Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Delighting in Zizekian Perversity

Having received its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in February, a one-hour version of Sophie Fiennes' two-hour documentary, The Pervert's Guide To Cinema, scripted and presented by Slavoj Zizek, will be broadcast on Britain's Channel 4 this Thursday at 23.05 as the fourth and final installment of ArtShock, the contemporary art series:

ArtShock , a four-part late-night arts series, follows some of the UK's most prolific artists as they investigate the more extreme angles and examples of modern art. Is cinema one big Freudian slip? What can the Marx Brothers tell us about the workings of the unconscious? And why exactly do The Birds attack in Hitchcock's masterpiece of horror? Addressing these questions and many more, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema takes the viewer on an exhilarating ride through some of the greatest movies ever made. Serving as presenter and guide is acclaimed philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. With his engaging and passionate approach to thinking, Zizek delves into the hidden language of cinema, vividly uncovering what the movies can tell us about ourselves. Prod/ Dir: Sophie Fiennes; Exec Prod: Martin Rosenbaum; Prod Co: Lone Star Productions.

From the Rotterdam Film Programme:

A unique journey through film history. Been now world-famous psychoanalyst and culture theoretician Slavoj Zizek takes us using famous film fragments to the deepest crypts of the human psyche.

Slavoj Zizek is a phenomenon. This popular and untiring Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and culture critic has a great influence on contemporary political and cultural debate with his publications and lectures on themes including fundamentalism, globalisation, human rights, cyberspace, post-modernism and multi-culturalism. Sophie Fiennes had the idea of putting Zizek into models designed by Remko Schnorr and Ben Zuydwijk of the sets of several famous feature films. With infectious enthusiasm, Zizek lets his - highly (post-)psychoanalytically influenced - ideas loose on films such as The Birds, The Conversation and The Great Dictator. It is no accident that Zizek often stumbles upon Hitchcock, probably the most Freudian of all film directors. For instance, he compares the three floors of the scary Norman Bates mansion (Psycho) with the Freudian concepts of Id, Ego and Superego. And he links the unforgettable scene in Blue Velvet where Kyle MacLachlan, hiding in the wardrobe, observes the violence and frustrated interaction between Isabella Rossellini and Denis Hopper, with the moment when an innocent child sees the sex act performed by his parents. Zizek presents his arguments so naturally, so convincingly and so rapidly that the viewer's head is left spinning. To what degree are film makers aware of the unconscious or subconscious components of their own creativity? And how much do these components contribute to the success of their films?

About The Film-Maker

A serious view on reality TV, Penelope Debelle, February 22, 2005

[Alternatively, How To Successfully Pitch A Documentary Idea]

Reality TV, and the low-browness the genre encompasses, may be the ugly cousin of the more revered documentary artform but it has surprising support among serious documentary makers.

Sophie Fiennes, a London-based filmmaker who worked as an assistant to the British film director Peter Greenaway before turning to documentary, says we should learn from it. In Adelaide this week [February] for the 2005 Australian International Documentary Conference, Fiennes, who is the sister of film stars Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, defended shows including Big Brother despite what she calls their "terrifying gladiatorial" base.

"It is actually very interesting because the key series of reality TV really do reflect society," she says. "People are very quick to demonise Big Brother or Wife Swap, but they don't knock the programs I think are really hideous - how to improve your house, how to improve your hairstyle, your this, your that, the endless bourgeois bettering."

While others hate them, including the anthropological documentary maker Dennis O'Rourke, whose Landmines - A Love Story, set in Kabul, premiered last night, Fiennes says that they are talked about so much shows their relevance to culture.

"As hideous as they are, they reflect a hideousness that is at work in social programming where we think we have choice to be ourselves but we are really being pocketed into being certain kinds of types," she says.

Fiennes is best known for her documentary Hoover Street Revival, a study of life around the Los Angeles church of the charismatic black preacher and brother of singer Grace Jones, the Reverend Noel Jones, whose vibrant and powerful sermons have been the salvation of the congregation in one of the toughest ghettos in Los Angeles.

"I was seeking actually to see what was the tension between what was said in church and what life itself dealt people who went to church," says Fiennes, still jet-lagged after a 25-hour flight from England. "I couldn't even follow individual stories. I was more interested in the impossibility of seeing what was happening in this community - it was more like, 'wham, bam, thank you ma'am' into disparate moments of people's lives rather than the usual documentary conceit where 'I have found my characters and I will follow their journey'."

Tomorrow she will be one of about 20 hopefuls selected to pitch their latest project to international and Australian programmers, financiers, co-production partners and buyers who have come to Adelaide looking for material. Her shamelessly titled The Pervert's Guide to Cinema will focus on the work of hip Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek, author of Enjoy Your Symptom!. Instead of observing him, documentary style, Fiennes wants an essay to camera with Zizek talking about the psychological level on which cinema functions.

After that, she may take up an offer from Grace Jones to make a film of her life, or try directing a work of fiction. She is writing her first feature piece. Her brothers are not necessarily included, but could be. "If there was a part - you know, something they were well suited to play - then yeah, I am very close to them," she says.
Zizek's Latest Mainstream Cut n' Paste Media Incursion:

Defenders of the Faith, Zizek, NYT editorial, March 12, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor [via I Cite]

FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?
This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.
Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the "religious inheritance" of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.

Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. Consider the debate that raged in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, my home country, as the constitutional controversy simmered: should Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from the old Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political and even architectural reasons, the liberal weekly journal Mladina was consistently outspoken in its support for the mosque, in keeping with its concern for the rights of those from other former Yugoslav republics.

Not surprisingly, given its liberal attitudes, Mladina was also one of the few Slovenian publications to reprint the infamous caricatures of Muhammad. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest "understanding" for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe.

These weird alliances confront Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

UPDATE: Le Colonel Chabert's comment on Zizek's article - " ... this bit of smug, ostentatious White Supremacism ..."

To put it bluntly, do we want to live in a world in which the only choice is between the American civilization and the emerging Chinese authoritarian-capitalist one? If the answer is no, then the only alternative is Europe. The Third World cannot generate a strong enough resistance to the ideology of the American Dream. In the present constellation, only Europe can do so. The true opposition today is not the one between the United States and the Third World, but the one between the whole of the American global Empire (and its Third World colonies) and Europe.


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