Director Sophie Fiennes has been schlepping around the world for a couple of years now to promote her documentary film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which is an absorbing analysis of film classics by celebrated (and reviled) philosopher/psychologist Slavoj Zizek. Originally developed with the cooperation of the BBC’s More4 Channel as a three-part series, the film begins screening this week at the IFC Center and will surely attract cinephiles looking for an erudite fix.
After watching a screener of the film, I was left with a slew of questions. Although I had an entirely new understanding of much of David Lynch’s oeuvre, and now am certain Zizek loves him some Hitchcock, I also wondered where all the female directors had gone. What about latent homosexuality in many of these films? Had he really just said, “The only good woman is a dead woman”? Zizek analyzes the films from a neo-Lacanian/pro-Freudian vein, something that’s not quite fashionable these days—even in academe. And I understand that he doesn’t want to kowtow to feminist or politically correct ideologies, but there seemed to be a lot missing when the film finished.
So I spoke with director Sophie Fiennes—yes, the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph—to see how she influenced the film. She’s currently at work on a followup, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology—which will also involve Zizek and his theories—as well as a documentary about Grace Jones. So she understands incomprehensible, prickly subjects.
NYPress: First, how did you initially get involved with Zizek on a project like this?
Every project comes out of a certain path of inquiry that I want to go on. It was very simple really. I made a film, about a Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, called Hoover Street Revival. A journalist saw it and simply said, “You should read Slovoj Zizek.”
I started reading a couple of his books, from the position of religious thinking. As a filmmaker, I was very alert to all of his references to film. I was intrigued how he was thinking about film. The more I read, the more I wanted to stay in that space of his thinking. I was reading a text and imagining a narrative: How to put these ideas on the films into a film. For me the idea came out of wanting to try that.
I contacted him, and he rung me immediately, and we had a long conversation. He said, “I’d be really interested in doing this” and asked me how much time I’d need. I told him, “At this stage, as much time as possible.” So I met up with him at the university campus in Champagne, Illinois. I went there for a week and met him twice a day. We met everyday. We explored what I’d read in the books, and he asked: “What’s your transcendental agenda?”
I told him, “It’s really to reposition a way of looking at film; to kind of encounter moments of film."
There’s something strange happening; David Lynch has some amazing moments that run quite deep in your being. You’re a spectator, but it’s affecting you. Also from the observational material; those moments occur in life when you’re filming. You spend hours watching, and then something starts to happen. It gets hot. It’s the only way I can describe it. It gets loaded.
For me, the most interesting visual elements are being on the original sets and the recreations. I especially thought the way you recreated the set for Tarkovsky’s Solaris was lovely. How did you come up with that?
Solaris was completely spontaneous. I realized the light of the studio—there were these lights from the same period, and we had his chair from the same era—it just transformed. It was something to do with the quality of the film, I guess. It seemed subtle, but it was really the craft of the film. Framing is everything. I remember [someone] asked Erland Josephson, who worked with Bergman, “How did he direct you? What did you do?” And he said, “He didn’t really direct us that much. It was just really where he put the camera.” I think that’s true. It’s really how, suddenly, the image takes a kind of energy. I’m fascinated by the visual language.
I think the locations work in a way that you watch a film: It’s projected for a couple of hours. It’s light projected. It has no real substance. It’s jarring to think that these locations exist; that they are physical places that could be re-entered.
I’ve met Zizek once. I know he has these incredible ticks, that he talks so fast it’s had to understand or keep up. Was that also part of your role: Having to get him to calm down, explain things again?
He’s an incredibly generous person. And he’s theorizing all he time; it’s all Lacanian, staring back at him, demanding to be read. He could be very funny, provocative in a very funny way—calling me a sadistic bitch. He was incredibly funny. And I trusted him; I let him speak.
I would give him the space to construct lines of speech that were interesting in his point of view. So I actually created a kind of map of what I was interested in, and we discussed it.
When it came to him, he’d start delivering. He didn’t want to just do it for three minutes. He wanted to think it live with the camera rolling. He proposed a theoretical line, and he would begin pushing it further or it would be what I wasn’t expecting. Because, if I had said, “Please do what I asked,” it wouldn’t have been surprising. Like when he said, “The only good woman is a dead woman.” That was to shock me, I think. Or when he would get furious.
If there was something that I didn’t get, if there’s a link there that I think is important, I’d ask him, “Can you do it again?” He’s incredibly fast; he’s very generous, and he understands why I’m asking him to do the things I ask.
He was game for the experiment of that. He didn’t feel particularly comfortable reenacting the scenes. Those moments were completely spontaneous. It’s great to allow those things to happen. In the edit you can construct relationships. My work is hugely in the edit.
