Who says intellectual head-trips don’t deserve sequels? No one, that’s who. So while the masses line up for big-budget junk food like “Thor: The Dark World,” cultural theorists are hereby invited to dine on the high and heady protein of “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” the follow-up to 2006’s “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.” Both films were directed by Sophie Fiennes — sister of Ralph and Joseph and evidently the family troublemaker — and both provide a stage for the playfully subversive media readings of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who suggests Jacques Lacan reincarnated as a dancing circus bear.
A movie-loving circus bear, as you know if you were lucky enough to see “Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” which appeared to physically insert Zizek into scenes from “Rear Window,” “The Matrix,” and other commercial hits. Like a parasite lovingly devouring its host, Zizek critiques the movies from within, showing how Hollywood narratives of desire and liberation actually serve to make sure everyone — characters and audience alike — knows his place. He’s a “pervert” not in the sexual sense but as a viewer obsessed with what we’re not supposed to see.
In “Ideology,” as the title implies, Zizek is gunning for bigger game: the way governments, political movements, and social hierarchies impose controls that translate as rules for behavior, and how the media reifies those rules in story lines that only pretend to celebrate rebellion and individualism. How, in other words, “The Dark Knight” is a supposedly edgy blockbuster that criminalizes the one character — The Joker — who voices valid social critiques. Or how the Mother Superior singing “Climb Every Mountain” in “The Sound of Music” imprisons Maria in Catholic ideology by allowing her to stray from it.
OK, Zizek is a contrarian, but he’s also a lot of fun at parties, including this one. Once again, Fiennes puts her subject “in” the movies he discusses by filming him on sets mocked up to look like shots from “Taxi Driver,” “Triumph of the Will,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Jaws,” and others. Zizek’s an equal-opportunity gadfly, pointing out how Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” has been used by Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, Rhodesian rightists, and Peruvian leftists to symbolize each group’s solidarity and divine mission. And his droll takedown of James Cameron’s “Titanic” — in which the nautical disaster allows Rose to keep her bourgeois dream of eternal love while her actual lower-class lover drowns — is inspired.
When “Ideology” moves away from the movies, the results are hit-and-miss. Zizek throws such events and artifacts as England’s 2011 riots, a German Rammstein concert, and Starbucks (“when we buy a cappuccino, we also buy quite a lot of ideology”) into his deconstructionist wood chipper. He links Lindsay Anderson’s “If . . .” (1968) to Abu Ghraib, “Brief Encounter” to Bosnian rape, Dostoevsky to Osama bin Laden. His ultimate target is the “Big Other” by which societies convince the individual to fall in line, whether that “Other” is patriotism, capitalist duty, the Marxist masses, modern corporate entertainments, or God himself.
Zizek sees them all as illusions and, in his adorably hectoring way, insists that “we are alone” — an idea that has been floating on the surface of pop culture much of late. Occasionally his ideas bend so far backward that they disappear into themselves. You may have a hard time buying the argument that “the only way to be an atheist is to go through Christianity,” and clips from Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” don’t clear the matter up.
Still, the final questions in “Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” nag at us, and in a culture so built upon and so profiting by fantasies of Hollywood apocalypse, they deserve to. “How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on Earth than a modest change in the economic order?” asks pesky Uncle Slavoj as he clings to the raft. “How do we change the way we dream?” He could just as well ask why we’re so hesitant to, but I guess answering that one is up to us.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.