On ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’

“The problem for us is not whether our desires are satisfied or not. The problem is how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desires. Our desires are artificial – we have to be taught to desire.

Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.”

Slavoj Žižek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006)
Poster for The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology featuring Slavoj Žižek, dir. Sophie Fiennes (British Film Institute/Film 4, 2013)

Over Easter, I visited home in Glasgow for a nice extended break, ostensibly for cat-sitting duties while my family were in France (again, Rouen). This led to a few days alone in my parents’ flat with only little brother Frank for company, and I spent most of that time putting on fun movie nights for myself. I raided the DVD cupboard and top of the list was a re-watch of Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Žižek’s iconic The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), hereafter known as TPGTC, and its feature-length sequel in 2013, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (TPGTI).

Young Frank, my little cinema buddy, ready for another screening

I rented The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema when I was in my first year at the Glasgow School of Art, stumbling upon it in the library DVD collection. I loved it immediately, as it was my first introduction to mysterious psychoanalytic concepts and how they were related to my love of cinema, so I found several of the ideas very influential. Slavoj Žižek, a charismatic speaker, presenting his ideas while inside the film scenes that he is analysing is such a compelling but simple concept, and the visuals of the films really helped me, as a 17 year old, understand most of the philosophical ideas much easier than reading a book.

Part of the enjoyment of the ‘Pervert’s Guides’ is the short clips of great scenes from all sorts of different genres of films, from Hitchcock to Stalin’s Soviet propaganda, from iconic Hollywood films to obscure European arthouse, or films that were simply forgotten and shouldn’t have been. The short clips reminded me nostalgically of those ‘100 Greatest Music Videos’ or ‘100 Greatest Actors’ compilations that I remember being on Channel 4 late at night; you got a kind of kaleidoscopic, panoramic view of (very adult) cultural references, that as an 11 year old I was transfixed by.

Slavoj Žižek in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), inhabiting the world of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)

Three years later, in my last year of GSA, the series’ feature-length sequel The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology was released in cinemas, and I couldn’t miss it. I was very affected by the experience of watching Ideology on the big screen. It was also maybe the first time I went to the cinema by myself, which is something I do all the time now; but mainly I remember feeling overwhelmed by some of the film scenes selected, especially by Willem Dafoe (he’s now cropped up twice in this blog) as Christ on the cross, suffering horribly, forsaken by God, or the Big Other as Žižek suggests. But on this re-watch ten years later, I discovered that the film actually ends quite quickly after this crucifixion scene, while I remembered a whole other section. I had somehow implanted a false memory of a whole different ending that included the real epiphany that stuck with me. I don’t know if I then made the whole thing up, or I mashed together a different theory with this memory.

Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ, dir. Martin Scorsese (Universal Pictures, 1988)

The epiphany, that I wrongly attributed to Žižek, goes roughly as follows: We, as a society, don’t believe anymore in the eye of God, watching and judging us, so we have replaced God, one Big Other, with another: cinema. This began with the advent of the camera in the 19th century, which coincided with industrialisation, widespread decline of religion, the invention of ghosts and the birth of cinema. By pretending we are in a film, a phenomenon now hardwired into us, we are watching ourselves in our mind’s eye. CCTV, the internet, people filming each other on their phones has added to this psychic behaviour in the 10 or so years since I first watched TPGTI. The eye of the camera is the new eye of god that monitors our behaviour, that is watching us even when we think we’re alone, whose presence forces us to view ourselves externally. The eye of the film camera is also how we are now immortal, not as ghosts or souls; our life after death as moving image. By watching each other, forming part of an audience as well as being the star of our own film, we as a culture form our own god and afterlife.

The horror that Dafoe realises on the cross as he begs for divine assistance is that we are our own god. We (humanity) are the ghosts in the machine; as Žižek put it himself, we are the demonic voice possessing the innocent flesh, an obscene disembodied voice; the alien inhabiting the body.

Still from The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin (Hoya Productions/Warner Bros, 1973)

Note: in case anyone is looking for film recommendations, here’s a list of films that featured in TPGTC and TPGTI that I’ve since watched just based off their little clips: Solaris (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), The Conversation (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), Lost Highway (dir. David Lynch, 1997), Full Metal Jacket (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1987), In the Cut (dir. Jane Campion, 2003).

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