The Pervert's Guide to Cinema

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Slavoj Zizek mimicks Hitchcock's The Birds.

Zizek mimicking the rowboat scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. [idealterna / Flickr]

Uber-theorist Slavoj Zizek and filmmaker Sophie Fiennes have teamed up to make a remarkable documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.

To put it bluntly, this is one of the coolest and most compelling films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s about using film to understand psychoanalysis, and using psychoanalysis to understand film (both individual films and film as a medium).

Watching it is like stepping into an alternative reality behind the screen. Zizek hops from iconic moment to iconic moment in the history of cinema, moving from the Marx Brothers to Hitchcock to Alien in one fell swoop. Zizek and Fiennes went back to the actual shooting locations or reconstructed sets from many classic movies, like the motel bathroom from The Conversation and Dorothy’s living-room from Blue Velvet, which gives you the eerie impression that Zizek is actually talking to you from inside these films. All the while, he puts films into conversation with one another, using them to illustrate ideas about the unconscious, maternal angst, or the nature of desire.

The art of cinema consists in arousing desire, to play with desire, but at the same time keeping it at a safe distance. Domesticating it. Rendering it palpable…

The problem for us is not are our desires satisfied or not. The problem is how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desire. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire.

Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire.

Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2007

We’re going to use this cinematic guide as a jumping off point to talk about film, but also about fantasy, reality, sexuality, subjectivity, and desire.

Do you think film is better suited than other art forms to get at the nature of human desire? Do you have a favorite film you’d like Zizek to help pick apart?

Slavoj Zizek

Philosopher and Psychoanalyst

Professor, Institute for Sociology, and the European Graduate School

Sophie Fiennes


Director, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Screening Room

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema comes to theaters and film festivals in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC this April. (Click here for a full list of screenings or to buy a copy of the DVD.) In the meantime, check out the following clips:

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Theatrical Trailer

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – Excerpt 1 (about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation)

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – Excerpt 2 (about David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet)

Extra Credit Reading

Alok, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Dispatches from Zembla, January 23, 2007: “I think he is arguing for ‘constructivism,’ the idea that reality is not ‘real’ but rather constructed and cinematic fiction helps us understand how this reality is constructed in tune with our desires and psychic needs.”

Joyce Huntjens, Vertigo. A vertiginous gap in reality and a woman who doesn’t exist, Image [&] Narrative, January 2003: “The construction of Madeline reveals that she is not a woman, but John’s object-of-desire, she does not exist as such. When the mystery of Madeline is unveiled at the end of the film, she turns out to be an ordinary woman. John is cured from his vertigo, but at the cost of the woman’s life, for a real relation turns out to be impossible.”

Theresa Duncan, Hollywood Gossip and The Woman Who Doesn’t Exist, The Wit of the Staircase, February 3, 2007: “A brilliant analysis of a bit of celebrity gossip we would otherwise have absolutely no interest in, in which a famous rock star discards his female mates, only to insist his new date transform, Vertigo-like into her predecessor….”

Chris, Analyzing the Exorcist, chris_nunnally, August 9, 2005: “It’s the concept of your body being invaded and destroyed by an alien force beyond your control – be it the devil or disease – that spawns a great deal of the terror that the movie generates. Remove the demon and replace it with cancer and a lot of things in this movie would not change.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door, December 3, 2006: “It hews to the anarchist vaudevillian spirit of its subjects, prefacing a detailed look at the dialogue-free mirror scene in Duck Soup with with a blank page that represents “ghostly, unreal silence.”

Movie Geek, how I see David Lynch, Penguin Pete’s Blog, January 26, 2007: “The point isn’t to be correct, because there is no correct answer to “what do David Lynch movies mean”. The point is to frolic on what Larry Niven would call a “playground of the mind”….First off, David Lynch is a moralist.”

kier, Alien gender or the “monstrous feminine”, Aussie Diary, January 25, 2007: “What is significant in this particular instance is the ‘othering’ of the organic, biological procreator – the alien. The maternal computer’s womb is crisp and sterile. The alien’s womb within the derelict spaceship is dark and slimy with a layer of ominous fog. Technology/masculinity is clean and safe. Biology/femininity is dirty and dangerous.”


The producers of King Kong visited the Soviet Union just before shooting the film, in the late 20s, and they were showing the modernist plans for the new Palace of Soviets. High tower, on the top of it, gigantic statue of Lenin. And they said, wait a minute, if we replace Lenin with the big ape, we have it. So, paradoxically, the origin of one of the exemplary, iconic, images of Hollywood — King Kong, ape on the top of the Empire State Building — is Soviet communism.

Slavoj Zizek


One of the things that I learned from Hitchcock was this point that he would always watch a film completely silent, before he locked off the picture, because then he would see how it worked purely visually.

Sophie Fiennes


And that’s for me the true mystery of cinema. How even after you see the machinery behind, the magic remains. It’s as if there is more reality, more power, in the magic, in appearance, than in the machinery behind.

Slavoj Zizek


The problem I see with [Werner] Herzog is often the overwhelming obsession, strength, that he puts in the creation of his films — it’s too strong, it simply overwhelms the films itself.

Slavoj Zizek


In Hitchcock there are always two stories: one story and its counterstory. And I think Hitchcock, in this counterstory of “Vertigo,” in the figure of Judy, presents a more substantial case for female subjectivity than many many of the official feminist films.

Slavoj Zizek


My own Betty Crocker home-cooked theory is this one which I call psychic transvestitism, where there’s an opportunity for me in fiction to actually kind of surf female experience that they can’t access or actualize for themselves in reality as such.

Sophie Fiennes


I love the strange moments that shift you, that films can generate. It’s beyond even the narrative, it’s when you actually have a sensation the film generates, and David Lynch is brilliant at manipulating those moments.

Sophie Fiennes

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