Ideology isn’t something that is voiced out loud by frenzied, disenfranchised individuals hungering for a revolution to overturn the status quo. Ideology, argues Slavoj Žižek in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), is intricately embedded in the fabric of our cultural products. Directed by Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology can be thought of as a sequel to Fiennes’ 2006 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which also featured Žižek in the starring role. The documentary is an odd yet eclectic mash-up of psychoanalytic film analysis and Marxist discourse. Žižek is a contemporary Marxist philosopher whose down-to-earth eloquence, eccentricity, and thick Eastern European accent have captured the attention of many in recent years, largely due to his online presence. Žižek’s appeal lies mainly in the fact that he blurs the boundaries between everyday issues and esoteric philosophical ideas that many may shrug off as pointless navel-gazing.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Žižek proposes that ideology is slyly inserted into the cultural products we consume, namely, movies. In this comical and insightful documentary, he states that he and Fiennes aim “to use cinema, especially Hollywood, as the place where we can get your everyday ideology, ideology which really forms our ecology, our daily ideological experience where you get the tendencies at its purest, as it were, in distilled pure form.” This reveals Žižek’s skepticism that cinema’s primary function is as an entertainment medium. Instead, he insists that cinema is a tool that not only contains ideology, but also creates it for viewers to subconsciously digest and incorporate into their daily lives. In a 2012 staged interview for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) that debuted the film, Žižek spoke about his recent analysis of the latest in the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight Rises. He interprets the premise of the film as being a liberal re-appropriation of Occupy Wall Street, using Gotham city to stage “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” in his words. He also insists that The King’s Speech and Black Swan, both nominees for the 2011 Oscars, contain “brutal ideology…[with] the most direct re-assertion of patriarchal authority.” The King’s Speech follows the story of an intelligent man trained to be stupid enough to play the role of king; Black Swan reinstates the sexist double standard that a woman who fanatically pursues a career by default sacrifices her domestic role, and is thus destined for failure. In the documentary, Žižek references a slew of popular films including Jaws, Taxi Driver, and A Clockwork Orange, which he argues are coded with ideological lessons.
Make no mistake, following Žižek’s thought process is no walk in the park. You’ll often find yourself wishing you could rewind a few seconds to catch up to his philosophical twists and turns. But his dense and confusing lines of argumentation are made up for through clever editing, where Žižek addresses us in the spatial context of the movies he discusses, standing in for various characters and swapping the original dialogue with his own. What results is a documentary that is as entertaining and amusing as it is insightful. With a tagline like “We are responsible for our dreams,” Žižek ultimately insists on our moral responsibility as viewers. We need to be roused from our roles as passive consumers and begin to recognize the ideological consequences of the content that we, as a society, are being force-fed.