It’s a common refrain we’ve all heard at some time or another: “I go to the movies to escape — I just want to turn my brain off and enjoy it.” An infuriating statement that suggests that a rewarding piece of entertainment can’t have any deeper levels to it, this is usually said when some plot hole or troubling theme is brought up. I’ll admit, there are times when I do want to be awash in simple entertainment rather than tackling the latest misanthropic exposé. However, just because you ignore some elements of a movie doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the film. As Slavoj Žižek posits in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, our ideologies have become so ingrained that it’s impossible to make a film without incorporating them in some way. Cinema is the realization of dreams, and if our ideologies deeply stain our unconscious, then it’s no safe place for those who want to turn off their brains.
Lacanian psychoanalyst/philosopher Slavoj Žižek reteams with director Sophie Fiennes to continue the exploration of the messages of films the pair began in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. That film used the works of Hitchcock, Lynch, and a couple other filmmakers to investigate the ways that cinema creates and reinforces society’s views on desire and sexual roles. In this current outing, Žižek is interested in looking at the ways in which the ideologies of the twentieth century (capitalism, fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, etc-ism) have so thoroughly permeated our selves that we can’t help but reflect them in the works we do or the art we make. Žižek believes that cinema is the apex of unconscious expression, and he uses clips from various films from the twentieth and 21st centuries to illustrate his points — even occasionally recreating scenes as he dresses up as Pvt. Pyle from Full Metal Jacket or lounges in Travis Bickle’s cot from Taxi Driver while explaining his take on the material. Žižek uses They Live, Brief Encounter, The Sound of Music, The Dark Knight, Triumph of the Will, Zabriskie Point and many other films to show how filmmakers (perhaps unconsciously) end up reinforcing the prevailing ideologies of the time. Speaking directly to the camera in his heavily accented, free form manner, Žižek reveals the ways that our various sociopolitical structures persist and perpetuate with the help of the films.
It’s a fun intellectual exercise that seems well researched and offers up a refreshing perspective on well-worn material. Unfortunately, the same issues that plagued Fiennes’s and Žižek’s previous collaboration persist. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema felt scattershot and occasionally slipped into various tangents that, while interesting, nonetheless felt like diversions more fitting for a deleted scene than inclusion in the film’s already-lengthy discussion. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is more streamlined and offers a clear progression: defining ideology and its role in civilization, examining the specific ways ideologies are reinforced in cinema, and discussing what that says about ideologies themselves. Despite this cohesion, there are nonetheless those persistent tangents and a tendency to swiftly move past a point or phrase without adequately defining it.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a filmic version of that one charismatic philosophy professor you had in college. Infecting its students with a newfound appreciation for the processes of saturation and propagation of these messages, it’s as if they’ve been given special sunglasses of their own and turned loose on the world. Occasionally The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology dips into long-winded pedantry that saps away the energy a film like this requires to maintain an audience’s attention and comprehension. Ultimately, though, Žižek and Fiennes are able to effectively hold a mirror up to our dreams through our favorite cinematic creations while wryly asking, “Are you sure your dreams are your own?”