Slavoj Zizek says one thing was perfectly clear as he was appearing in his latest film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. “I’m no actor,” he concedes, laughing. “Director Sophie [Fiennes] would ask me to do something, and then ask me to do it again for another take. That was traumatic for me. I would invent things as we were shooting, then half forget what I said.”
Audiences will also be left reeling at the latest collaboration between notorious Slovenian cultural critic Zizek and Fiennes, which screens this week in Montreal. In 2006, Fiennes captured Zizek pontificating about movies and ideology in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which went on to become a cult movie, contributing to Zizek’s growing reputation as an entirely irreverent iconoclast.
Since the economic downturn of ’08, Zizek’s cachet has grown further, prompting Zizek and Fiennes to launch a sequel of sorts. The result is a singular trip through some iconic American film moments, in which Zizek is inserted into the action—sitting on an ice floe next to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the final scene of Titanic, lying on the bed a brooding Robert De Niro did in Taxi Driver, and prancing across the same hilltop Julie Andrews did in The Sound of Music—all the while explaining his theories about what ideological ideas each movie contains.
Zizek’s romp through pop culture feels like a strange dream, with a mad professor re-enacting our favourite movie moments through the eyes of a therapist. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is invigorating, zany, completely memorable and often hilarious. Zizek goes from praising Coca-Cola to analyzing what the shark attacks really mean in Jaws.
Zizek has legions of followers and has been the subject of films before, including Canadian director Astra Taylor’s 2005 feature, titled simply Zizek! The fawning media attention and star-status has also led to charges that he a dilettante, superficially combining different theories. In what is probably the most notoriously nasty attack, one critic recently called Zizek the Borat of philosophy. “This is part of the propaganda against me,” he responds. “If you call someone a star, a stand-up comedian, he’s funny, it’s a way of not taking them seriously. Now they’ve started to say I should be taken more seriously—that behind the laughter there’s a dangerous message. I was unemployed under communism. I was a dissident, but now they accuse me of some Stalinist tendencies.”
While Zizek says he was able to pack a lot of ideas into the new film, he concedes some cuts had to be made—ideas and dialogue that were just a bit too perverse, it seems. In one sequence Zizek had imagined about The Sound of Music, he plays a bishop who is visited by a priest who is troubled by his attraction to young boys. “I break into song, my own version of ‘Climb Every Mountain,’ in which I sing to him to ‘Climb Every Young Boy.’” He also wanted to sing a Stalinist version of “My Favourite Things,” in which the list of favourites would include “torture, gulags and intimidation.” None of these ideas could be included, he says, “because of copyright issues. If you’re too mocking of the films, they won’t allow you to use the clips.” (The 2006 film has had limited DVD distribution in the US for precisely this reason.)
Zizek acknowledges that his analysis is movie-centric, and strangely devoid of even a mention of television—strange, given that TV now generally gets higher grades from critics and obviously reaches a wider audience. “I’m going to include a chapter on TV in my next book,” he says.
But Zizek’s analysis of pop culture already seems threatened, given that the splintering of audiences due to the Internet and a 3,000-channel universe now means that a mass audience doesn’t really exist as it did in the ’70s. Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes has now evolved into the idea that everyone will be famous but only among 15 people.
If pop culture is over, Zizek says, then it’s not so problematic, because most of it isn’t any good anymore anyway: “I tried to read Harry Potter. I like children’s lit, but it’s bullshit, it’s badly written, I can’t read it. By it’s own standards, it’s dead.”
Zizek then launches into a tirade that can perhaps best be described as Boomer elitism: “Anything that matters, let’s face it, happened between 1965 and ’75, especially in terms of music. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane. Punk music happened later, but let’s be clear, that was more of a social phenomenon, it’s not great music. As for the ’80s, who still listens to the music of Duran Duran?”
Zizek seems taken aback when I tell him I still listen to Duran Duran. After a pause, he offers this: “When we take power, you will have time to write a confession in the camp where we keep you. You will be re-educated in a gulag.”
While Zizek says he hopes his work is thought-provoking, he has no illusions about what living in an age of media literacy means. “Even if you make fun of ideology, it still functions. In this cynical era, you can make fun of something brutally, but still believe in it. Self-reflexivity, irony—it doesn’t free you from the system, it’s part of it. It simply makes it easier to swallow, it makes it more efficient.”
Yet, Zizek insists, “I’m an optimist. I am pessimistic in that I see darkness and crisis around us. But in that uncertainty there is opportunity for change, and that gives me optimism too.”