Friday, March 30, 2007

The Pervert's Guide To Cinema

Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher, academic and cultural critic, has been slowly becoming more prominent in the U.S. His articles, which often engage pop culture in an intellectual yet accessible way, have been showing up in places like In These Times and The New York Times, and then a year or two ago he was the subject of the documentary Zizek!.

Now he's created a three-part lecture about movies for the screen entitled The Pervert's Guide To Cinema , directed by Sophie Fiennes (Ralph's sister). Cleverly, they've filmed Zizek in locations that look a lot like the films he's discussing (including the completely blank white "room" of The Matrix), so that as the film goes from lecturer to clip and back Zizek almost seems to be there on the spot, commenting on the action. I think this technique alone says a lot about the philosopher before he even opens his mouth. To me, it says he has a sense of fun appropriate to the experience of watching many of these films; that he sees himself as equal to and not above the material; and that he has a considerate, media-savvy appreciation for modern audiences' tastes and desires. (Of course, he may also have been influenced by Mark Rappaport, who has done this kind of thing even better--see Rock Hudson's Home Movies, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, and The Silver Screen/Color Me Lavender.)

Cribbing from the program notes on the film's web site, the lecture breaks down like this: in Part 1, Zizek focuses on psychoanalytical themes and Freudian concepts like the Ego, Superego an Id, the death drive and libido; in part 2 he discusses fantasy and its role in sexual relationships; and in part 3 he considers illusion versus reality and the Gnostic theory of our world as an unfinished reality that God bungled in the act of creation. Okay, that's all well and good, but it makes the film sound dull and academic (it isn't) and it doesn't give you a sense of what Pervert's Guide is like as an experience. Zizek takes up these themes with an almost tireless energy, riffing like a jazz musician, apparently explaining his ideas for you from outline rather than prepared notes, so it feels fresh and impromptu. It's an often exhilarating experience. Perhaps I've seen too many movies, but he seemed to become a rather lovable character, with his heavily accented but always comprehensible English and his enthusiastically spit-producing thoughts.

Zizek covers a lot of films and directors: a beaut of a clip from Possessed starring Joan Crawford in which she watches a train slowly pass by, noticing various scenes in each car through their windows, a gorgeous metaphor for watching film; Coppola (The Conversation), Fincher (Fight Club), the Aliens movies, The Matrix (of course! like catnip to philosophers--r.i.p. Jean Baudrillard, who I read somewhere wasn't a fan), The Wizard of Oz, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin (several clips that shamed me into admitting to myself that it's time I really carefully watched his classics), Ingmar Bergman's Persona, Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Tarkovsky's Solaris and Stalker and more. But he gives probably his most sustained attention to David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mullholland Drive), and Alfred Hitchcock (esp. The Birds, Vertigo and Psycho, plus the recurring image of people hanging on ledges throughout AH's films). In fact, his commentary on Psycho and The Birds, two movies I've never really connected deeply with before, really helped enrich them as experiences for me. And I couldn't believe I'd never picked up on the recurring father theme he found in Lynch. Perhaps that's because Lynch has so many recurring motifs, and the father theme has never really spoken much to me. (I'd love to know what he thought of Inland Empire.)

I think of The Pervert's Guide To Cinema as a creative essay more than a lecture. I wouldn't recommend it to someone looking for facts or history or something concrete. The strength of it is that Zizek is sharing some ideas and a way of seeing that doesn't boil down to a summary, even to that 3-part synopsis from his web site. Still, at times his insights into individual films are so clear and smart that they seem obvious, and I wondered, "Why didn't I ever think of that? How have I never seen that before?" That's a sign of a great critic. He also has a gift for excerpting the most essential moments from films, and at times I did wonder how much of my response I owed to him and how much to the individual filmmakers. Some of his notions, however, are ridiculous, even disgusting (the cinematic screen as overflowing toilet bowl?), and occasionally I found myself wondering to what extent he was joking.

Ideally, I think the film is best watched over three nights rather than in one mad rush the way I saw it, and it is available as a Region 0 import, which surprised me given all the clearances I imagine it required. The film's web site also offers further readings.

Here are the essays he wrote for In These Times on 24, The Matrix, and The Passion of the Christ.

He has also comments on the new, just-released dvd of Children of Men.

An interview with Believer Magazine.

Lastly, he has also has written eloquently about torture recently for the New York Times and the Guardian.

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