Saturday 5 October 2013

A dirty mind: "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology"

Slavoj Žižek is now such a superstar of pop philosophy that he can get movie sequels commissioned to showcase his ideas. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology forms a follow-up to 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, which picked its way through such key millennial texts as Fight Club and The Matrix in a stab at attempting to define our postmodern condition. At some point, it must have occurred to Žižek, the very model of a man who thinks too much, that he had more, much more to say - so this new film, again directed by Sophie Fiennes, roams wider still, using the cinema to describe a history of the entire 20th century, and of the individual's place within it.

In a typically leftfield gambit, Žižek uses as his touchstone movie not some worthy catch-all, but a trash classic: John Carpenter's satirical horror They Live (described as "one of the great masterpieces of the Hollywood Left"), in which ex-wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper discovers a pair of glasses that - in Žižek's reading - allow him to see past the dominant ideology to view the world as it really is. The case - that, however they might reassure us, these ideologies (whether capitalism, communism or organised religion) actually do more lasting harm than good - is backed up with substantial textual analysis of movies both old (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Nazi and Soviet propaganda reels) and new (I Am Legend, The Dark Knight).

It remains very easy to get lost amid Žižek's tics, thought patterns, the rhythms of his heavily accented speech: keeping up can be an issue, and often twenty minutes or so of screentime pass by before what he's getting at fully hits home. It took a detailed analysis of the crucifixion sequence from Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ for him to persuade me on his theory about leaders with God complexes sacrificing the lives of innocents in the name of some spurious "greater good": you realise this narrative has been inscribed in Western culture from the year dot, so it's no wonder our default setting is to buy it whole.

More frequently, however, an idea is conveyed in such a fashion as to set us thinking about a scene, a film, or indeed the world, in an entirely new way. One point that Žižek makes is perhaps obvious in retrospect - that, in Jaws, the shark represents capitalism, preying on small-town America the way fast-food franchises now do - but it nevertheless explains why Spielberg, having become one of the Hollywood ecosystem's bigger fish, never again got so close to matching that film's primal terror. (To pursue the point: if the horse in War Horse was a continuation of this anthropomorphised capitalism, then we were meant to admire its power, its indefatigability, its inhuman, inexpressive sleekness, and by handing over our money to marvel at it, we were in effect patting capitalism - and its ability to create such spectacles - on the head.) 

Žižek has found a gifted acolyte in Fiennes, who's figured out how to give even her subject's more abstruse thinking framing and context: as in the earlier film, clever, attentive production design puts Žižek inside A Clockwork Orange's Milk Bar, or on Hitler's plane as it descends into Nuremberg at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, allowing him to better inhabit the worlds and concepts he's describing, and the film to bring these ideas alive for a cine-literate audience. Still, there's only ever one star here, and Fiennes knows what might prove philosophical box-office, whisking Žižek away to the desert just so he might riff on the ontological properties of Coca-Cola, and keeping the camera running long enough for him to polish off a Kinder Surprise (described, in one magnificent(ly) mental flourish, as a form of "anti-metaphysics", which is something to consider next time you pop down the sweet shop).

A fine advert for applied philosophy, the Pervert's Guide is also a project that demonstrates just how thrilling, liberating and catching original thought can be when presented on the screen. Žižek is bold in discussing the London riots, the Breivik murders and global terrorism, but he's brilliant when demythologising such guilty pleasures as Titanic and Starbucks coffee, items where we're being sold one thing and paying for another entirely. In these anti-intellectual times, where experts and thinkers have been bumped from our TV screens in favour of gurus, comedians and other smart-arses, the breadth and depth of Žižek's thought is both breathtaking - and something of a lesson.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on October 14.

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