Full of Zizek

Pub date May 1, 2007
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Despite Sigmund Freud’s strong distrust of cinema ("I do not consider it possible to represent our abstractions graphically in any respectable manner," he firmly wrote in a letter to an inquiring film producer), Freudian psychoanalytic theory – primarily as reread by the French analyst Jacques Lacan – has come to form the bedrock of much academic film criticism and theory since the 1960s. Anyone who has had a brush with a film class in college has probably gotten an earful of 50-cent concepts such as scopohilia, suture, fantasy, and everyone’s favorite chew toy of power, the phallus.

If you didn’t take notes the first time around, you might want to while watching Sophie Fiennes’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a veritable crash course on what film can tell us about psychoanalysis and what psychoanalysis can (and sometimes can’t) tell us about film. Fiennes may be listed as the director and producer, but this monster of a clip reel is really the baby of its host and our tour guide, the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek.

Ursine in stature and always slightly disheveled, Zizek is no stranger to the camera. In Astra Taylor’s somewhat worshipful documentary, Zizek! (2005), he delivered his mile-a-minute thought trains, encompassing everything from ethnic jokes to Hegel, with a brusqueness befitting a football coach and the on-the-fly reflexes of a standup comic. Zizek is in similar form in Pervert’s Guide, which isn’t so much a guide as a meandering recapitulation of some of his major talking points, first laid down in books such as Looking Awry and Enjoy Your Sinthome!

Zizek’s central thesis is that film is our most perverted art form, since it doesn’t really tell us what to desire but rather how to desire. Using an array of snippets from The Exorcist to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Charlie Chaplin films to vintage Disney cartoons – Zizek illustrates how cinema is the ultimate fantasy machine (which sometimes produces films about fantasy machines. See: Tarkovsky). We project our desires onto the events and characters we watch, Zizek explains, inasmuch as those desires are already psychically inscribed long before they are played out onscreen. Film often literalizes these psychic structures or, at the very least, sets them into relief.

As in his books, here Zizek will often take a basic question or proposition (such as "Why is the only good woman a dead woman?" – when discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo), and turn it inside out, revealing the hidden issue that was actually being addressed or occluded all along ("Because men contain the threat of desire by mortifying their objects of desire: women").

Hitchcock and Lacan make many appearances, being that they are two of Zizek’s favorite bedfellows – the man wrote a book about both. (Zizek has a go at David Lynch now and then, but his readings of Lynch’s "primal scenes" and "terrorizing, clownish father figures" are a little pat.) It is not surprising, then, that some of his most brilliant insights and close readings are delivered on his many return trips to Bodega Bay, the decrepit Bates’s manse, and Judy Barton’s neon-illuminated room at the York Hotel in Vertigo.

Fiennes’s one trick (and granted, it’s an effective one) is to do this literally, casually placing Zizek within mock-ups of the scenes that he has discussed. We see Zizek in Melanie Daniels’s skiff puttering across Bodega Bay; next he’s alongside Regan’s bed from The Exorcist; later he’s speaking from the fruit cellar of Norman Bates’s house, or Dorothy Vallens’s apartment in Blue Velvet, or the dimensionless white field where Neo instantaneously summons weapons in The Matrix. This playful technique helps cut through some of the density of Zizek’s more arcane points, and occasionally, we catch the man off guard, cracking cheesy Freudian one-liners about the inherent obscenity of tulips (while watering a garden a la the opening scene of Blue Velvet).

It is not just that Zizek is as well-versed in Lacan as he is in Hitchcock – or that he casts his critical eye toward topics both high and low – that has made him such a popular figure, even with nonacademics. (Zizek is, as far as I know, the only intellectual to be interviewed for Abercrombie and Fitch’s now-defunct Quarterly). This intellectually challenging, often entertaining, and at times draining lecture-posing-as-a-documentary proves at least one thing: Zizek’s combination of disarming charisma and utter seriousness makes him as entrancing as his arguments are compelling.


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Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

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