The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Ramblin’ Man
Sophie Fiennes
Slavoj Zizek
The Setup: 
Lacanian psychoanalyst / philosopher throws out a ton of observations on various films.

This was my first experience of Zizek, the big, cuddly Lacanian psychoanalyst / philosopher who is currently in vogue among certain circles. He was recently featured in a well-regarded movie, Zizek!, which apparently features him just being him—spouting out a lot of insightful-seeming strident observations at a very fast pace in his Slovenian accent. Two of the people I work with, both poets and publishers of literary journals on the side, are very into his writings and were quite tickled by the movie. So when I saw that there was a movie in which he was talking about movies—and not just movies, but movies that I find interesting, such as The Birds, Vertigo, Blue Velvet, etc.—I wanted to hop on this whole Zizek bandwagon. And goddamn it, I expected some INSIGHT!

This is basically a two-and-a-half-hour lecture on film. Zizek begins by explaining the title, saying that the cinema makes perverts of us all, in that it doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you what to desire. Okay, good. Then come a lot of observations that will not be shocking revelations to anyone who has read Freud [although I suppose most people haven’t], like that when something becomes too violent, we need to fictionalize it, and this is one of the functions the cinema serves. That the three levels of the Bates house correspond to the Freud’s three levels of the mind: id, ego, superego. So do the three main Marx brothers. And of course all of this is illustrated with pertinent clips from the films. I was pleased to hear that his interpretation of why the birds attack in The BirdsM is akin to mine: the bird attacks represent “outbursts of maternal superego—raw incestuous energy.”

He goes on to spout off a bunch more interesting-sounding statements, such as that we are aliens in our own bodies, the advent of sound in films brought a sense of inferiority, Jeffery watching Frank and Dorothy have sex in Blue Velvet is a version of the primal scene [wherein a child sees his parents fucking], we need fantasy to sustain libido, a fantasy realized is a nightmare—and many, many more! These are all delivered in environments and lighting made to look similar to the movie he’s talking about, so over here it looks like you’re seeing Regan in her bed in The Exorcist, then it appears that Zizek is in the other corner of the same room.

So this goes on for 150 minutes. For one, there’s no reason it had to be that long. Dude, edit. I also began to find the technique of inserting Zizek into the environment of the films to be distracting after a while. It was amusing and helped to keep the energy up, but I got annoyed by the self-congratulatory laughter that went up in the theater every time this happened, and ultimately it doesn’t serve any purpose. Toward the end I found it quite distracting, because the film is trying to float this notion that this is all just one rambling discourse by Zizek, but when his speech flows uninterrupted from one environment into another, it begins to seem like the whole thing is actually very tightly scripted, which means that Zizek is himself PERFORMING, which begins to verge on the kind of thing you would expect him to at least comment on. So it began to feel a little too constructed and calculated, which would be fine if it wasn’t pretending to be an off-the-cuff ramble.

The other thing is that ultimately I didn’t come away with much. Certainly very little in the way of insight. Everything seems vaguely interesting, but it all goes by so quickly and touches on all the movies in such a [dare I say] superficial way—an observation about Alien 4 here, a comment on The Conversation there—that one begins to wonder if Zizek actually has a cohesive view of film behind him, or if he’s just a really amusingly eccentric gasbag. On the one hand, almost every specific thing I can remember him saying about a particular film seemed right, on the other hand, I definitely did not come away with any new insight on how to look at film in general or any one film in particular. I was sitting there with my notebook poised, ready to capture all the pearls as they fell from the screen, and only ended up with one page of notes. Also, as to what the entire thesis of the movie was, no clue. I don’t think there was one.

My friend who is much more familiar with Zizek suggested that I read some of his work, which seemed like a good idea, as then you could slow down and try to take in what he’s saying. Here there is little way to evaluate if he’s saying anything. I suspect he is, but I was hoping to come away with a little more insight, regardless. Instead what I [and everyone else in the audience] got is the ability to consider myself superior, both intellectually and morally, to the common rabble who go see such things as The Reaping [oops!—I saw that!], and while that heady rush is definitely worth $10 to me, I can accomplish that in less than two and a half hours.

Should you watch it: 

If you want to feel superior. If you actually want to gain insight into how to analyze films or look at them with a psychoanalytic viewpoint, I think there are any number of books that would serve you better.