Cinema is the ultimate pervert art," says Slajov Zizek in his introduction to the film The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. "It doesn't give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire."
Such is the thesis statement to his film, a lucid, provocative examination of the intersection between psychology and film. Zizek is credited as a philosopher and psychoanalyst. He's clearly of the Freudian school.
The Pervert's Guide is separated into three sections. Part one examines human desire. Part two takes on sexuality and the differences between men and women as Zizek corrects popular wisdom: Freud didn't say that everything was a metaphor for sex but rather asked, What are we thinking about when we're having sex? Zizek's judgment of pornography as emotionally conservative is also compelling. Part three is on the art of appearances and the power of belief.
Zizek is an engaging tour guide through the subconscious of cinema. With a thick Eastern European accent and occasional pitch-black humor, Zizek is the perfect combination of 18th-century philosophical giant and unflinchingly modern pop-culture junkie.
He wades into many classic films and puts conventional readings of them on their heads — and it usually makes total sense. The Birds: an "Oedipal imbroglio full of raw, incestuous energy." The Marx Brothers: Groucho's the superego, Chico the ego, and Harpo the id. The Great Dictator: the alien nature of the human voice, as understood by the silent screen star Charlie Chaplin (the advent of sound in film "gives us the complex Oedipal universe").
Zizek ties together in bravura fashion The Great Dictator, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and The Exorcist and, with another string, The Red Shoes, Alice in Wonderland, Fight Club, Dr. Strangelove, and Mulholland Dr.
Brilliantly, director Sophie Fiennes puts Zizek literally into the films he's dissecting. Zizek studies The Conversation from a hotel room where it was filmed. He sits on a set made to look like a fruit cellar to discuss Psycho. He stands on the infinite white background of The Matrix to examine the fantastical possibilities of the mind.
The point to all of this isn't what does Vertigo tell us about Hitchcock, it's what does Vertigo tell us about ourselves? Zizek isn't interested in examining the films to mine the psyche of the directors but to use films as a mirror to understanding his own humanity.
The end effect doesn't just leave a desire to rewatch these films or to apply the theory to films he doesn't examine but to consider his ideas in the context of our own lives through the lens of cinema. If great cinema has, as Zizek argues, domesticated human desires, how can our lives be more fully understood from the safe vantage point of a movie theater? Movies have long been thought to be therapeutic, but maybe not for the reasons we counted upon. Escapist fare may be due for redefinition.
The Pervert's Guide to Cinema
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, April 30th, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday,
May 2nd, 2 p.m.