yet if you have say, extended sequences from Kubrick films on screen, then I find myself analysing Kubrick's visual cues and framing rather than what Žižek is saying.  It's also arguable that Žižek has an overly myopic focus in narrative in cinema - his plot analysis is stellar, but he never delves into the visual or audio language of film, which, when analysing something like Triumph of the Will is missing the forest for the trees.

In addition, it really helps if you've seen the films that Žižek refers to; he covers cinematic classics like Titanic and Jaws, but also cult hits like John Frankenheimer's awesomely great Seconds (as written about by me here, folksor Lindsay Anderson's If...  You get a brief outline of the plot, but this documentary really rewards a broad cinematic vocabulary and punishes any holes.

Following the screening was a live Q&A with Žižek which was about as entertaining as the film preceeding it.  He's a fascinating talker, at times approaching a kind of philosophical glossolalia, free-associating between subjects at will.  I asked him a question about the modern fear of Marxist philosophy in reference to the Ralph Miliband Daily Mail controversy and he immediately launched into a frantic answer about the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators in postwar Lithuania.  He talks so fast, and skips between topics so quickly that all you can do is sit back and go with the flow.  He's also weirdly sweet, when asked about the ending of his film he responds in confusion "what film?": this - while sitting at the gala screening of his film with an enormous poster of his film behind him.

After the Q&A he stuck around at the front of the cinema chatting away to 3 or 4 people people who'd stuck around the chat.  I joined them and the subject matter dancing wildly between the incompetence and cowardice of Heisenberg, the length of TV series like the Wire the echoes of class war in modern Hollywood.  Chatting to him felt like licking a battery, being in the presence of a genuinely innovative thinker.

So it looks like I was lied to!  Žižek isn't scary at all, in fact, I can hardly imagine anyone more polite and friendly towards his audience.  When his handlers finally whisked him away he was still apologising for not being able to chat longer.  Perfect arguments.  Nice smell.  Cool t-shirt.  A class act all the way.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is on limited release now.

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