Following the same format and stylized approach they used in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, director Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph Fiennes) and theorist/cultural critic Slovoj Zizek are back with another unorthodox but thoroughly entertaining film critique entitled The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. This time, using a wealth of superbly chosen film clips (The Fall of Berlin,The Searchers, Cabaret, etc.), Zizek demonstrates how the film medium influences the way we think and feel through imagery that reinforces social behavior and conditioning.
Sometimes the messaging is blatant and intentional as in such landmark propaganda films as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Veit Harlan’s Jud Suss (1940) but often a film’s subtext can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on one’s personal beliefs. “Ideology is an empty container open to all possible meaning,” Zizek states as he imposes his own theories on the viewer.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology comes out of the starting gate at full gallop with Zizek recognizing John Carpenter’s They Live as “Hollywood’s forgotten left-wing masterpiece.” I remember seeing this film in the theater on the evening that George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election and was amazed with the prescience of Carpenter’s vision. The villains in this paranoid sci-fi fantasy are power-hungry alien elitists who infiltrated Earth and created a brave new world of haves and have-nots with the latter taking control of the government, media, military and corporations.
Zizek draws our attention to the most famous scene from They Live, which also might be the longest fight scene in movies. In a trash-strewn alley, Roddy Piper and his homeless friend Keith David come to blows over David’s refusal to put on a pair of unusual sunglasses Piper has found. We know that the alien-created sunglasses allow you to see the hidden meanings and subliminal messages behind billboards, newspapers, signs, magazines but David rejects them because he thinks Piper is an aggressive crackpot. The resulting brawl might be the most literal-minded but hilarious example of how hard it really is to make someone see your point of view.
1997’s Titanic is interpreted by Zizek as an attempt by James Cameron to make a Marxism epic with Kate Winslet’s Rose symbolizing the decadent, exploitive upper class. Her romance with Jack, Leonardo DiCaprio’s working class hero, is seen in vampiric terms as Kate is attracted to his youth and vitality, sucks it out of him and then discards him while pretending to care. All of this is amusingly illustrated in scenes from the movie that culminate with Kate uttering the famous line, “I’ll never let go, Jack. I promise,” while she releases his hand and Jack descends to his watery grave.
In Zizek’s critique of the Hollywood blockbuster Jaws (1975), he reveals that Fidel Castro was a big fan of the movie and saw the great white shark as a symbol of invasive American capitalism. As a leftist social theorist, it is no surprise to hear Zizek add that “The depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionizing force.”
Avoiding a standard talking heads approach, Fiennes employs a number of witty and often surprising settings for Zizek’s theories, often placing him in faithful recreations of iconic movie scenes. We see him discoursing on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as he relaxes in bed in a set that duplicates Travis Bickel’s dingy, unkept apartment. He analyzes Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) from a toilet seat in a restroom that mirrors the military barracks bathroom where Pvt. Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) turns homicidal. Even if you don’t agree with Zizek’s insights – sometimes his interpretations might require more than a passing familiarity with the teachings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and other noted intellectuals – the movie is engaging brain candy and a treat for the eyes. For film buffs, just seeing favorite scenes from movies like John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968), David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965), Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1972), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and The Dark Knight (2008) with Zizek’s unique take on the scene’s ideology is consistently intriguing, even at a running time of 136 minutes.
Commercials and popular music are also targeted along the way with Zizek playfully dissecting “It’s the Real Thing” and other campaigns for Coca-Cola, Starbuck’s corporate strategy for charging more money for a cup of coffee than competitors (It’s to save the rain forests, stupid!), and the fact that Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” became an all-purpose anthem embraced by political movements as diverse as Nazi Germany, Communist China and the Shining Path in Peru.
Still, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is not for everyone. Zizek has a quirky, physical presence with constantly gesticulating hand gestures, a strong Eastern European accent (he was born in Yugoslavia which is now Slovenia) that is as distinctive and amusing in a deadpan way as Werner Herzog’s, and he has a non-stop sniffle which is made more noticeable by his habit of rubbing his nose with his finger.
I dragged my brother and his wife to see The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology and neither liked it very much. My brother said it reminded him of an interminable college lecture and his wife said the movie made her head feel like it was going to explode. But either had seen many of the movies referenced which greatly adds to the enjoyment, especially if you are a film buff. If you saw The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and loved it, you know what to expect.
Stay tuned for more film coverage of the 2013 Virginia Film Festival with reviews of A Single Shot, The Missing Picture and Our Nixon.
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