As a medium traditionally dominated by the visual, film usually engages with ideas by weaving them into the fabric of a narrative. In the majority of cases, these narratives are fictitious and audiences are encouraged to read between the lines and think about what it is that the characters on-screen represent. In other cases, the narratives are presented as non-fictional and are draped across the surface of real-life events to produce documentaries claiming to show how the world really works. These ideas, in the famous words of the Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek are pure ideology; political, racial and sexual fables positioned between us and the world in an effort to influence how we think and how we act. The task of cultural criticism – and, by extension, this film about cultural criticism — is to draw our attention to the ideologies that surround us in an effort to disrupt their power.
Back in 2006, Sophie Fiennes directed a series of short documentary lectures in which Slavoj Žižek presented his interpretations of various famous films. Something of a cult phenomenon at the time, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema served as a fantastic introduction to critical theory as it maintained a laser-like focus on the films themselves that allowed people to engage with Žižek’s ideas whilst keeping their feet firmly planted on the cinematic ground. In fact, one of the series’ principle joys was the way in which Fiennes would use sets and costumes to make it look as though the decidedly odd-looking Žižek was appearing in the films he was discussing. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema was not about Žižek, it was about film and Fiennes’ combination of discipline and visual style helped to elevate The Pervert’s Guide above all the other films Slavoj Žižek including Astra Taylor’s Žižek! and Ben Wright’s The Reality of the Virtual.
The Pervert’s Guide to ideology opens far more strongly than the original series as Žižek uses clips from popular films to demonstrate what he means by ideology and how it has an impact on our lives. As ever, Žižek is a fantastic performer; a spectacularly unkempt man boasting an astonishing array of facial tics who communicates complicated ideas with a simplicity and precision that is hilariously (and, some would argue, intentionally) at odds with his buffoonish physical presence. Unfortunately, once Žižek has introduced all the core concepts of his talk, the film’s focus begins to slip. Unlike The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which forced Žižek to keep returning to films, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology gives Žižek the freedom to roam, resulting in a flabby and undisciplined train of thought that feels like far less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, while many of the component parts of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology are insightful, it is never entirely clear how Žižek’s opinions about the 2011 London riots relate to his opinions about Stalin’s efforts to position himself at the centre of not just Russian politics but Russian private lives as well. The more Fiennes indulges Žižek’s wandering attention span, the more insubstantial and hollow his ideas come to seem, something that is particularly evident in the slightly embarrassing attempt to conclude the film with something resembling a plan of action or a unified worldview.
Žižek opens the film by claiming that we are prisoners of a wildly dysfunctional cultural and economic system that perpetuates itself through a set of cultural narratives that stress the lack of viable alternatives. Raised in captivity, we are not only incapable of seeing the bars of our cage… we are encouraged to mock those who would dare to speak of an outside world. The disciplined Žižek of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema pointed directly at the bars of our cage and provided us with rudimentary tools with which to dig a tunnel. The undisciplined Žižek of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology promises pneumatic drills and blasting caps only to abandons us inside a well-stocked tool shed, replacing a set of complex ideological constructs with a no-less-baffling array of anecdotes about Stalin and how awful warm Coca-Cola happens to taste.
Less coherent, less focused and much less visually striking than its forerunner, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is an amusing and occasionally thought-provoking mass of ideas that never quite lives up to its revolutionary potential.