Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre. When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it. I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.
Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure. Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm. Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They Live, Jaws and Titanic.
But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.
He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it. Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities. Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.” It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream. Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders. Not that he has nothing positive to say about us. For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.
With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view. Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself. I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success. I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that. In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism. But more about that later.
Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed. And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town. Yeah, good luck to me, huh?