Film Reviews

Revival in Your Laptop

The would-be cineastes recently seen fleeing the Museum of Modern Art's screening of The Pervert's Guide to Cinema in New York can't say they weren't warned. What exactly were these fussy museum-goers expecting from Slovenian philosopher and theorist Slavoj Zizek's three-part shuffle through the hallowed halls of cinema? An Ebert & Roeper episode with another screwball guest star?

One weeps for the movies if such a buff-stroking documentary as this can't secure a stable audience at a museum. On the other hand, some 35 years after Last Tango, maybe the art house isn't a place for perverts anymore. Indeed, the privacy of one's own laptop seems a somewhat safer setting for Zizek's kinky act of criticism, a film whose unlicensed use (and abuse) of clips from 40-odd major motion pictures renders a commercial release all but inconceivable anyway. Premiered at Toronto last fall, Pervert's Guide is available for purchase from the UK on a Region 0 DVD — or, in the film's own spirit of secret cinephilia (shhhh), is downloadable for free from one's virtually perverted peers.

Granted, true cinephilic fantasy is still the same old story: an aged reeler peeping at Une femme mariée from the back row of the Thalia circa 1967, a rumpled copy of the Voice poking out from under his damp trench coat. But the future of film — not to mention film criticism — may well be YouTube. In the meantime, we have the scruffy, shambling, motor-mouthed Zizek digitally imposing himself on Hitchcock's rear-projected mise en scène, steering Tippi Hedren's rented boat in Bodega Bay and giving rise to her desire: "I want to fuck Mitch."

Stolen moments also appear from Vertigo and Psycho — Zizek gently rocking in Mother's fruit cellar chair and fighting an urge to follow Madeleine into the San Francisco bay — but Pervert's Guide is emphatically not an auteurist manifesto. Nor is it a history of cinema à la Godard, a personal journey à la Scorsese, or a stack of lavender-tinted home movies à la Mark Rappaport.

Closest in spirit and intent to Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, Pervert's Guide treats The Movies as a neurotic patient; it puts the canon on the couch. (Having Hitched himself to the master's oeuvre, our host curiously skips the chance to mount Marnie's big stallion and ride. Maybe he's saving that thrill for the sequel.)

If Andersen's adopted genre is the urban noir, complete with suitably hardboiled voiceovers, Zizek's is a mix of melodrama and comedy — the latter being distinctly of the stand-up variety. Did you hear the one about the id, the ego, and the superego? They got stirred up in Duck Soup, and Groucho floated to the top. (Or did he? A critic acquaintance of mine has begged to differ, arguing that Groucho is too unhinged to serve as mediator of a pillow fight, much less of the psyche.) Zizek, defying the critic du jour, generally resists the rule of thumb — although he does teasingly allow that Dead of Night is "wonderful," that Blue is the brightest of Kieslowski's "Three Colors," that the heretofore unrevived Alien Resurrection is finally ready to burst out of Fox's chest and into the cultist's canon.

Hmmm. Is there not some foreign creature that yearns to explode out of Zizek's head? Catholic as this critic's tastes may be, his Pervert's Guide plays it straight in more ways than one. Norman's unmistakably swishy traipse up from the ground floor (i.e., from ego to superego) passes without comment — as does the vast majority of cinema that isn't white European. Thanks for the wonders of modern technology, whereby even rural Mali has a laptop rep house, the reach of this psychoanalytic critic is global (at least in theory), but the strength of his grasp leaves something to be desired. Maybe the Mother of all film theorists should take a trip out of the cellar.

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Rob Nelson
Contact: Rob Nelson