We are in an urban Los Angeles alleyway. A muscly man in plaid shirt and mullet tells a muscly man with no hair that he must either put on a pair of sunglasses or start eating from a trashcan. Suddenly a portly bearded man with a heavy accent—something akin to Dracula with a speech impediment—enters the scene. “I am already eating from the trashcan all the time,” he says. “The name of this trashcan is ideology.” This third man is sweaty Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, once famously dubbed “the Elvis of critical theory.” Whether you consider Žižek a truly great thinker or merely a great contrarian, his hyper-attentive, hyperactive, Lacanian approach to film analysis is undeniably compelling and sometimes eerily, uncomfortably persuasive. In the opening sequence of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, director Sophie Fiennes deposits Žižek directly into a scene from John Carpenter’s They Live. As it was with Fiennes and Žižek’s previous collaboration, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, this is the film’s MO: rather than have Žižek sit in front of a library or something and pontificate about movies, insert Žižek, Zelig-like, right into the movies under consideration, whether they be The Sound of Music, Brazil, Titanic or Full Metal Jacket. It’s a great source of cheap laughs. It is also a way of making the viewer’s identification with movies complete—and reminding us exactly how ideology works on our consciousness.
The occasion of Zeitgeist’s release of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology on DVD has finally given me the excuse to run the interview I conducted with Žižek and Fiennes during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. I’d met Žižek once before, and knew that anything resembling conversation with him would be challenging, not only because of his spastic garrulousness, but because it can be difficult to parse out his convictions from statements that sound like sheer, asinine provocation for provocation’s sake—especially those regarding gender, which creates a very odd tension when the other person attempting to interject is a woman. Of course, Fiennes and Žižek are clearly pals, but it’s not so much that these two finish each other’s sentences as that Žižek finishes everyone’s sentences within a two-mile radius. Anyway, I can’t deny that the following conversation was loads of fun.
director Sophie Fiennes
JB: Can I ask how you two first met?
Sophie Fiennes: I just reached into the ass of a cow and there he was.
Slavoj Žižek: It was some conference in London.
SF: It was Cambridge. A lecture. I’d wanted you to do an audio commentary on my film about religion.
SŽ: Unfortunately we couldn’t realize that idea.
SF: Fate had a greater collaboration in store.
SŽ: [To me] Let’s talk about your fellow countryman, James Cameron, the ideal object of ideological analysis today. Superficially his movies can be read as model of Hollywood Marxism. Take Titanic. Upper-class bad, lower-class good. Ridiculous, no? But beneath this leftist surface you find a very reactionary myth sustaining it. It’s even more the case with Avatar. It’s clear that those jerks on that stupid planet are a kind of local indigenous population attacked by industrial American imperialist army, blah, blah. But, of course, you need a white man to save the natives.
SF: It’s an attempt to restore the marines who, even if crippled, will nonetheless win hearts and minds.
SŽ: It’s great that Avatar was up for Best Picture against Cameron’s ex-wife’s movie. Because Hurt Locker is maybe worse, though it has different ideology, one very popular now, this idea of limiting story to a narrow experience of the horrors of war. To make army life acceptable to public you have to remove all context and just focus on personal suffering. But, you know, I don’t want to dismiss Cameron altogether. What’s that one with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, where they go down?
JB: The Abyss.
SŽ: Very nice movie.
JB: You mentioned how the Pervert’s films allow you to illustrate your ideas, but I wonder if the ideas themselves change once placed in this context that favours the visual over the textual.
SŽ: No. I’m very dogmatic. I think alone. I am not engaged. And I am in such a constant panic that I cannot be a cooperative, responsive actor.
SF: I like the purity of Salvoj’s field of thinking. My job is to make it understandable as a movie. That transition from Brief Encounter to Brazil to Last Temptation of Christ, for example, is my attempt to connect Slavoj’s ideas in a way that is specific to the film’s train of thought.
SŽ: Brazil is for me one of the mega-masterpieces. It’s kind of a pre-cog film. It guessed in advance what the new authoritarian society would be not the old-style fascist leader but a cynical and egalitarian society, a Berlusconian society.
JB: Closer to Kafka and the notion of self-regulation.
SŽ: Kafka says that our godless bureaucratic society is the only way to experience the divine. I love this story I recently heard about an old French lady who’s told that her identity card was stolen. She goes to the bureau and says, “There must be a mistake. I have my card here.” And the bureaucrat tells her, “No, your card was proclaimed lost. What you’re holding in your hand is an illegal document. Please destroy it and ask for a new one.” This is divine. This is the whole secret! In France they even have this thing called certificate existence, which means you get a document that confirms that you exist.
