Rightwing Film Geek

Critical vulgarity


I enjoyed the Slavoj Zizek documentary THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA, and his other work has been sufficiently warmly recommended to me that I went ahead a bought one of his semi-film-related books, still sitting in my pile (“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)” … I mean — how can you even resist a title like that, or the mind that could come up with it/agree to it).

Still, I find Zizek brilliant and maddening in about equal proportions, and it’s good to have reminders of the latter once in a while. This essay on THE LIVES OF OTHERS in “In These Times” repeats two major intellectual crimes all-too-common in this interesting era. (HT: Peter Chattaway, who also notes the dubiousness of one of Zizek’s facts, as if his descriptors “all known … always” shouldn’t have done that already.)

zizek1.jpgFirst of all, Zizek repeats one of the commonest undemonstrated (and undemonstrable) tropes of contemporary sex studies, queer studies, feminism, etc., i.e., immediately noting a relationship between two person of the same sex that involves love, and immediately labeling it “homosexual.” Despite there not being even the slightest hint that the two persons want to get jiggy. In this particular case, Zizek imagines that there’s a homosexual relationship between the two central male characters — the Stasi agent Wiesler and the playwright Dreyman. Here’s his “reasoning.”

Finally, there is a weird twist to the story that blatantly contradicts historical fact. In all known cases of a married couple where a spouse betrayed a partner, it was always a man who became an informant—in Lives, it is the woman, Christa-Maria, who breaks down and betrays her husband.

Isn’t the reason for this weird distortion the film’s secret homosexual undercurrent? The film’s hero, Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent whose duty is to plant the microphones and listen to everything the couple does, becomes attracted to Dreyman. It is this affection that gradually leads him to help Dreyman. After die Wende—the “turning point” when the Wall came down—Dreyman discovers what went on by gaining access to his files. He returns Wiesler’s love interest, secretly following Wiesler who now works as a modest postman. The situation is thus effectively reversed: The observed victim is now the observer. In the film’s last scene, Wiesler goes to a bookstore (the legendary Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung on the Stalin Alee, of course), buys the writer’s new novel, The Sonata for an Honest Man, and discovers it is dedicated to him (designated by his secret Stasi code). Thus, to indulge in a somewhat cruel irony, the finale of Lives recalls the famous ending of Casablanca: With the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” between Dreyman and Wiesler, now that the intruding obstacle of a woman is conveniently out of the way—a true Christ-like gesture of sacrifice on her part. (No wonder her name is Christa-Maria!)

Now this is just vulgar. Not “vulgar” in the sense of “excessively ribald,” but “vulgar” in the sense of “coarse and reductively low.” When Camille Paglia says Lacan turns your brain into pudding, this is what she was talking about.

First of all, and most importantly, there’s not a shred of evidence in LIVES OF OTHERS that Wiesler “becomes attracted to” Dreyman in any sexual sense whatever. None. Oh, he clearly admires him, but only if admiration or empathy per se constitutes a sexual interest does this count. And it cannot. Otherwise, no distinction is left between love and friendship, between eros and philos, between the sexual and the fraternal. “Sublimation” and “Repression” and every other manner of head-shrinking psychological voodoo just reductively turn all friendship and familial ties into varyingly pale substitutes for orgasms. Further, the book dedication that comes at the end is hardly an expression of sexual interest, particularly given the events of the preceding 2 hours, which Dreyman had finally figured out. Again, only if gratitude (another form of love) is sublimated/repressed sex is there any “there” there. Some of us like to think it really is possible for a human being to feel admiration or gratitude (or other species of love) toward another human being without wanting to get nekkid in bed.


