When confronted with the sort of ejaculatory, hand-waving theorizing that flows through Sophie Fiennes’ proudly abstruse The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, it’s hard to not to feel a disconnect. It seems hardly the kind of thing one should be watching on a cinema screen or (more likely, given the film’s peekaboo release schedule) television. A more proper setting for this freeflowing dissertation would be a bright-walled university lecture hall at nine in the morning, where the bearded professor is desperately trying to wake the students who are dozing through his intro to film studies class.
In fact, as an introduction to whole idea of film theory, plenty could do worse than watching Fiennes’ film, essentially a freeflowing lecture on the darker Freudian nature of cinema by Lacanian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. He opens with the pronouncement that “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.” After that, it’s off to the races, with Zizek expounding on how the whole idea of cinema is in fact an art of perversion, one that seeks to drill down to our most animal fears and desires, whether one is talking about the Marx Brothers or Bergman’s Persona.
A Pervert's Guide to Cinema
(Channel 4; US DVD: Unavailable; UK DVD: Available as import)
Since The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is ultimately a tricked-out lecture, its success or failure hinges greatly on what one thinks of the rumpled and impassioned Slovenian theorist himself, and his free-range associations on desire, blood, human waste, castration, and social control in films (or as Zizek would say in his splutteringly erudite manner, “filums”). This inevitably necessitates watching a lot of clips from Vertigo, ground zero for film obsessives with a psychoanalytic bent.
Just as often happens in the classroom when a student is confronted by such an energetic instructor, most of what is transmitted by Zizek never quite sinks in, and much of the rest is quite arguably wrong, yet the occasional kernel of insight wedges itself into a corner of your brain. There it will sit, needling you the next time you try to watch a movie without interpreting it, urging in a small insistent voice, “Did you see that! What do you think this director is saying about the link between sex and violence?”
Fiennes’ clever and slippery conceit for her film, wherein she inserts Zizek into neatly constructed simulacra of the film scenes he’s discussing (the fruit cellar from Psycho, the bay in The Birds, the front yard from the opening of Blue Velvet), helps ease viewers into Zizek’s speed-association monologues. Although what he’s lecturing on is a high-density mash-up of cross-disciplinary memes, Fiennes’ quirky mannerisms and Zizek’s own intense demeanor make for a bracing high/low mix.
Being that Zizek seems to be an unreconstructed Freudian of the classic school—where father figures exist only as malevolent castrating authority figures to be bloodily dispatched—he zeroes in time after time on that fraught Eros/Thanatos divide and how it’s explored in the hands of those pathfinders of the perverse, Hitchcock and Lynch. This is a smart move, as it keeps him from falling into the trap of many film theorists who want to assign a galaxy of interpretations on material that hardly deserves it.
But by focusing on auteurs of this sort, those who can barely shoot a frame that’s not purposefully stuffed full of Oedipal rage or erotic guilt, Zizek makes his job easier by half. (Surprisingly, David Cronenberg doesn’t make an appearance here, but perhaps that’s because the subconscious looms so large in his films that discussing it is almost beside the point.) When Zizek lunges outside this zone and tries to pull in artists of a much less darkened demeanor, like Kieslowski, his theorizing becomes more strained—his points on the three levels of the house from Psycho representing the superego, ego, and id makes perfect sense, while it’s still not clear what exactly he’s saying about a protracted scene from Blue.
Although you get the feeling that Fiennes simply ran the camera until Zizek was out of breath—the film was cobbled out of about 20 hours of footage shot between 2004 and 2006—they make an attempt to stitch his narrative into three semi-cohesive theme-packs. This tripartite structure is fairly successful for the film’s first two-thirds, which deal first with the unconscious and then with romantic narratives. It provides Zizek ample room to riff on the tendency of cinema to simultaneously exploit our fears of the dark subconscious and also satiate our desire for a return to order; Zizek’s toilet metaphor is nicely served here by a well-chosen clip from Coppola’s particularly Freud-soaked The Conversation, intercut with Zizek dialoguing from the exact same hotel room where the film was shot. (Fortunately, Fiennes knows when not to employ this trick, not putting her narrator into a replica of the bedroom from Bergman’s Persona while he’s discussing the eroticism of the unseen in the film’s monologue about the beach orgy.)
Zizek also cleverly highlights linkages in the idealized sexist fantasies of the male protagonists in Vertigo and Solaris, films that are hardly ever connected but share a lot in common. Zizek frequently works himself into a high analytical lather, going so far as to contend that the very human voice is often perceived as a perverse element in film (cue Exorcist clips), but his very passion for what he’s saying and the fan’s appreciation of the films he’s discussing hold the narrative together.
The final third of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, unfortunately, is where the stitching starts to come undone. Ostensibly concerned with appearances and how the filmmaker is always the man behind the curtain, ala The Wizard of Oz, this section of the film is where Zizek’s pronouncements begin to seem a little more off-the-cuff and repetitive. There’s an initially fascinating take on an early Disney cartoon in which Pluto is actually sent to hell where judge, jury, and prosecutor are all vengeful cats, but Zizek never quite follows up on its implications, bouncing right off to his next point.
As a kind of Rorschach-blot interpretation of cinema, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema contains all kinds of wicked fascinations. It’s an undisciplined mess in many ways, much like its narrator. The film and the man are smart as hell and able to make huge leaps of interpretation without breaking a sweat; they’ll make you want to go back and revisit a few classics with a different point of view, which is never a bad thing. But there’s still an unfinished feeling here, as though somewhere Zizek is still talking, endlessly tracking the coordinates of unspoken desires and reveling in the sadistic ways of his favorite builders of cinematic rattraps. Somewhere, a student is still awake.