One of the most popular films from last year’s Cambridge Film Festival was Leos Carax’s surreal genre-hopping work HOLY MOTORS, a film portraying cinema itself as a strange collective subconscious where humanity partakes of shared dreams. A more sinister spin on this is found in THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY, filmmaker Sophie Fiennes’ latest documentary/video essay starring Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek.
Constructed over the course of a year from lengthy conversations and interviews with Zizek, IDEOLOGY takes the form of a series of loosely connected lectures on his theories, supported and illustrated by excerpts from classic films. Any suspicions that this will be a dry, academic exercise are dispelled when the film opens with a clip from THEY LIVE, John Carpenter’s gleefully trashy B-movie that puts an alien invasion spin on class conflict in Reagan-era America. The ludicrously extended fistfight between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David here functions as a metaphor for the painful process of breaking free from the framework of ideology – the unwritten rules of society that we are taught to follow without knowing it.
The film achieves a surreal blurring of lines between the films being analysed and the commentary itself.
The film achieves a surreal blurring of lines between the films being analysed and the commentary itself. We jump from a clip from Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER to Zizek addressing the camera from inside Travis Bickle’s filthy apartment. It’s akin to a more typical documentary presenter wandering around castles or battlefields as he recounts historical events. The overall effect is to endorse Zizek’s thesis; works of fiction are rendered solid, as he discusses the power of the invisible messages buried within them.
There’s something of Adam Curtis’ playful, casually transgressive video essays in Fiennes’ film. But while Curtis specialises in excavating secret histories from bottomless reserves of archive footage in order to challenge accepted narratives, IDEOLOGY looks at what is hidden in plain sight, embedded into the films that both reflect and construct wider conventions of narrative.
This isn’t just a Hollywood thing – one terrific sequence has Zizek comparing James Cameron’s disaster-romance blockbuster TITANIC with the 1949 Soviet propaganda film THE FALL OF BERLIN. Both hugely budgeted for their time, they tell love stories where catastrophe (the sinking of the Titanic or the invasion of the Soviet Union) is subordinated to a mere plot device to keep the central couple apart. (Although only one features Joseph Stalin offering relationship advice.)
… he throws every trick in the book at the screen to keep the audience engaged …
Zizek’s habit of speaking in lengthy, digressive sentences, thick accent, and various verbal tics all add to the performative aspect of the film. Whether being unceremoniously shoved into the freezing Atlantic by Kate Winslet, or wandering through the Mojave desert fulminating on the insubstantial “divine” qualities of Coca-Cola, he throws every trick in the book at the screen to keep the audience engaged, never using one metaphor where several will do.
This leads to a series of bizarre tonal whiplashes as the film skips from one subject to another, with very little in the way of connective tissue. You are expected to keep up, often at the expense of fully comprehending the borderline-impenetrable flow of Lacanian psychoanalytical terminology. Whether the viewer finds this interesting or enervating will depend on their attitude to coherence in non-fiction filmmaking. IDEOLOGY is far more interested in sparking a shower of ideas that will shake loose the audience’s preconceptions. Anyone exposed to this singular vision may not look at John Wayne or Julie Andrews in the same way again.