Second of all, both Dreyman and Wiesler are shown having sex with women (admittedly, Wiesler is a quick unsatisfactory encounter with a prostitute). And does it mean anything at all that Wiesler also is shown as “attracted to” the actress Christa-Maria — trying to thwart the minister liaisons on one occasion, approaching her like a fan at a bar, and even trying to save her at the end? I’m aware that bisexuality exists, but the sex and bedroom scenes are at least real facts about the text; imputations of same-sex sex are just Zizek’s imaginative free-association and imperialistic discourse-impositions. If you define everything in reality as centered on sex, then of course everything will look that way to you, including a male-male relationship in THE LIVES OF OTHERS. But that’s Zizek’s problem, and I’ll leave it to him to try to figure why he isn’t boinking his father. (I presume.) They say that to the corrupt, everything is corrupt; and similarly to the vulgar, everything is vulgar, and to the sex-obsessed, everything is about sex — especially that which isn’t about sex, because, by pretending it isn’t, it’s clear-cut denial (no more perfect case of circle-jerk circularity could ever exist than than the lie-concept “denial”).

Third, Zizek’s comparison with CASABLANCA is just bonkers and actually cuts the other way, even apart from the merits of reading the Bogart classic as a homosexual love story. Rick and Renault walk into the mist together at the end and plan a trip to Brazzaville. On the other hand, Dreyman and Wiesler quite pointedly never even meet at the end of the movie, and the “walk into sunset together” scene is the money shot if a film is in any way about a romantic relationship (indeed, that’s always the evidence that CASABLANCA is really a love story about Rick and Renault). Yes, “the woman is out of the way,” but Dreyman never learns so much as Wiesler’s name, instead dedicating his latest book to an unknown Stasi number. Further, the content codes of Hollywood in 1942 created homosexuality as subtext, because some subject matter was simply unmentionable. Whether this justifies rummaging through the past for coded homosexuality is one thing; but surely the supposed necessity for this hermeneutic for past films actually argues against its permissibility for current films. To put it bluntly, the makers of a 2006 German film have no need, just or unjust, to hide a gay love affair. Which makes my rule — no sex, no homosexuality — by far the more rational one for current films.

lenin.jpgThe other major and majorly-annoying trope Zizek commits is here:

To put it quite brutally, while Ostalgie is widely practiced in today’s Germany without causing ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: “Good Bye Hitler” instead of “Good Bye Lenin.” Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism?

To put it quite brutally, this is Pferdscheisse. The reason one cannot imagine “Good Bye Hitler” or that Ostalgie is common in contemporary Germany might have rather more to do with German law since 1945, which has criminalized Nazism, Nazi advocacy, Nazi symbols, Holocaust denial, et al, and even proscribed certain verses of the national anthem. Leave aside the wisdom of these laws — they exist for the Third Reich while not existing for the communist GDR. Thus the Nazi equivalent of “Ostalgie” is essentially illegal. (Further, I don’t really think … and here I agree with Zizek … that GOOD BYE LENIN is an immoral whitewash of communism.)

But more importantly, Zizek is simply displaying in spades the double standards of the contemporary intellectual class in saying that “Communism had an emancipatory potential that was thoroughly missing in fascism.” Where to begin?

  1. This sits uneasily alongside his complaint against THE LIVES OF OTHERS that its narrative begins with sexual interest in Christa-Maria on the part of the culture minister. Is “horror … inscribed into the very structure of the East German system,” thus making “relegat[ing it] to a mere personal whim” a bad thing? Or did communism have potential that just wasn’t realized? Can’t be both.
  2. Communism has “emancipatory potential” against what, exactly? And why would fascism not have “emancipatory potential” against the demons in its demonology? Whether capitalist exploiters or communist expropriators, aristocrats and priests or cosmopolitans and atheists, fascism and communism (and most modern ideologies for that matter) have an understanding of how the world works, what is wrong with that, and a promise of “emancipation” from those wrongs. Zizek (or anyone else) may prefer the demonology of communism and/or prefer emancipation from the demons communism promises to vanquish than emancipation from those fascism does — but that says nothing about the two ideologies, in the kind of formal, idealistic terms he wants.
  3. Is it relevant … at all … that every actually existing communist regime has been tyrannical (some more than others, sure, but all of them to a large or larger degree)? Not strictly speaking, if we’re talking about ideals … I understand that. But is there any point at which we actually learn from experience and decide that … “gee, every time this ‘good idea’ is tried, it screws things up worse,” and so try to rethink whether its unimplementable ideals either really are so good or really matter even if good? And so quit trying to “rescue” communism on these sorts of grounds Zizek is doing. Who would listen to “fascism again, we’ll make it work better this time”?

