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Consume This Movie

For a philosopher who believes the capitalist system makes enjoyment impossible, he sure is hilarious.


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*** (A must see)

Directed by Astra Taylor

For the past decade graduate students bored with postmodern platitudes about how liberal tolerance will save the world and how there's no truth have latched onto Slavoj Zizek, the riotously entertaining Lacanian Marxist philosopher from Slovenia who talks in absolutes and gleefully demolishes the pieties of political correctness. He's also about the only serious theorist alive who can talk about pop culture without sounding stupid or opportunistic, though some academics suspect there's nothing sincere at his core. He rose to public prominence in 2002 with his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real, which used The Matrix as a jumping-off point for discussing 9/11, and now, with his big grizzled beard, lisp, and dirty jokes, he's loved by the media too. If he didn't exist we would have invented him. But as he says in Astra Taylor's Zizek!, "Making me popular is a resistance against taking me serious."

An excruciating moment near the end of this crisp, compelling documentary, screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week, shows the adulation Zizek constantly receives and the way he deals with it. After yet another high-energy lecture to yet another oversize audience about the insidiousness of liberal capitalist ideology--an ideology that pretends it isn't one--a fan interrupts him in the midst of a semiprivate conversation to give him a one-way hug. "You really are an intellectual superstar, so I had to hug you," the beguiled young man says. Zizek, sweaty and exhausted, is caught off guard--for once, for a split second. Then he smiles and basically ignores the hugger, apparently in a polite attempt to minimize the ridiculousness of the gesture.

The documentary bravely risks giving Zizek its own one-way hug. Like the movie Derrida, it has a singular, uncritical focus, presenting a philosopher without interrogating him. But it's much more entertaining, thanks to its always amusing subject and its bolder less-is-more ethic. There are no voice-overs, no talking heads to reassure us that Zizek is indeed one of the most important thinkers around today or give the comforting semblance of a balanced view by raising objections to this or that in his theories. Holier-than-thou hipsters who've become bored with Zizek or the Zizek phenomenon and are eager for a backlash might be disappointed. But the absence of outside voices and of an editorializing style of direction seems appropriate given that Zizek himself insists again and again in his writing that one mustn't wait for the approval of a "Big Other" before doing or deciding something. The film is restrained--and generous--enough to allow viewers to draw their own conclusions, and it's clever enough to make you ponder why you're drawn to Zizek or repulsed by him.

Of course talking heads aren't really necessary, since we can rely on Zizek to maul himself--and judging how sincerely he does so is part of the game. At various points in this often hilarious film--in hotel rooms, in his poky apartment in Ljubljana, in restaurants and airports--he says things like "If I were not myself I would arrest myself" and "I am not a human being. I am a monster." If this self-deprecation comes a little too easily to Zizek--his narcissism and his self-effacement are two sides of the same coin--he's convincing when he describes how he deals with all the one-way hugs. It's the best part of the film.

"My duty is to try to occupy the position of the analyst," he says, "which is basically to play in a way of transference with these expectations and undermine, frustrate them." What do people expect from him when they cram into lecture halls? Spiritual guidance, theoretical entertainment, vicarious thinking? Do they hope he'll provide the political solution the left has been waiting for? (He says intellectuals are waiting for a solution only because they don't want to sacrifice their material comforts.) Yes to all of this. But the question, he says, "is not what I can give them, but are these expectations legitimate and what these expectations should tell them about themselves."

Though it's hard to get at the man's theories without being overwhelmed by his personality, he'd rather we focus on them. The film does some explaining in occasional animations and textual interludes. Central to his theories is his application of Jacques Lacan and Marx to the current stage of capitalism, which he presumably hopes is late capitalism. As he explains it, such is the hegemony of capitalism--and so prevalent its command to indulge ourselves in consuming products and to find ourselves in "transgressive" experiences--that the traditional role of the superego has been inverted. It's no longer a restraining order but an injunction to "Enjoy!" Yet as we try to comply we lose the ability to truly enjoy ourselves, because "enjoyment only arises as a surplus," not as part of a system. Here the film makes clear the link between Marx's concept of surplus value and Lacan's objet petit a--the mystical extra element that makes a person or a product lovable but that may not exist. We love what's not there.

Some people get annoyed with Zizek and his perpetual showmanship, his apparent adoption of a fake persona to get attention, his repetition of a routine of jokes and knee-jerk counterintuitive observations. His catchphrase must be "I'm tempted to think it's completely the opposite." But, to use a Zizekian reversal, the problem--if it is one--is the complete opposite. He refuses, or fails, to adopt what would really be a fake persona, that of authentic, authoritative intellectual. He will not--or more likely cannot--accommodate his followers' transference and become the sincere, charismatic figure many of them want him to be. Even when he was campaigning to be president of Slovenia in 1990 he seemed not to believe in himself. Analyzing himself, Zizek says in the film, "I stand for something, but I don't master-dominate what I stand for." He yields every point--stripping everything away until there's nothing left of him. He wants you to believe his theories, not believe in him. As if to underscore--or perhaps betray--the point, he says, "My fear is that I have to be hyperactive all the time just to fascinate people enough so they don't notice there is nothing."

When: Daily through 4/6

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

Price: $9, $7 students

Info: 312-846-2800

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