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This is Ideology! – A Film Review of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek is something of a polarizing figure, at least for those who know who he is. From his ever-growing mountain of books, to his public lectures, to his recent spat with Noam Chomsky, to the degree to which he is sometimes reduced to something of a caricature of himself – Žižek elicits strong responses.

All of which is to say that those who strongly dislike Žižek – for whatever reason – will find little to like in Sophie Fiennes new documentary/Žižek philosophy lecture The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, which in some ways is a bit of a shame.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a tour through some of the highs and lows of film history, with Žižek present not as unseen narrator but as an active participant in the scenes. From The Triumph of the Will to The Sound of Music to A Clockwork Orange to Taxi Driver to They Live! to Titanic to The Dark Knight (and many others) the film gives Žižek the opportunity to philosophize, psychoanalyze and otherwise present to the viewer the underlying ideological content of the films. “Ideology” as the title of the film suggests is central to the film, which seeks to show that far from living in an age bereft of ideology that ideologies are everywhere even if the way they are now constructed and presented hides their ideological content (The Dark Knight can thus be seen as a sort of treatise on the “noble lie,” whereas Titanic is a standard tale of the wealthy using the poor for spiritual rejuvenation, etc…). Over the course of the film Žižek contemplates a range of topics – including Christianity, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, rebellion, communism, consumerism – it’s in some ways slightly mind boggling as Žižek slides from one topic to another in a way that does not ask but rather demands that the audience keep up. Instead of holding popcorn, perhaps one should be taking notes.

The film is at turns interesting, challenging, and quite often very funny. Though the latter effect is largely achieved through the insertion of Žižek into scenes from the various films (there he is in the Mother Superior’s quarters in The Sound of Music, there he is on the boat from Jaws). While the film is not without its problems – at 136 minutes it is arguably a bit long, and at times Žižek’s jumps from one point to another do not allow his earlier points to make their full impact – the film is still largely successful. Despite the fact that the majority of what Žižek says in the film can be found sprinkled throughout his various books (in particular Violence, First as Tragedy Then as Farce, and Living in the End Times [and in some of his public lectures such as this one, this one, and this one at NYPL {all watchable for free}]) quite a bit is achieved by Žižek actually being able to show the scenes he’s discussing instead of simply alluding to them.

Yet what does it mean for a film like this to be successful? After all, the film will likely not be coming to the multiplex in the shopping mall (a shame – how many teenagers would flock to a movie with “The Perverts Guide” in the title?), and the film’s star (Žižek) will likely mainly prove a draw for those who already know who he is (and who therefore may already have some familiarity with the arguments he makes). By “successful” what is meant here is that the documentary achieves two things that should not be taken for granted: firstly it manages to demonstrate the “ideologies” that often go unseen and ignored in popular films and cultures, secondly it presents a fairly rigorous philosophy/psychoanalysis/film studies lecture in a way that is actually – gasp – rather accessible. Žižek’s books (some of which are quite massive) can be intimidating endeavors to those unacquainted with digging into theory, but what The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology demonstrates is that one can access theory through such – seemingly – safer topics as popular films. If, at the film’s end, the audience is not able to watch Titanic or Full Metal Jacket or Cabaret exactly the same way than it is ultimately a good thing from the stance of Žižek’s film. And if an audience member feels empowered to start picking apart other films, so much the better.

In some respects The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology acts as a direct challenge not only to the “ideology” of the people watching the film but also to those interested in advancing radical and critical critiques of society (and many such thinkers are amongst Žižek’s harshest foes [not without some reason]). It seems that buried beneath the dissection of ideologies in films is the question of how do we present ideology today? As an answer the film offers itself as an example – an at times humorous sort of philosophical romp that jumps from Lacan to a Coca-Cola commercial but does so in a striking way. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology suggests that films (particularly of the Hollywood variety) have been used to stealthily sneak ideological messages to unaware viewers and Žižek’s film uses the same techniques to try to sneak in an oppositional ideology.

It is far from a perfect film. Those who find Žižek’s many tics, mannerisms, and mode of philosophizing infuriating will enjoy deconstructing the film purely for the sake of calling Žižek a cartoon. Likewise those who obsessively pour over the latest Žižek book will find much to delight in within the two-plus-hours of the film. However, ultimately this film works best as an introductory tool for those who do not yet have a strong opinion on Žižek , and more importantly for those who have not fully considered the ideological world they inhabit. One of the great strengths of the film is that it gives the audience permission to discuss complex theoretical questions using the language of popular films. Not everybody will feel comfortable talking about Lacan, but about Jaws? Well, that’s a different matter, and part of what the film succeeds at doing is inviting everybody to join in the discussion regardless of whether or not they know every nuance of the philosophical jargon that usually freezes most people out of discussions of ideology.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a philosophy lecture. One conducted by an at times absent-minded professor given to lengthy asides and crude jokes, yet still presented in an accessible and entertaining way. It’s not the best philosophy lecture, true, but it’s an easy one to take a friend to. So get some popcorn, but remember the important thing is not the film, but the discussion you have after the credit’s roll.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on “This is Ideology! – A Film Review of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

  1. Pingback: Now Hear This! – A review of Thus Spoke the Spectacle | LibrarianShipwreck

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