By Bryan Newbury
September 16, 2008
“You could have presented yourself as being self-taught, the product of your own worthy efforts, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, society in the past took pride in its autodidacts, No longer, progress has come along and put an end to all of that, now the self-taught are frowned upon, only those who write entertaining verses and stories are entitled to be and go on being autodidacts, lucky for them, but as for me, I must confess that I never had any talent for literary creation, Become a philosopher, man, You have a keen sense of humour, Sir, with a distinct flair for irony, and I ask myself how you ever came to devote yourself to history, serious and profound science as it is, I’m only ironic in real life, It has always struck me that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else, But history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history, Sir, are you sure, Truly, you are a walking interrogation and disbelief endowed with arms…”
José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon
(Giovanni Pontiero, translator.)
Astra Taylor’s Zizek!, like the film’s namesake, provides a challenge to the reviewer in a way many ostensibly similar films – think You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train and Manufacturing Consent – do not. There are quite a few reasons for this: brevity of run time; the difference between “activist” theoreticians, historians and philosophers like Zinn and Chomsky and the more urbane and inactivist bloke that Zizek personifies; the rarified air of Lacanian psychoanalysis versus the relative simplicity and utility of pure social science. In a sense, to wax postmodernist, the reviewer is burdened with the same role as the director. The observer is inside, aiming to describe a description, or depiction, that was the implicit purpose of the film itself.
This is a conundrum above the reviewer’s pay grade, unless he is arrogant enough to presume he can cut through to the marrow of Zizek’s unity within paradox within unity, or perfidious enough to claim to have read the source texts so beautifully displayed by Molly Schwartz’s animation. How to attack it, then?
In a state of deep contemplation, this reviewer considered the José Raimundo Silva option, to say, emphatically and unironically, that Slavoj Zizek does not embrace a Lacanian-Marxist hybrid, that he did not call himself a monster, that the viewer does not question whether paradox is unity and chaos order. This brief flirtation with critical liberation was snuffed out precisely because it begged all of the mendacity and conceit mentioned above.
The only way to view Zizek! is the most direct one: what is Taylor seeking to accomplish and how entertaining and thought provoking were here efforts?
The first question requires a certain presumptuousness. Having been duly acquitted of fraud and deception, the reviewer can expect some latitude in this direction. It would be fair to say that the goal is an introduction to Mr. Zizek and his outlook. If it were an overture to cultural theory wonks and professional academics, it would be lacking. Nothing in the presentation of the film suggests such soft failures. If the presumption is correct, then Taylor has certainly achieved her goal. Through a series of interviews, brief clips from lectures spanning from Buenos Aires to Boston, and artfully portrayed texts central to the disjointed unity of Zizek’s approach to, for lack of a more precise term, philosophy, the viewer is instantly gripped by the larger than life yet knowingly insignificant character Zizek cuts. There are bits and pieces, a successful introduction to just who the man is and what, at the surface, he thinks and why, just enough to cajole the viewer into further examining his works. It would be less presumptuous to posit that the person buying this film from the website of her choice would be wise to go ahead and employ the “people who bought this also…” option.
As to the second, Taylor and team couldn’t have done better. The shooting and editing subtly frame the film in a way that we might imagine Zizek appreciating. From the very beginning, with a short statement on creation, chaos, void and love, to the imaginatively sequenced subsections of the film (one of which has the humorous linguistic breakdown “PSYCO/ANAL/YSIS”), there is a harmony of presentation of a harmony of thought. The most impressive ingredient in the presentation is the work of Ms. Schwartz, who alights upon biographical snippets, bits of text and elegant yet enigmatic cultural theorizing with an aplomb that must make her quite sought after in her discipline. Her ability to illustrate complex concepts with a combination of aesthetic grace and edifying simplicity take the film up a few levels. Again, the documentary succeeds in artfully and entertainingly embracing its subject.
Zizek! does not look to be designed for group viewing or post-film (dare we say postfilm?) discussion among more than a roomful of people. Whether a film could present a more complete characterization of Zizek or his works in three hours, let alone one, is debatable. (The reviewer leans more to the contrary position on this question, and thankfully there is a wealth of extras on the DVD to soften the blow of the shockingly abrupt end leaving the viewer engaged in an Armageddon of the Ego, or possibly just politely asking for a bit more footage.) As an introduction, and an effective way to entice people into poring over Slavoj Zizek’s punctilious planet of paradoxes, Zizek! comes up roses.
Which would bring us to what roses actually are…
Directed by Astra Taylor
Color, 2005, 71 minutes
English and Slovene with English subtitles