A really smart and ambitious take on Dostoyevsky’s The Double that doesn’t quite ‘play.’ In the film, the present is imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely, the self is divided, alienation is the norm and suicide is the only way out. Jesse Eisenberg plays two versions of a character and impresses with each. That it doesn’t quite ‘play’ is not as bad as it sounds. Many great movies don’t: La règle du jeu, The Magnificent Ambersons, many others; and if Ayoade’s film is nowhere near that level, it still makes for a fascinating watch. The Double is beautiful to look at, all noir-and-amber lighting, characters in frames within frames, boxed in, and with the camera often zooming out so that their imprisonment becomes complete. Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska are mesmeric and I loved seeing Cathy Moriarty again. After Submarine and The Double, Richard Ayoade is no longer a director of promise but one of achievement.
A clever and funny film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology basically amounts to an illustrated lecture on ideology taking excerpts from a wide variety of films (The Sound of Music, The Searchers,They Live, If, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick, also two from Forman, Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball) as case studies with which to illustrate aspects of Slavoj Žižek’s thinking on the subject.
The readings of the films are always entertaining but unsubstantiated and he could easily have said the exact opposite had he chosen to — he offers no proof either way. One can imagine him adding to the ‘perversity’ of it all by saying something completely different about the films and being just as funny, just as provoking and just as clear on his own thinking; the choice of films is amusing but so personal and idiosyncratic as to seem ad-hoc.
The exposition of the thinking, however, is always stimulating and almost too Cartesian, beginning with a central idea, breaking it down, juxtaposing it with its opposite and then guiding one through a dialectic that sees no contradiction in bringing together desire and historical materialism, the self and the social, the unconscious, the repressed and the other invisible forces that act on us, materially, such as forces and relations of production, and us once more, this time via the social, through the circulation of value in commodity culture.
And why would Žižek of all people seek, much less find, such contradiction? As far back as 1989, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek was already writing that, ‘there is a fundamental homology between the interpretative procedure of Marx and Freud – more precisely between their analysis of commodity and of dreams.(p. 11).’ They’re both attempting to make manifest what is otherwise invisible and which not only act on us but in effect create the us we think we are. Movies are almost an embodiment of such issues and concerns: the dream commodity, the viewing machine that commodifies our dreams, the dreams that commodify our desires.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology has a really interesting exposition of how the first part of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ has been used as a unifying anthem throughout the political spectrum, internationally, and across the twentieth century. At the end of the film, there’s an equal interesting speculation on the notion that ‘without God, everything is permitted’. Žižek claims that the debate prompted by the notion was begun by Sartre in the 40s (in Existentialism is a Humanism) as a central question on Existentialism from a misquoting of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. One can understand why Existentialism with its focus on individual responsibility in relation to ethical action would have to address the issues that religion had previously provided a framework for. However, Andrei I. Volkov disputes that Sartre misquoted Dostoyevsky and makes a very persuasive argument that Dostoevsky did in fact say what Sartre attributed to him though it shouldn’t be taken as an axiom or even as a hypothesis.
The point here is not to discuss Sartre or Dostoyevsky but merely to note that Žižek is not to be relied upon for facts and rigour. However, as a polemicist, he reigns supreme and the film is funny and thought-provoking. The way he looks, all crumpled up, as if he fell asleep in his clothes last night and has just awoken, and with huge black circles under his eyes, like he’s read so much his mind is a whirl of almost coherent ideas, is funny; as is the emphatic harshness with which that low and somewhat raspy voice of his enunciates.
I’m also glad that ideology as a concept is once again being discussed after all these years of postmodernist emphasis on the partial, the instertitial, the liminal etc.all of which have a narrower focus and whose purpose is of course decimating grand narratives. He shows how those grand narratives nonetheless persist and affect. He doesn’t do a good job of explaining it all and it’s more the work of a provocateur than a thinker. But I liked the provocation very much.
As an added treat, the film places him within the setting of those movies he discusses, Travis Bickle’s bedroom from Taxi Driver say or the military barrack from Full Metal Jacket, which is a way of setting him in the midst of the desires those films enflamed and the ideas they propagated and is a stroke of genius. Another excellent byproduct of the film is that it makes you want to see the films he’s discussing, some of them again, some for the first time (in my case I’m now desperate to see Seconds, the early Forman films and They Live). So all in all, it’s funny, it makes you think, and it makes you want to see more movies — a successful use of 2 and a 1/2 hours for me.