Thursday, January 22, 2009

Movies: A Pervert's Guide to Cinema

Last year, I’d never heard of Sophie Fiennes, and now I’ve seen two of her documentaries in one month. She unquestionably knows what she’s doing, both in finding interesting subjects and filming them in the appropriate way. A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema is a lengthy lecture from philosopher and critic Slavoj Žižek, filled with delicious illustrative clips of movies (mostly Hitchcock and Lynch). Žižek speaks to us sometimes from a white soundstage, where he seems pasted onto the screen, a dark, kinetic speck surrounded by blinding light, but mostly, he lectures from within the scenes of the movies he’s describing: the hotel toilet bowl from The Conversation, the rowboat from The Birds, the chair where Neo must choose between red and blue pills in The Matrix. It’s a little unsettling, but so is his thesis.

In the past, I’ve only dipped a toe in Žižek and other psychoanalytic film criticism, when I took a Hitchcock class at UC Berkeley with DA Miller, shocked to discover that all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre centers around the anus, and our obsession with keeping it clean. That felt mostly like Miller’s own obsession as a standard-issue, leather wearing, Bay Area gay man. Žižek, a bearded Eastern European who talks to quickly he spits, frantically waving his hands, as if he were my mother trapped in my father’s body (he really does look awfully like my dad. . .) doesn’t seem to have much personally invested in what he argues, which makes him slightly more believable. He’s actually incredibly convincing, even though, once out of the theatre, one is slightly stunned by what he’s convinced one to believe.

Žižek’s first premise about the cinema is that it teaches us what and how to desire. He illustrates this nicely with a scene from a 1930s movie in which a woman walks down the street and stops so that a train can pass by; each of the train’s lit windows becomes a movie screen, offering up fantasies of the romantic love she had just arranged to encounter later that night. But Žižek has an even more compelling premise about the cinema, which is that it enables us to act out drives that we cannot safely act out in the actual world, the primary one being, of course, to kill the father (please, no Freudian readings about Žižek looking like my father, and taunting me from the cinema screen.) Of course, he’s no fan of the mother either, blaming the birds on Mitch’s mother, who does not want Mitch to engage in a romantic liaison with another woman.

This kind of analysis may be a bit heavy for Hitchcock, whose better films can be enjoyed on a purely cinematic level. But when considering Lynch, a cult favorite in my set whom I’ve always tried to watch, the analysis is more helpful. I’ve tried to watch Lynch’s films, but I’ve been trapped in a strange no-man’s land (much like the Zone in the Tarchovsky movie that Žižek also considers, alongside its inversion, Solyaris): half horrified, half incredulous (the incredulity likely a mechanism my intellect uses to protect me from that incredible fear). Now I’d like to take a full-semester course on Lynch, taught by Žižek, because the thing missing from this film is a transcript. The man talks so quickly, and says so much, that, particularly for someone like me with very little background in psychoanalysis, important things are hard to catch. And he makes me want to catch them.

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