A veritable rock star when it comes to the worlds of philosophical and psychoanalytic criticism, Slavoj Zizek’s pop culture minded and socially aware musings have made him one of the most sought after thinkers and speakers in the world. His previous film with director Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, was a lengthy, freewheeling, and incredibly entertaining look at how popular culture reflects basic human desires, fears, and things that people don’t want to admit to themselves. Which makes it all the more disappointing to say that their follow-up – The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology – is a bit of a disappointment. Lengthy for the sake of being lengthy and devoid of anything Zizek hasn’t already stated elsewhere, it’s somewhat hypocritical and way too much effort to deliver a thesis that can essentially be summed up in a single sentence.
The Slovenian accented Zizek picks up largely where his previous team-up with Fiennes left off, by using cinema – and specifically John Carpenter’s They Live, one of the last great Hollywood masterpieces in the eyes of Zizek – to talk about how everyday people tend to put blinders on when it comes to realizing the ideologies being foisted upon them on a daily basis. Zizek doesn’t specifically mean religious, political, or capitalist ideologies, but also the perceived beliefs that make up the grey areas of daily lives. His efforts here are to examine the pains caused to everyday people who are forced to step out of their own self-imposed and externally applied comfort zones, both through well know films and music, but also through major world events.
There are quite a few moments where Zizek is on top of his theoretical game. Who else could draw parallels between the big screen adaptation of the musical Cabaret, the metal outfit Rammstein, and the misappropriation of music for sometimes insidious and subversive gains by political organizations with this much ease and confidence in front of an audience? His points about how people feel more guilt from under-indulging rather than excessive tendencies should hit home for a lot of people. He also has great readings of the Officer Krupke character from West Side Story (tying into how people misperceive youthful rebellion) and John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. It’s all done in Zizek’s typical devil-may-care tone and style of delivery, but he’s almost more of an attraction to watch the film than his theories.
The biggest problems here are two-fold. First of all, the overarching message of this film (that ideologies are inherently bad no matter who they are coming from) can be summed up in approximately two seconds and without at least half of the examples being given (a reading of James Cameron’s Titanic as the best example of false ideology in Hollywood is well stated, but neverending and repetitive as all hell). Unlike Guide to Cinema, which had the ability to be a lot more freewheeling in its approach and broader topic, Zizek seems to be striving towards making a whole bunch of tangential points under one banner and it’s just messy to try and keep up with him.
The other problem is in the very nature of making a film about ideologies and espousing one’s feelings about them. I’m sure that Zizek is savvy enough to understand that by making such a film about how ideologies are bad that he’s inherently created one of his very own that he’s asking audiences to go along with. The fact that he never once cops to this simple and undeniable elephant in the room beyond briefly scoffing and being sarcastic about it in a comparison between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and the failed US search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, suggest that he might just be as willfully oblivious as the rest of us plebes that he’s aiming his high minded project at. And there’s something particularly grating about being lectured to believe in what we want to believe in by someone who very clearly has his own opinions on the subject. He’s a great speaker who makes valid points and well rounded and thought out theories, but he’s also become undoubtedly in love with the sound of his own voice. He’d argue that’s the point, but he also wouldn’t laugh at the joke, either. Instead of being thoughtfully confounding, it’s more likely to elicit a chorus of “who cares?” from anyone who isn’t a die-hard Ziz-head.