Film of the Week: “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”

Directed by Sophie Fiennes, “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” is a documentary starring Slavoj Žižek, where he argues how on a visual level, cinema becomes explanatory for human behavior. In constructing his arguments, Žižek draws heavily on psychoanalytic works, mainly Freud and a few passing references to Jacques Lacan. Worry not, however, on whether or not Žižek’s analysis is accessible. Two main ideas of Freud’s that Žižek uses, is Freud’s id, ego, superego, and death-drive—ideas whose basic principles can be learned without having to read dense theoretical texts but merely searching for them on Google.

Whether or not “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” is accessible also leads me to the format of the film. Fiennes and Žižek heavily incorporate scenes from the films Žižek discusses, which total to 43. Do you need to have watched every film in order to understand what Žižek is talking about? I don’t think so. What matters is the context of the scene and not necessarily the entire film itself. Before delving into his analysis, the scene in question will play out and then Žižek explains the context, thus allowing for more burgeoning cinephiles to understand what’s going on.

In directing the film, Fiennes brings out Žižek’s own cinephillia. Sets from the films are recreated and at times, Žižek will comically take on the role of a character. At one point while discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo (1958),” he declares, “My God, I’m thinking like Melanie; I want to fuck Mitch.” Žižek is clearly passionate about the subject, and his eccentricity shows in his speech. While I mentioned that the film itself is accessible, that does not mean Žižek’s arguments are shallow. The arguments can be difficult to grasp, especially with the film having a running length of over two hours, but I think Žižek’s energetic delivery helps to ease this difficulty, because he draws you in.

I’d like to conclude this recommendation by taking a look at one of Žižek’s arguments. After all, this is where the substance of the film lies; the ideas and not the oddball mannerisms of Žižek. “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” is split into three parts, and in part three, Žižek proposes an idea which I find quite interesting: “All modern films are ultimately films about the possibility or impossibility to make a film (1:44:20).” He then launches into an analysis of Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville (2003),” a film which immediately draws attention to its fictitious nature by taking place on a set. As Žižek points out, however, what makes “Dogville” unique is that the audience can see the set quite clearly: “There are no houses. There’s just lines on the floor signaling that this is the house, this is the street (1:45:48).”

dogville

Žižek goes on to argue that despite knowing the film may be an illusion, we are still fascinated by it: “There is something real in the illusion, more real than in the reality behind it (1:47:14).” We then watch the famous scene from “Wizard of Oz,” where it is revealed that Oz is not a powerful wizard, but a man behind a curtain. From this scene, Žižek extrapolates “…the logic of de-mystification is not enough. It is that rather, in a way, there is more truth in this appearance. Appearance has an effectivity, a truth of its own (1:48:15).” He then continues, “And that’s the paradox of cinema, the paradox of belief. We always believe in a kind of conditional mode (1:49:30).” For the purposes of how I’ll engage this overall argument, Žižek concludes by showing the introduction to James Whale’s “Frankenstein (1931).” The film begins with Boris Karloff stepping forth from behind a curtain and warning the audience that what they’re about to watch is fictitious but to still be on their guard nonetheless, because the film is horrifying. To this, Žižek says, “Somebody tells us you have to experience horror, we do it (1:50:00).”

Well, first off, what does all this mean? Why is knowing that cinema is an illusion—as in the case of “Dogville—“more real than reality? Žižek’s own answer to that is that knowing cinema is an illusion “doesn’t prevent identification. It makes us even more prone to the tensions of the inner life…irony is put into service to make us believe (1:46:40).” What Žižek is saying is that, because we are made privy to knowing the film is an illusion by way of Trier putting the whole village on display, we aren’t distanced from the film’s reality but rather become more intimate with it since we are able to see everything that goes on. Moving on to the example of “The Wizard of Oz,” knowing that cinema is an illusion is not enough. We must also understand that knowing the appearance of an illusion has consequences. Most importantly, a paradox of knowing that cinema is fictitious but still allowing the illusion to persist in order to be emotionally invested, and so once again, “Somebody tells us you have to experience horror, we do it.”

I think Žižek’s claim that all modern films are ultimately about the possibility or impossibility of making cinema is a bit bold. Perhaps he doesn’t quite mean all cinema, but I do think this idea can be worked to make rather true when we limit the amount of films we’re discussing. It’s here that I want to use Žižek’s argument and apply it to a group of modern films: the superhero films of today.

I put forth that the superhero films of today are indeed about the various possibilities of making cinema and this is seen in two ways: their self-reflexive nature, and the inclusion of a post-credits scene.

Two specific films that have that self-reflexive nature are “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and “Captain America: Civil War.” The story of both films spring from the mass destruction caused by their predecessors, “Man of Steel” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” respectively.  Watching these two films, we may be awed by their action, but there’s a tonal shift once we watch the sequel. The mass destruction is no longer made to be awesome but gruesome. No longer are the finales adventurous and epic but terrifying and riddled with guilt over their consequences—the death of innocents. The stories of both “Dawn of Justice,” and “Civil War” are only possible due to the destructive nature of their prequels and both films end in ways that make sequels possible: “Dawn of Justice” ends with the death of Superman, and “Civil War” with the seemingly disbandment of the Avengers.

Nowadays, all superhero films feature a post-credits scene where the audience is teased for a sequel, and here we can see Žižek’s idea on the paradox of conditional believing at play. The rolling of the credits explicitly implies that the film is over and implicitly implies that it’s not real. It’s not that credits themselves mean a film isn’t real—documentaries feature credits—but that in the credits of superhero films, we are able to see the man behind the curtain. There’s that list of CGI crew, stuntmen, and all other aspects that of course point to the film not being real.

But our excitement for the “illusion” stays, because due to the nature of a post-credits scene, the credits no longer mean the film is over but merely paused. What I mean by this is that Marvel and D.C., have created a franchise where films continuously bleed into one another with no end in sight. In the example of Marvel, this is a narrative that began with Iron Man (2008) and continues to this day. The credits then, simultaneously signal that the film is an illusion yet excite us nonetheless, because of what entails afterwards: the introduction to the next film in the franchise, thereby showing that Žižek’s idea on conditional believing. In conclusion, through their self-reflexive nature, which spring forth from previous franchises and are used as commentary on their own nature as a specific genre, and their post-credit scenes which allow for the set-up of future films, superhero films become emblematic of that modern cinema Žižek discusses. A cinema about the possibilities of film-making.

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