Like so many Western intellectuals, Zizek betrays that he cannot or will not treat fascism and communism according to a single moral standard (those who do are greater anti-communists than anti-fascists), but rather has a patella reflex that tells him to make excuses or relativizations or contextualizations on behalf of communism.


May 29, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Toronto — Day 1 capsules


THE MAGIC FLUTE (Kenneth Branagh, Britain, 2006, 3)

Ingmar Bergman has nothing to worry about. Just a godawful mess that will satisfy nobody. If you walk in innocent of the original, you won’t be able to make head or tail of it, and singing it in English doesn’t help a whole lot since opera-style singing is hard to follow even in a language you understand. If you already know the original, you’re still limited by (1) it wasn’t the tightest, most-logically-plotted, obscure-symbolism-free opera to begin with; and (2) Branagh kinda sets it in World War I (to the extent that this opera can be said to have a setting at all) and plops a lot of confused and confusing pacifist propaganda onto it. It’s supposed to make it tries to make it Important and Relevant. Instead, it pretty much brings the music down to the level of the New Seekers — “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Pretty much. The music is too good not to survive this, though. Some record company or studio should sign that guy up.


THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (Sophie Fiennes, Britain, 2006, 7)

The important thing to understand is that this is not a film. It’s a work of film criticism, but as that, it’s very strong and the best possible film of its kind. PERVERT’S GUIDE is only 2 1/2 hours of Freudian philosopher/film critic Slavoj Zizek talking about how films work and how they help construct our sexual and other subjectivities. There’s plenty of well-chosen clips to illustrate his points, but, funny if predictable variations in setting aside, not much more than him talking and showing clips. So obviously PERVERT’S GUIDE is not in the league of either THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS or ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVITCH. Neither is it particularly groundbreaking in terms of its ideas per se, and some of them are rather dubious. But Zizek really has star presence and the entertaining “voice” to sell his ideas, at least for the length of the film. He has the fumbling-English Mitteleuropa-sage bit down pat, and his takes on DOGVILLE, PSYCHO and THE CONVERSATION, plus Tarkovsky and Haneke and Fritz Lang made me sit up and take notice (his tastes are practically wired into mine). Hey, if boring European psychobabble can be made this interesting, bring it on.


THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany, 2006, 8 )

Someone on St. Blogs a few weeks ago (I forget who) wanted to know why Hollywood never makes movies about Communist tyranny. I hold no brief for the US industry, but there are such films made in the countries that lived under it. THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a tautly-dramatic and suspenseful film (if not exactly a “thriller”) about surveillance in East Germany — a companion piece to the nostalgia comedy GOODBYE LENIN from a few years ago. Its richly ironic plot tells of how and why a playwright who was the most loyal artist in East Germany was bugged by state security, what happened, how and why he turned against East Germany, and how his Stasi surveiller unwittingly got involved, both for good and for ill. LIVES won a very lengthy standing ovation from the Elgin audience Thursday night, it’s obviously very accessible and conventionally entertaining, and so it’s destined to be one of the major foreign-film releases in the US next year, after having dominated the German Oskars. Unlike a lot of broadly-seen foreign films, this one will deserve the praise. It’s subtly acted in a nicely low-key — Hitchcock noted the gap between what people say and what they mean, and the performances are all at least good in this vein. Because it establishes very quickly the ubiquity of spying and the effectiveness of the East German secret police, everything has a suspenseful aura over it, even the scenes you wouldn’t call “set pieces.” Goes about 3 minutes too long though — everything after a certain newspaper headline is in my opinion redundant.

September 9, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment