For those who don’t already know of him, Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian cultural theorist that uses psychoanalysis and Marxist theory (amongst many other ideas) in order to uncover the hidden ideological challenges and reinforcements contained in moments in pop culture. He has written countless op-eds about geopolitics and the decline of the USSR, as well as analysing popular films and cultural trends as reflections of popular conversatism / capitalism.
In The Pervert’s Guide… he returns for a second installment of cinematic deconstruction using iconic (and guilty pleasure) moments from the last half century of film history to explore his ideas about ideology – the central tenet of his argument being that at precisely the moment when you expect to be taking a break from politics and ideology, it is influencing you the most on screen. He does this mainly by delivering a lecture (or series of mini-lectures) in the form of a voice-over projected over a number of clips from classic films. Alongside this however are moments where he steps into the set, dressed in character, in order to reflect on the ideology of the film whilst inside the action – as in the picture below from Titanic.
To attempt to recall the finer details of his arguments would do them a disservice, firstly because they can be extremely nuanced (and convoluted), but mostly because it is his delivery that makes the ideas so amusing and insightful. He uses two main tactics in order to make his case: challenging conventional wisdom and constructing alternative readings of films.
For example, in Titanic he describes how Rose (Kate Winslet) actually gets to reinforce her hegemonic dominance over the working classes by sampling their lifestyle and then knowingly returning to her bourgeoisie existence. Indeed it is at the final moment when she proclaims that she “wont let go” of Jack (Leo DiCaprio) that she does the exact opposite and releases her grip and sails on to New York…
In another example, Zizek uses the many critical reactions to the meaning of the shark in Jaws to explain how a threat can comfortably represent different symbolic threats to different ideologies. Some critics read the shark to represent immigrants ‘feeding’ on white America, whereas others read the shark as rampant capitalism devouring American culture. He goes on to liken this duplicity of meaning to the perceived threat in popular culture of the single mother on society. Some politicians claim that single mothers are to blame for governmental economic debt, others for high crime rates, others still for a crisis in masculinity etc. By focusing all of the fear on to one ‘villain’, Zizek playfully links the ‘enemy’ of Jaws to the ‘enemy’ of Nazi propaganda…
These are just two examples of him bucking conventional wisdom or offering abstract critical insight into Hollywood blockbusters. His other theories range from the psychoanalytic reading of the unwrapping of a Kinder Egg to the obvious Freudian sexuality on display from Mother Superior in The Sound Of Music; from the meaning of the bloodbath in Taxi Driver to the use of role-play in West Wide Story. The film isn’t as groundbreaking as his first installment The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema, but is essential viewing for cinephiles and amateur cultural theorists.
The Pervert's Guide To Ideology is now available on Film4oD