The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Director Sophie Fiennes
“When Sophie Fiennes approached me with the idea to do a ‘pervert’s guide” to cinema,’” the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, ”our shared goal was to demonstrate how psychoanalytic cinema-criticism is still the best we have, how it can generate insights which compel us to change our entire perspective. The ‘pervert’ from the title is thus not a narrow clinical category; it rather refers to perverting – turning around – our spontaneous perceptions.”
The resulting documentary — Fienne’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema — was like nothing else in film criticism, a dense and hilarious joyride through our cinematic subconscious by our most urgent and entertaining of thinkers. Zizek’s rapid-fire psychoanalytic critique was set up as a series of sight gags, with the philosopher critiquing films as if speaking from their own sets. Whether on on motorboat as he explicated Hitchcock’s The Birds, or against the red walls of Dorothy’s apartment while speaking of Blue Velvet, Zizek pinpointed how our love of cinema is produced less by its stories than by the desires contained within its form.
Moviegoing’s pleasures are, of course, not just private but communal, so its entirely appropriate that Fiennes and Zizek would follow-up their film with a sequel, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, moving, as Fiennes notes below, from a discussion of cinematic fantasy to cinematic dream. The practice here is the same. Speaking from within a series of film clips — on the streets of John Carpenter’s They Live; from a lifeboat floating alongside the sinking ship from The Titanic; in a military latrine from Full Metal Jacket — Zizek explores how cinema reinforces and shapes the dreams that guide us through our relationships and allow us to conceive of ourselves as social beings. Appropriately, They Live is the opening film here, with Carpenter’s Dick-ian riff on false consciousness the appropriate springboard to a film that is as much political critique as psychoanalytic.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology receives its New York premiere November 11 as part of DOC:NYC. I spoke with Fiennes — one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces — from her home in London via Skype.
FILMMAKER: I saw the film a few days ago, and was sitting next to a friend. When it was over, the first thing he said was, “I need to see that again.” My immediate response was, “Well, it’s pretty clear.”
FIENNES: Yeah, I really worked very hard to make it so that it was possible to view it in one go, to take you right to the edge of your thinking, as it were.
FILMMAKER: But it’s funny, as I was trying to piece it together in my mind afterward, in preparation for this interview, I realized I do need to see it again — not to grasp the individual ideas, but to remember them as a sustained argument.
FIENNES: I think it’s a film that you’ll make different synapse connections and have different reflections on second or third viewings. Areas will suddenly open up and there will be more in them than you thought at the beginning. Or, you will get really into one idea in one area of the film.
FILMMAKER: The first film in this series is The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. This is The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Obviously, this film deals with ideology as reflected through cinema, and the arguments in the first film are more psychoanalytic in nature. But is that the only difference? How do you —
FIENNES: — differentiate them?
FIENNES: Well, I think the first one was really made by me as a filmmaker wanting to explore ideas about filmmaking — the relationship between psychoanalytic theory and film theory, and what psychoanalysis can say about cinema, the moving image and storytelling. As a filmmaker, it was really exciting to have an opportunity to go into all those ideas. There were ideas in the original shooting that I couldn’t get into the first film, but they came into this film because there’s a shift of emphasis. I think the relationship between the two [films] is dream and fantasy. Cinema is a great tool to explore ideology, because what [Zizek] calls ideology goes much further than the assumption of ideology as being some sort of explicit text, like a religious or political text that you’re meant to follow. It’s more, as Zizek says in the Taxi Driver sequence, that ideology is how we fill in the gaps where things can’t be explained, where we’re trying to make something feel like it has meaning in our lives. Fantasy obviously connects to dream, [and the film is about] how that holds together the ways in which we reason our place in society.
So, [this second film is] much [more about] the relationship of psychoanalysis to society. And I must emphasize here that I am a filmmaker, I am not an academic. I have no academic background. I come [to this subject] very much as an autodidact. It’s probably why I’m making these films, because I didn’t go to university and study cultural theory or anything. Cultural theory didn’t even exist when I was 17, 18. But, I think there’s this dimension to it that’s so relevant to our politics and society — how we believe that things must be a certain way, what determines the way we construct ourselves as subjects within a society, and how we believe. It’s all about belief, and so there are crossovers between [cultural theory] and cinema, which is also the art of suspending disbelief and believing in society.
Also, what I felt was exciting was that [the film is] also like a theory of the subject, in terms of a person in society, as much as it’s about ideology. That’s what the psychoanalytic ideas take you towards — how you as an individual are interpolated or not, why that fails, and how and what the outcomes are. Ideologies are kind of dreams, even at the most extreme, explicit, crude levels, like Nazism, which is a dream of a cohesive Germany without this disturbing element. Or, contemporary dreams of a kind of Islamic Sharia law world. The idea that I also think is crucial here is the Lacanian notion of the “big Other,” that’s constantly being constructed by us. It’s constantly being created to make us feel that there’s a reason to what we’re doing.
