One of my homework assignments was this review of The Pervert's Guide to the Movies:
It doesn’t get any more meta than this.
“The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema” is a movie about movies. No, it’s a movie about movies about movies — or about dreams, fantasies, and stories of all kinds, and the movies that represent, exemplify, explore, and illuminate them. It is a critique of a critique of movies and of their critique of, well, pretty much everything, you name it, the human condition, the collective unconscious, essential dualities, the man behind the curtain, the fundamental conservatism of pornography, Pluto’s nightmare (being tried by a jury of cats) from Disney, the obscene, unkillable father, and of course the backed-up toilet.
Documentarian Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph) has made a three-hour film of Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek talking about films and what they mean. His passion for his theories and for the films he describes are so intense that he literally enters into them through meticulously re-created sets that place him in Norman Bates’ cellar, Neo’s chair opposite Morpheus, and the hotel bathroom from Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.”
Zizek sees film not just as art but as the expression of our collective unconscious. We may think of the term “dream factory” as referring to Hollywood’s aspirational gloss, the way we might dream of dancing like Astaire or punching like John Wayne. But Zizek sees films as our way of processing our deepest primordial conflicts, as we do in our literal dreams – and our nightmares. The film is essentially an illustrated lecture, kaleidoscopic in format, with a torrential barbaric yawp of ideas and images, some provocative, some insightful, some revelatory, some outlandish. Like Freud, however, he does not know much about what women want.
The film begins with an enchanting scene from 1931’s “Possessed” with Joan Crawford. As she walks toward the railroad tracks, a train rolls by, so close and so slowly that she can see through the windows of each passing train car a different scene of glamour, sophistication, and intrigue. An elegant couple in evening clothes is dancing. Another is sharing a romantic supper. Each tableau is more enticing than the last for the small-town girl, and they pass as though she is changing the channels on a television set. And then, at the end of the train, a man is drinking a cocktail. Unlike the others, he is not separated from her by glass, and he leans over to put a drink in her hand, inviting her into this dream, making her fantasy real. Zizek is doing the same for us. As our proxy, he enters into the movies, and we follow him the way Alice followed the White Rabbit. In some cases, he stands before a white screen, the personification of a Rorschach blot. In some, it is enough to recreate the set but in others he visits the actual real-life locations, as though the physical reality underlying the fantasy story will help him unlock its secrets and make it somehow more real, dissolving the separation between him and the movie, between us and the screen.
At times it feels like free-association , part ramble, part rant, as though Zizek is diagnosing and treating the collective neuroses of humanity as audience at the same time we are treating his, the silent psychoanalyst for his stream of consciousness.
Zizek dwells on dualities. In the literal (if internal) struggle with good/bad controlled/uncontrolled battling dualities, ”the obstacle is externalized,” as we see in films like “Fight Club,” “The Red Shoes,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Dr. Strangelove.” “The “uncastrated double” is the other, a projection of ourselves through the leading character who represents us and who must attempt to triumph over that nasty, headstrong id. We see literal (external) dualities in films like “Blue Velvet,” with a (blond) good girl and a (dark) bad girl, an impotent and ailing good father and a powerful and seemingly unkillable bad one. The ultimate psychological crime, Zizek tells us, is the father who will not die. We see the self splintered into three with the Marx brothers, Chico the crafty, calculating ego, Groucho the hyper-cerebral superego, and Harpo the ravenous id, at once childlike and innocent and primordially aggressive. “The combination of utter corruption and innocence is what the id is about,” Zizek tells us. We might come to the conclusion that Groucho and Chico also embody corruption and innocence and that, for example, more traditional straight man/comic duos like Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis might better exemplify the tension between superego and id, but the avalanche of images and words does not give us enough time to breathe, much less think.
All of this is in the context of the ultimate duality of fantasy and reality. The irony is that it is through fantasy that we work through this conundrum. “The Matrix” is a double-fantasy as its fictional world is outside the norms of time, place, and physics. In that film, Morpheus gives Neo the choice between the blue pill, which would allow him to continue to believe what he has always thought to be reality, and the red pill, which shows the truth. Will the movies be our red or blue pills?
Zizek sits in Neo’s chair as though Morpheus is making him the offer, and says, “I want a third pill.” He shows us how movies can be this third pill. Inherently fantastic, they can explore the reality of fantasy. In “Blue,” Julie loses her reality when her husband and child are killed. She loses her fantasy of what her husband was when she discovers that he lied to her. Her final achievement, her happy ending, is to acquire appropriate distance from reality –”life in its brutal meaninglessness” – to be able to appreciate fantasy (in a theater), but recognize it as such. In “Eyes Wide Shut,” real-life enactment of a woman’s fantasy is perversely un-erotic, destroying any imagined thrill. (Zizek might have also included films like Orson Welles’ “F for Fake” and “The Immortal Story.”)
And then there is the fantasy of our love object. Zizek’s superbly chosen example is Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.” The blind girl believes that the little tramp is a millionaire. He steals the money for her operation and when he gets out of prison she has no idea that the funny little man in rags is the one who made it possible for her to see, until she touches his hand as she gives him a flower. The movie wisely does not try for the fantasy Hollywood ending. We don’t know what the characters will do with this realization; as it ends, they do not, either. It is that very ambiguity on screen that brings us closer to resolving our own conflicts. “It is only in cinema where we get the critical dimension we are afraid to confront in reality.”
Zizek looks at film the way that Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell looked at myths. Film is modern myth, a dress rehearsal for our emotions and a way of using symbols and structure to make sense of that which is beyond the capacity of any boundary of meaning to enclose. Why a “pervert’s guide?” Because Zizek says that “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.” This may be his greatest failure of insight. Desire is innate and one of the deepest desires is to make some sense of ourselves and our lives. Films thrill us when they satisfy, even for a moment, that desire, to give us, as Zizek says, that voice that we would otherwise be unable to access. In helping us recognize this — and in reminding us of films we should see or see again and questions to ask ourselves as we watch, he and Feinnes have made a film that is both entertaining and wise.