Like the incurably avuncular college professor who dons designer blazers to mask a sputtering libido, the playful anti-academic stances of Slavoj Žižek have often seemed like sheep’s clothing to obscure yet another post-Marxist, neo-Lacanian thinker. There’s a wealth of richly conceived and daring analysis to be found beyond the flippant rinds of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan…But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock; to reach them, however, we must meticulously husk the shallow irony of a Euro-philosopher who is obsessed with “hipness” in the strictly American sense.
Thus, it’s no shock that The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is neither perverted in the typical sense, nor truly a cinematic guide (had it more titular fidelity, the omission of bona-fide directorial deviants such as Woody Allen or Roman Polanski would be impermissible). It is, furthermore, only technically a film, more closely resembling a video-essay/interview hybrid, though it lacks the rhetorical organization of the former and the spontaneity of the latter. With a thick Slavic accent and wild gesticulations (reminiscent of the crude cartoon Freuds from 1950s Disney shorts), the whiskered, bespectacled Zizek leads us through a collection of movie clips, aligning the language of cinema with that of philo-psychoanalysis via narration. To accomplish this, director/cameraperson Sophie Fiennes borrows some of the clever dynamics of other one-man shows (most opaquely the Steven Soderbergh/Spalding Gray collaboration Gray’s Anatomy). Pieces of film sets are attentively recreated and shooting locations are inconveniently revisited so that Zizek can address the camera in context.
The concept is neither new nor novel, but appears all the more tired with the Cinema 101 choice of content. Despite representing both Lang and Tarkovsky, Zizek fixates upon the shower drain-to-eye dissolve of Hitchcock, the sado-masochistic rape of Lynch, and the uninhibited-id shenanigans of the Marx Brothers. These scenes are glossed with facile psychiatric motifs—i.e., the Oedipal conflict—in a manner that arouses curiosity but seems alienated from the images themselves. We often feel the clips resisting Zizek’s interpretations; the beach orgy monologue from Bergman’s Persona, for example, easily trumps with psychological precision and erotic intensity any dime store hypothesis about the feminine need for a “sexual narrative.”
And our humble presenter is satisfied to develop his most promising theses—such as a reading of the Bates motel as brick-and-mortar manifestation of the psychic apparatus (basement=id, ground level=ego, top level=superego)—into eloquent observations rather than probing critical assessments. When we’re shown the infamous blue pill vs. red pill scene from The Matrix, Zizek demands a third option: a capsule that reveals not the reality ¬behind illusion but the reality within illusion. We immediately fantasize fleeing the lecture hall and tattling to a sympathetically tisking Adorno.
Of course, Zizek is not a film critic; he’s a social theorist, so anticipating a transcendent, Scorsese-esque art study from Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is akin to expecting a passively observant, Maysles brothers documentary from Michael Moore. But still, movies like City Lights and Vertigo are far too valuable to be manipulated into a frustratingly Freud-centric psychological iconography. It’s doubtful that the cinema/mind relationship will ever be fully grasped, but witty, epigrammatic reversals (i.e., “[Film] doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire”) don’t illuminate much, nor do animated Rorschach blots that ache with pop desperation.