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Slavoj Žižek’s Film Criticism on Film, Charlie Kaufman’s Autocritique

Slavoj Žižek’s Film Criticism on Film, Charlie Kaufman’s Autocritique (photo)

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With the exception of Godard’s largely-unseen (on these shores) “Histoire(s) du Cinéma,” Sophie Fiennes’ and Slavoj Žižek’s “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” (2006) might be the greatest piece of film-criticism-on-film ever made. That’s not saying a pantload, of course; despite the obvious potentialities and the seductive pleasure to be had in perusing film history in powerhouse visual swatches, it’s not even a subgenre, beyond the boosterism of promotional docs and Todd McCarthy’s “Visions of Light.” The “video essays” by critic Kevin B. Lee constitute a pioneering version of the idea, despite the entire corpus being dropped for a while from YouTube thanks to copyright protests. Otherwise, the closest we have is the now ubiquitous audio commentary track that accompanies virtually every movie on DVD, the likes of which are sometimes sublime (when they’re performed by spirited critics and scholars, mostly, like Žižek’s on “Children of Men”) and often unendurable (with the glaring exception of Martin Scorsese, directors can rarely speak cogently about their own work). Either way, audio tracks are restricted to running the whole course of a single uninterrupted feature. What Fiennes and Žižek have dared to do is simply illustrate what amounts to a semi-interactive lecture on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory illustrated with film clips — which sounds dull, but Žižek, Slovenian lisp-monster that he is, is world-renowned for a reason: he’s a terrific communicator, popularizer and provocateur as well as an interpretive idea volcano.

“Lacan” is never mentioned in this three-part, 2.5-hour tour through popular cinema, but Freud certainly is, and the inexperienced would do well to see it twice and assume that virtually every utterance out of Žižek’s spittle-firing mouth is a concept worthy of another half-hour of exegesis. A good liberal arts bachelor’s degree grasp of Freudian psychoanalysis is pretty much essential, but otherwise you just need eyes: Žižek’s hand-holding walks through entire chunks of “Blue Velvet,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “The Matrix,” “The Great Dictator” and “The Conversation” are never less than a blast, because Fiennes contrives (through clever set-building and Remko Schnorr’s digital cinematography) to place the always anxious, always splenetic Žižek literally within the films’ scenes, watching Isabella Rossellini’s demi-rape in “Blue Velvet” from the couch, or the writhings of Linda Blair from the corner of the arctic bedroom in “The Exorcist,” and often talking over the action.

The subject here, for the most part, is sex, but Žižek’s approach is refreshingly untheory-like: instead of the non-canonical, abstruse, navel-gazing insularity of most theory, we’re presented with formulations that extend and heighten the meanings of the films, and the achievements of the filmmakers (whom Žižek, rather un-post-structuralistically, gives full credit for the Freudian manifestations in their work). That is, the films aren’t simply cult-stud specimens without authors, but cataracts 03102009_ZizekGuide2.jpgof desire and fear that illuminate our own relationship with sex and its discontentments. Except perhaps when he’s pointing out how Gene Hackman in “The Conversation” seems to be literally examining the scene of the murder from “Psycho” (a painfully obvious inter-film connection I never noticed before), Žižek is all about how the films literally and profoundly “teach us lessons,” symbolically, about desire, about subjectivity, about the strange but universal need for sexual fantasy (and how it’s expressed as the voyeurism of cinema-watching), about our conflicted relationship with the sexual significance of various body parts.

Unlike most theory, “Pervert’s Guide” relates directly to our pleasure in watching movies, and to our ideas about our own behavior. Of course, a percentage of what Žižek says is half-conceived and presumptuous, as when he declares that women’s sexual pleasure only comes after the fact, in contemplation of the act. But his juicy bon mots are always challenging (“I want a third pill!” he declares, in view of “The Matrix”‘s inadequate dichotomy between illusion and reality). At the very least, those of us who’ve only seen “Vertigo” or “Lost Highway” or Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” once long ago will be inspired with a convert’s fervor to sit down and reevaluate them with new eyes.

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Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.


9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.


8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.


7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.


6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!


5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.


4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.


3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.


2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.


1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

Astra Taylor Explains the “Examined Life”

Astra Taylor Explains the “Examined Life” (photo)

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To say that the films of 29-year-old documentarian Astra Taylor are thought-provoking is not such a lofty compliment; it’s literally the goal she has in marrying cinema with philosophy. 2005’s “Žižek!” trailed Slovenian psychoanalyst, philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek around the world as he expounded on ideology and made eccentric observations on love, revolution and his own self-critique. Taylor’s latest feature, “Examined Life,” is no less absorbing, an intelligent yet accessible anthology of ideas that sees eight highly influential thinkers of our time (including Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Michael Hardt — and yes, the wild and wooly Žižek) pontificating while taking walks through modern culture. Kwame Anthony Appiah talks cosmopolitanism from inside an airport, Žižek dissects ecology while digging through a garbage facility and Cornel West compares philosophy to jazz and blues while being driven around the streets of Manhattan by the director herself. When Taylor and I met up over coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we discussed the possibility of chatting in the car in which West was filmed, but it was unfortunately being used to sing in by her husband, Jeff Mangum (reclusive frontman of the influential ’90s indie-pop band Neutral Milk Hotel), who also contributed some sounds to the film’s score.

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Sundance 2009: “Cold Souls.”

Sundance 2009: “Cold Souls.” (photo)

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The shadow of Charlie Kaufman looms unignorably large over Sophie Barthes’ first feature “Cold Souls,” which stars Paul Giamatti as a well-known and very serious actor named Paul Giamatti, who’s finding that his role in a upcoming stage production of “Uncle Vanya” is weighing on him. An article in the New Yorker steers him to a service being pitched to wealthy New Yorkers looking to lighten their metaphysical load by having their souls removed and stored, and soon Giamatti is in the care of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who professes, not reassuringly, that his company has no idea how their process works. Extracted, Giamatti’s soul takes the form of a chickpea. But while he no longer feels troubled — in fact, he no longer feels much at all — his soullessness isn’t doing much for his acting. He falls down the rabbit hole of international soul trafficking, renting what he’s told is a Russian poet’s soul imported by a professional mule (Dina Korzun) who, incidentally, has secretly borrowed Giamatti’s soul at her mobbish boss’ orders, as his soap star wife feels it’ll help her with her craft.

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