SF: Like a birth certificate.
SŽ: No, it’s much more specific! It says not only that you were born. It’s like friend from Greece told me. His father stopped getting retirement money. He wrote to the ministry to ask why he was no longer getting this pension. The reply was, “Sorry, sir, but I regret to inform you that according to our records you are dead. Could you please come to our office to prove that you are alive?”
SF: This sort of story brings to mind, say, Soviet era bureaucracy, yet something similar exists today, in the cloud, in virtual existence, in the illusion of freedom, the illusion that we have control over our lives when in fact we’ve gleefully hurled ourselves, without overt coercion, into another Kafkaesque network. People are petrified by the possibility that their digital footprint could be erased.
SŽ: Yes and it’s not the simple humanist point of “Oh, we should return to the common sense reality.” We are not just criticising this in a naïve way. The big limitation of 1984, for example, is that fundamentally Orwell says, “Believe your eyes, use common sense, and so on.” You know what for me is the best thing in 1984? Okay, the film version: John Hurt asks Richard Burton, “Tell me, is the Big Brother a myth or does the Big Brother really exist?” And Richard Burton gives him the perfect answer. “It’s not that Big Brother doesn’t exist, what matters is that you don’t exist.” Totally correct answer. You know, I met a guy who wrote a book on George Roy Hill, the director. To make it he visited Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and Redford was all, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have time for you, I have to save the planet.” He told me that Newman was much more friendly.
SŽ: But listen, wouldn’t it be wonderful to make a reference guide to non-existent operas? That could be a fun sort of film.
JB: Like a Stanislaw Lem novel.
SŽ: Ah, Lem. Take Solaris. I much prefer the novel, because Tarkovsky does spiritual mystification. In Tarkovsky film, the planet Solaris is just a screen for the inner journey of the hero. But in Lem’s novel, the problem is precisely the planet. Is it playing a game with us? It’s a case of how a very materialist, beautiful novel is ruined by this Russian sensibility. It’s maybe the same with Tarkovsky’s best film, Stalker. He pulls the same trick. Going to the Zone means encountering your truth. Whatever. I still think Tarkovsky was brilliant. Yet with Nostalgia he started making “Tarkovsky films,” in the sense of imitating himself a little bit.
SF: I feel like David Lynch is slipping into that.
SŽ: I have such a problem here. I love Lynch. But Inland Empire. Friends are telling me it’s so-so. I bought the DVD, but I’m afraid to watch.
SF: I like it, but it’s sort of falling back on titties.
SŽ: [To me] Do you like David Lynch?
SF: Laura Dern is brilliant.
SŽ: [To Fiennes] That’s a problem. She’s not fuckable for me. I’m a sexist.
JB: Maybe if you see the film you’ll change your mind.
SŽ: Really? Okay! Now we talk men-to-men. Ha, ha.
SF: I love The Elephant Man.
SŽ: There is this eternal question. Do you dare to tell, a little bit, a film where you cried watching? I’ll tell you where. You remember this scene near the end, where the French freaks help him to go to the boat? Listen, are you a Lynch fan?
JB: Very much so.
SŽ: Let’s test you. Reactionary fascist revisionists claim Twin Peaks is good, but only the first half. No! You have to stick it to the end. Now, Dune. Supposed to be bad, but there is something very naïvely, beautifully powerful here. Let’s not be seduced by liberal propaganda. You have totems like Leader, Discipline, Sacrifice, Common Good. Liberals say, “Oh, this is proto-fascist.” No! There is nothing fascist in the idea of discipline and sacrifice. Fascism is fascism because it includes such notions within a framework of anti-Semitism, certain variations on capitalism, etc. I like Dune. But my friends think that when I praise 300 as progressive, this was going far. My last revisionism: I quite liked—and I know this is the lowest of the lowest—the last two seasons of 24. You have Jack Bauer torturing, blah, blah, and you have Alison Taylor, good liberal president. They both got in the bad luck and break down. It shows very honestly how, within today’s universe, there is no way to be noble.
SF: You make me want to see it now.
SŽ: It’s not that good, I have to tell you. Life is too short. Fuck, even if you count out the publicity, it’s 24 times 45 minutes! Unless you are freak with nothing but time, it’s just too much.
JB: To get back to Lynch, I find it interesting that you’re singling out the productions in which he was working for a major studio. Could we consider that external influence as Lynch’s “Big Other?”
