So, this is the deal. You get a philosopher called Slavoj Žižek who sniffs a lot and repeatedly tips his nose, as he rattles on about ideology, consumerism, Christianity, capitalism, fascism, communism, psychoanalysis. He takes a Starbucks cup; he says you pay a bit more for the coffee, but your consumerist guilt is assuaged because a portion of the purchase price helps some Saharan farmer.
Slavoj repeatedly touches his nose while handling the cup and you are glad he is drinking it, not you. He means well - well, kind of - with his unrelenting barrage of theorising, and his long visual quotes to support such theorising. He props up his scattergun ideas with extracts from films: Jaws, Titanic, The Dark Knight, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Sound of Music and John Frankenheimer’s 1966 classic, Seconds.
But he has some decidedly far-fetched thinking in here about the Catholic church. That the institution basically allows you to go off and fulfil your every desire? I think not - believer nor unbeliever could hardly subscribe to that. Sure, The Sound of Music has a rather indulgent reverend mother who blithely urges Julie Andrews to leave the convent and “climb ev’ry mountain”.
We all know that was pure fantasy, but Slavoj deems that film sufficient evidence for his argument that the Catholic church is the more permissive of the various religious institutions available to us. If he had grown up a Catholic - I doubt very much he did - he might have known otherwise. But maybe the man was just being mischievous and provocative.
The film's producers must have believed that the vitality of Slavoj’s ideas and the enthusiasm with which he put them across in broken, occasionally indistinct English would somehow redeem the whole enterprise. But it doesn't, really.
Roland Barthes was writing this kind of thing 40 years ago; you could just go read Mythologies instead. In the Seventies, truth be told, many of us didn’t get around to Barthes, even if he was fashionable and published in Picador paperbacks. It was much more fun absorbing ideas and spacious ways of thinking through intelligent novels like Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Mr Sammler’s Planet. Bellow knew that mankind can bear all sorts of ideas if such ideas are treated like seeds to be planted and allowed to grow in a human drama hothouse. The same rule of thumb should apply, where possible, to film.
Director Sophie Fiennes is attempting to have the best of both worlds - a philosophical treatise, of the sort you might read in the London Review of Books, illustrated not with still shots, but with extracts from popular films (Slavoj is actually good on Taxi Driver). But films like Jaws and Titanic do not sustain much serious analysis. Indeed, the directors of both would mightily scratch their heads if they heard what conclusions Slavoj has drawn from their rather vacuous, box office-ringing scenarios.