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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Documentary Now! Robert Evans Mansion

The Reel Deal

Everything You Need To Know About “Mr. Runner Up” Inspiration Robert Evans

Watch the two-part finale of Documentary Now! this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

In its upcoming two-part finale, Documentary Now! spoofs the crown jewel of docs: The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s the autobiographical documentary about Robert Evans, the unlikely Hollywood mogul whose mix of self-aggrandizing bravado, classic good looks and extremely circumstantial good luck took him from being a salesman to an actor to the head of Paramount Pictures.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s totally worth it. Rotten Tomatoes agrees, with a staggeringly-high approval rating. Watch it before, or watch it after — doesn’t matter. You’ll appreciate it whenever.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of background that will come in handy…

Robert Loves Robert

Robert Evans desk

USA Films/Everett Collection

Robert Evans is the ultimate Robert Evans fan. The movie was narrated by Robert Evans and based on his memoir of the same name. It is totally unbiased.

He’s Kind Of A Big Deal

Robert Evans, Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Evans produced some of Hollywood’s true classics: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story…the list goes on. Totally legit and amazing movies.

He’s Also Kind Of A Joke

Wag The Dog
New Line Cinema

Evans has been parodied in TV shows and movies like Entourage and Wag The Dog. He is the quintessential “producer” you already have in your head.

So Wrong He’s Right

Robert Evans Slap
20th Century Film Corp

Robert Evans is a notorious narcissist whose love of self is so blind and sincere that it’s actually adorable.

There’s Something Missing

via Giphy

Entire sections of Robert Evans’ life are left out of the documentary. Maybe it’s because of timing. Maybe it’s because real life isn’t a tidy narrative. Who knows.

He Blew It

Spider coke

Evans had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in the early 80’s, and was connected to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. Oops.

Losing Is For Losers

Everett Collection
Everett Collection

In the Robert Evans mythology, all tragedies are just triumphs in disguise, and every story has a happy ending…for Robert Evans.

Bill Hader Jerry Wallach

With these simple facts in hand you are now prepared to thoroughly enjoy the two-part finale of Documentary Now! starting this Wednesday at 10/9c on IFC.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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