SŽ: But I am here, very concrete, always resisting simple demonization of Hollywood. Take Godfather. I think, unfortunately, that first one is still the best. From there, it goes down because Coppola was given too much freedom. Hollywood, of course, I hate the usual machinery, blah, blah, but listen, how often did they produce wonders? Take one who, I think, after Hitchcock, should be rehabilitated: Ernst Lubitsch.
SF: I love Lubitsch.
JB: Everybody loves Lubitsch. I mean, if they’ve seen his films.
SŽ: But there are no good theories!
SF: Thing is, in the studios now, the blockbuster idea has just so thoroughly taken over everything. I remember back when Ralph [Fiennes, Sophie’s brother] was doing Strange Days.
SŽ: Good film.
SF: Steven Jaffe was the producer. He also produced Ghost.
SŽ: I hate Ghost.
SF: I saw Steven again in L.A. about a year ago and he was telling me that the studios won’t fund anything other than huge blockbusters. He’s a real cinephile, and there have traditionally always been such people in Hollywood, but in the last seven years especially there’s just an endless hunt for blockbusters with no middle range left.
The Sweet Hereafter
SŽ: I am naïve, but you ask me great films of the last few decades: Altman Short Cuts, Ang Lee Ice Storm, or here, your guy, Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter.
SŽ: I like it.
SŽ: What’s your problem? You ask me as if I am some hoodlum, as if I am saying I only like women over 80.
JB: There is, for example, the romanticization of incest in that film. The barn full of candles.
SŽ: This is for me obvious. What I like is the court scene, this small lie this girl says that ruins everything. I don’t like other Egoyans. As American reactionaries like to say against intellectuals, this Egoyan is “too bright for his own good.” But your other guy…
SŽ: Many of his films I don’t like, but you know which one I do. It’s flawed.
JB: Let me guess. M. Butterfly.
SŽ: Only now do I get how to read these films, M. Butterfly and The Crying Game. Why do you have this shock when the guy discovers that his sex partner is a man? Because he discovers his own fundamental fantasy. Real heterosexual love, where you truly accept that your partner is a woman: I think this is very rare. Only in true love. Very romantic.
SF: Yes. I find it really interesting in Mulholland Drive, for example, how much men love this woman who looks so much like a transvestite.
SŽ: Not Naomi Watts!?
JB: No, Laura Harring, the Mexican.
SŽ: Naomi Watts, she is really beautiful. I like women when they abandon their goal to act in fatally beautiful roles. Did you see this totally stupid supernatural hero movie, Hancock? Charlize Theron plays an ordinary housewife. She wants to be an ordinary woman, and it makes her so much more attractive. It’s the same with Scarlett Johansson. She was okay in Lost in Translation as ordinary girl. But the moment she wants to become femme fatale, horrible.
SF: Again, it’s this whole thing about a woman that’s a man.
SŽ: Yes, femme fatale is woman that’s a man.
JB: That’s also what made Nicole Kidman’s career so much more interesting, when she broke away from the token sex-pot roles and made films like, say, The Others, in which she can use her iciness and neuroses.
SŽ: Didn’t she make the fourth or fifth version of Invasion of the Boyd Snatchers? It’s not so bad.
JB: There is something about that story’s malleability.
SŽ: [To Fiennes] This is his polite way of saying, “Bullshit!” I like the Philip Kaufman version, with Donald Sutherland. The ending, when the world is already occupied by body snatchers, you remember how the snatchers react when they see still humans? [Imitates Donald Sutherland’s gaping jaw howl] For years it became fashion among my friends to greet each other like this.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
JB: I want to ask you about something the film leaves us with. What does it really mean to “dream differently?”
SŽ: It’s a very Stalinist notion that I took from my friend, Alain Badiou. What really identifies us with a certain ideological field is not just the explicit statements or whatever. True change is change in your dreams. In the case of Seconds, that wonderful film by Frankenheimer, the problem with Rock Hudson is that he didn’t change his dreams. He changed his life, but he remained with old dreams. It can seem relatively easy to break from society, yet you remain trapped in its dreams.
JB: If you want to truly release yourself from ideology you have to accept that you are going to fundamentally, even unconsciously change.
SŽ: Absolutely! That’s the whole point! Which brings us back to They Live. Release from ideology is a painful experience. That’s why you need someone there to say, “Fuck you, put glasses on!” Anti-ideology stories are nearly always about taking the glasses off to see things how they really are. No! You need glasses for ideology! This is why sometimes in psychoanalytic process, just before it ends, you usually have a depression, maybe even want suicide—because you realize that you’re losing your dreams.