He was never controlling with me. He was so uncontrolling. He was fantastic to work with. He was coming up with these unexpected things. He was responding to seeing where I was going and coming with other extra stuff. Asking, “Have you understood what I’m saying?”
So I guess that sort of answers my next question. I wondered you’re your relationship to the material was. If this was sort of a master class. If there was much discussion off-camera. Did you feel like you were his pupil?
I’m not an academic; I’m a filmmaker. I felt like that myself. I put myself very near the barrel of the camera. I was very much aware of the fact that he was speaking to me and listening carefully to anything and everything he was saying.
When he was sitting on the toilet—[discussing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Converseation], talking about cinema being a toilet, it was a direct response to something that I asked. I would come in at certain points and try to throw him in another direction. I would ask him to link one thing to another. I had him repeat things. Some things would relate. One location had a certain sense it brings with it. So then we would come at it from another subject, with The Birds, for example, we would return and repeat. It creates a retroactive relationship within the ideas. Film is linear, and so there’s a sense of retroactive meaning. Way of compressing the text and theory without having to make it literal.
Did you feel like it was strange to have such a heavily male, heterosexual perspective? Only one female director, Jane Campion and her film ‘In the Cut,’ is mentioned. Did you question him at all for his choices or was it just put on the camera and let him go to town?
Really? I had the opposite reaction. There’s a kind of fulcrum of the film, about subjectivity. Woman is the subject and masculinity is a fake. It’s about this amazing male work that seeks to understand the subject of women. Men have invented incredible female characters. As a woman, I’m not looking to reinforce my femininity; I’m interested in what constitutes—within this realm of thinking—what constitutes a symbolic order. As a woman, you certainly experience it as male. The female philosophers are rare. Women were only able to vote very recently. Male has dominated for centuries.
The fact that it should be dominated by male creativity isn’t surprising. It was actually my idea to put the Jane Campion in. I think she’s an amazing filmmaker. And there’s not a lot of amazing female filmmakers.
Well, I do admit that I learned a lot about Lynch and his films from Zizke’s perspective. And he was interested in the way women are portrayed in his movies.
I think Lynch is someone, when we’re talking about gender… I think someone like Lynch is a psychic transvetite.
Excuse me? Did you say transvestite?
Yes, a psychic transvestite: A man who’s ready to dress up in a female psyche.
Well, what about Catherine Breillat? Wouldn’t she have worked?
I thought of Catherine Breillat. I think Slavoj isn’t so impressed by her. And it was about [filmmakers] more ready to stage male fantasy. [Breillat's work] is more of a puppet version rather than a real expression of femininity. The female fantasy is the biggest mystery. And men have done a wonderful job of understanding and constructing the female.
Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, I do. It’s the predicament of women, surviving in a male world. To find the space to really be able to explore what it means to be female. It’s not going to be heard.
When you look at the world and what happens to women in the world, it’s always subjugated to what happens to culture. They will come second. I don’t think it’s just about Slavoj being an old Freudian.
Well, I felt like at times he was in such a heterosexual vein. I mean, I’m in a relationship with another man, and although I’m a man, there is still an ambiguity. I still don’t know what he’s thinking because he’s a man. He’s still a mystery. Especially with the Hitchcock and Lynch material, it seemed he was missing an incredible amount of latent homosexuality.
I think we’re all quite mysterious to ourselves. I am equally fascinated by other people who are men. He didn’t quite, the material wasn’t quite clear enough. We started to talk abut M. Butterfly. And he said something that I didn’t kee”p in: “The true heterosexuals are lesbians! It was something…he went through it too quickly, so I didn’t keep it in.
What do you think he meant by that?
But Slavoj feels that male fantasizing and female fantasizing are fundamentally different. I’m sure I’m going to synthesize this incorrectly, but it’s that: Male is narrow and masturbatory and female fantasizing is fascination of the other. When two lesbians meet, they are more interested in the otherness in the other.
OK, well, you’re working on another project with him so this must have gone well.
The second project is on ideology; it does involve largely film references, but there are other elements. Points of reference are quite contained. It is a collaboration; I like making films collaborating with the subject. I’m never going to know more than what they are going to show you. That way, I go further into the subject. Talking more about the work than personality. The Grace Jones project is a collaboration. I’m shooting observational material, and you find yourself in an incredibly intimate area and moment. Collaboration can get you much further than interrogating them can. With Slavoj, it’s a different sort of approach. It’s a huge learning curve. It’s a huge exposure, incredibly. I’m just trying to document and be as true to [his thinking] as possible.