FILMMAKER: Why did you choose to discuss these ideas solely through Zizek’s monologues? Obviously, you could have gone back to early Marxism, or the Frankfurt School, and then traced their evolution.
FIENNES: Clearly, of course. [Zizek] is an academic, and everything [in the films] is drawn from his [writing]. But, as a documentarian, I can only document what’s here today, now. So, in a very simple way, the films are a document of him as a thinker. But, you know, it’s also about this idea of something that’s alive in the moment. It’s a “present tense” kind of film. I like to document something and have that sense of a present tense. Also, he is such an amazing communicator. He can deliver these ideas with this extraordinary sense of humor. His sense of humor, his sense of the ridiculous is almost pathological. It’s a need for the ridiculous to always be just a split second away, as if that’s what guarantees that things will never fall into pretension or get lost in some sort of ivory tower.
FILMMAKER: I can’t think of another philosopher who would agree to be interviewed while sitting on a toilet.
FIENNES: Exactly. It’s a testament to the strength of what he has to say that it comes through all this ridiculousness. It’s not stopped or undermined by it. If anything, [the complexity of the ideas is] disarmed by his humor.
FILMMAKER: How do you work with Slajov on developing the films?
FIENNES: People always say, “What’s your working process?” The funny thing is that there really isn’t one. When we meet, we hardly ever talk about the film and the ideas. I just do all the reading the film requires and pull various ideas I find exciting. Slajov says I do all the hard work because he’s written the books already.
FILMMAKER: Zizek can be a slippery philosopher — do his interpretations and meanings ever change in your films from what he previously wrote??
FIENNES: Well, I wouldn’t call him slippery. I think he’s like a sort of jazz musician in that he’s trying different things out all the time. And if it suddenly occurs to him that he wants to push an idea in [another] direction, he can change his mind about things. When I first talked to him about The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, he said that it’s impossible to be out of ideology. We’re absolutely embedded in it. And then, by the time we got to making the film, he decided that you could be free of ideology, but that it was just incredibly brutal. That was a big shift. He’s very free in that way. And this is his point about The Parallax View: things don’t necessarily cohere and synthesize into one continuous, coherent argument. So, he would try different things, pushing them against each other, and yes, things can change. But I find him pretty consistent.
FILMMAKER: On a practical level, how do you work with Slajov on the shooting? Do you script his monologues, work out specific shotlists?
FIENNES: There’s no scripting as such, but obviously I create a framework and then,I give him as much freedom as possible within that framework. He can go on quite a lot of tangents, and in those tangents, there’s often gold dust. So, I let him go far out, and then I have it transcribed, explore it and see where there are connections between ideas. An aside can suddenly open up the comprehension of an idea brilliantly.
FILMMAKER: How was the film edited? Do you have the same sort of editor that you would work with on another type of film? Or are you editing the film yourself?
FIENNES: I edit it myself. My last four films, I’ve edited myself. I mean, I use a pseudonym, but I do it myself on Final Cut. It’s really like writing with film, you know? I have to absorb the material, have to kind of know it in my head and be able to access it all. The idea of trying to communicate that to someone else would be really, really hard.
FILMMAKER: How did you first discover Zizek?
FIENNES: I made this film about religion called Hoover Street Revival, about a Pentecostal church in Los Angeles. It had a theatrical release here [in the U.K.], and I was really frustrated by the response. The Left, cinema-going press had this absolute knee-jerk reaction against anything having to do with religion. They just didn’t understand the way I’d made the film. A journalist said to me when he saw the film, “Oh, you should read Slavoj Zizek because he’s very interesting on religion.” And so, that was it. I read his book on religion, On Belief, and as I read more I realized he wasn’t frightened of religion. He explored it in quite a courageous way, not being a believer. And then the more I read, the more he was referring to cinema, and I became fascinated by his writing on films. So then, I just thought, I want to make something about his ideas on film as a way to get into them more for myself — for my own pleasure and my own learning.
FILMMAKER: Will there be another film in this series?
FIENNES: Well, Slavoj really wants to do The Pervert’s Guide to Opera. I’m just trying to imagine how that could be. It would go beyond films, obviously. I mean, there are films on operas, but I don’t know. It’s a difficult one. I haven’t really thought much about how to make it work, but I’m curious to see what ideas would be in it from his point of view. By the way, he hasn’t seen the films, and he never will see them.
FILMMAKER: Why is that?
FIENNES: Because he finds it absolutely traumatic to watch himself on screen. It makes him too self conscious. I think he becomes kind of appalled by himself, and it then it inhibits his way of working. So, he quite wisely doesn’t see them.
(Photo: Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek on the set of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.)