Friday, 15 November 2013

We Are Responsible For Our Dreams

Cinema is first and foremost an exercise in framing, and Sophie Fiennes's 2012 documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (which I just got round to seeing at the Wimbledon Film Club), is a witty deconstruction of this. The frame is largely occupied by the Slovenian philosopher and cultural gadfly, Slavoj Zizek, who proceeds to unpeel the layers of ideological meaning in familiar films, continuing the pattern he and Fiennes established in 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. The recurrent trope is to cut the nose-tugging Zizek into key scenes, or have him inhabit mocked-up sets, which draws attention both to each film's artifice and to our common tendency to project our ego into the fantasy before us. Where Woody Allen's Zelig was a vapid bystander, Zizek is a noisy intruder, and all the more enjoyable for it.

Another frame is the structure of the documentary itself, which deals with each film as a discrete subject, like a series of Freudian case studies (Zizek happily adopts classic analysand poses, such as lying on Travis Bickle's bed, presumably at Fiennes's bidding). I half expected the Wolfman to be one of the featured films, though perhaps not Dora the Explorer. Zizek's schtick is a critical theory melding of Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, with the former's notion of ideology as false consciousness "perverted" by Lacan's concept of the big Other, which allows us to externalise responsibility for our own willed fantasies. This idea, that ideology is a projection of our own desires, as much as the imposition of a hegemonic order that benefits others, is Zizek's central premise.

The legacy of 50 years of critical theory provides a further frame, both in the acceptance of popular cinema as an object of serious study and in the particular fascination (of European theorists) with American films. In Fiennes and Zizek's 2006 documentary we got critical favourites and Oedipal fanboys Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. In the 2012 release we get the more political Martin Scorcese and Stephen Spielberg. This reflects Zizek's own burgeoning career as a popular critic of American blockbusters in the upper echelons of the media, but it is also one of the weaknesses of the documentary as it leads him to waste time on conservative (i.e. dull and self-regarding) lumps like Titantic and The Dark Knight. It is hardly surprising to discover that the former considers capitalists exploiting workers to be the natural order of things, or that the latter accepts the reactionary claim that we must lie to protect the innocence of the people.

Zizek is also guilty of some ideological sleight-of-hand himself (though I'm sure he'd happily admit to this) in two of his best "case studies". In his sympathetic reading of The Sound of Music, he wheels out the trope of cynical Catholics permitted anything by confession and absolution. This is a Protestant prejudice that originated in the Reformation critique of indulgences, and which still informs the modern reading of Italian politics and society as fundamentally corrupt (see Bill Emmott's 2012 documentary, Girlfriend in a Coma for an example). In the second case, his analysis of Taxi Driver focuses on the unreasonableness of the hero's fantasy and the ungratefulness of the liberated, which he counterpoints with John Ford's more ambiguous The Searchers. But while Scorcese's film represented a political response to the failure of liberal intervention in Vietnam (with obvious echoes today in Iraq and Afghanistan), as Zizek contends, it can also be read as the disappointment of the 60s generation (i.e. male directors of a certain age) at the choices of the 70s: we set you free and you opted for suburban comfort, or feminism, or smack.

The core of the documentary is philosophical, and it approaches this via two paths. The first is antisemitism, which Zizek introduces via the role of the shark in Jaws as the sum of all fears (the Jews/Jaws joke has been around since the release of Spielberg's film, and even got an oblique reference in Annie Hall). He then cuts to Nazi propaganda, pointing out the obvious illogicalities: Jews as simultaneously brutish lowlife and cunning assimilators. This suggests that we are fully aware of the nonsense, and therefore that we accept ideology willingly. We aren't brainwashed - we welcome the fantasy and reject the reality. This reinforces the significance of the film that Zizek opens the documentary with, John Carpenter's 1988 They Live, where the hero's fight with his friend is literally the struggle of the latter not to confront reality. This in turn recalls The Matrix, not in respect of Morpheus's offer to Neo of the blue pill versus the red pill (which featured in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema), but in the willing acceptance of the blue pill (illusion) by the traitor Cypher: "ignorance is bliss".

The second path is religion, which Zizek approaches first obliquely, through the deification of "The People" and the cult of personality in Stalinist and Maoist ideology (the excerpts from The Fall of Berlin are startling). He rejects the idea of historical necessity, insisting that there is no communist big Other. He then confronts religion more directly, through a consideration of Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ: "The only real way to be an atheist is to go through Christianity. Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism". In other words, atheism only has value as a process, the move from belief to unbelief, which allows you to savour both. If belief is the blue pill of The Matrix, then the rational deduction of non-belief is the red pill, the lifting of the veil, the denial of the big Other. What Zizek wants is the third pill, to recognise the reality in illusion itself, to cherish the symbolic fictions that regulate our reality, to domesticate the big Other.

In Zizek's philosophy, we are alone in reality and stuck with our dreams, so we might as well enjoy them. This is a postmodern sentiment that seeks to free us from the anxiety of desire, which he illustrates through Celia Johnson's vain search for a sympathetic auditor in Brief Encounter. And, despite the defiant closing words ("you ... can never kill a true idea", i.e. communism), it is also politically pessimistic: "The depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionizing force, even as it only serves itself". Looking on the bright side, as Zizek implicitly urges, at least you can enjoy the upcoming Fast and Furious 7 without any guilt.

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