Take your favorite film class, mix in some anti-capitalist theory and a ton of names from Contemporary Civilization, put it all in a blender, and you’ll have something like Sophie Fiennes’ “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.”
The documentary, which will be released Friday, is essentially a lecture by philosopher and former visiting professor Slavoj Žižek, who uses films such as “A Clockwork Orange,” “Titanic,” and “Taxi Driver” to tackle the ways in which ideology warps our reality.
“Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world,” he says in the film.
Reapplying the formula of their similar 2006 film “Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” Fiennes and Žižek replace a Freudian lens with a more socio-political one, going back to the roots of the book that first made Žižek famous, “The Sublime Object of Ideology.” The book, which catapulted the philosopher to fame with nicknames like “the Elvis of cultural theory,” challenged the Marxist claim that ideology is a “false consciousness.”
One of the featured films, John Carpenter’s “They Live” (1988), serves as a succinct metaphor for the film as a whole. It tells the story of a homeless worker who finds glasses that show him the hidden messages behind everything. Advertisements are replaced with bold words like “obey,” “stay asleep,” “buy,” and “reproduce.” Ideology, Žižek explains, is life without the glasses.
“To step out of ideology is a painful experience,” Žižek says.
This is illustrated by a scene in “They Live” in which the main character tries to force his best friend to wear the glasses. Like a man being taken out of Plato’s cave, he resists violently, almost as if he knows that he will be blinded by the revelation of the true form of the world. Continuing that metaphor, Žižek, a would-be philosopher-king (as a philosopher, he’s already halfway there), educates us on the true forms behind cinematic motifs so that we can do the painful work of forcing ourselves out of the cave.
There’s something about watching the bearded Slovenian philosopher lecture from the interrogation table in “The Dark Knight,” half covered in shadow, that you just can’t get anywhere else. His lectures are always paired with a generous amount of film clips, smoothly presented to the point where it feels like Žižek is a part of the movies. The formula is repeated as he appears on the sets of “Jaws,” “The Sound of Music,” and other, lesser-known films. (Even if you hate the movie, you’ll leaving the theater with a top-tier list of films to watch.)
The clips roll by quickly and the theories are the kind of trenchant commentary that made him a famous philosopher. If you follow Žižek, you’ll be glad to see fan favorites like the Coke marketing campaign and his analysis of Starbucks coffee, the plague of charity, and capitalist guilt rendered in clean shots on the big screen. Žižek fans will leave happy, and those who aren’t fans will at least be treated to a completely unusual documentary experience.