The guest director of the 2008 Telluride Film Festival was Slavoj Žižek, about whom I knew little and of whom I was very skeptical. We had watched a documentary on him the night before we left for Telluride, and from that brief look I couldn’t make out his philosophy: it was all big words with no concrete referents, the worst example of a professional academic.
Luckily, he was much more coherent in person.
Žižek has a magnetic personality. It is fascinating to watch him speak, which he does almost without pause. He’s an excellent extemporaneous speaker, and even when he gets sidetracked, the tangents are just as interesting as the main point. He is very animated, very engaging, and occasionally provocative and funny. For example, he repeated a comment about The Sound of Music, saying that in style it was fairly fascistic (rigid, Aryan, proper), in spite of its anti-Nazi story. And it illustrates his point that religion (Catholicism in this case), in spite of its appearances, is really just a club that demands lip service, rather than demanding actual sacrifice and asceticism: when Maria confesses her temptation to the mother superior, the advice she receives is not deprivation and self-control, but “Climb Every Mountain.”
Žižek is first a philosopher, but he’s also very interested in movies as a window onto philosophy. He admitted in one talk — I’d guess only partly joking — that he hadn’t actually seen half of the movies that he wrote about in the festival program because he didn’t want to spoil their idea with the reality of their production. He says he’s in good company, though; he attributed to Oscar Wilde a quote that I can’t find saying essentially the same thing; something about how reading a book is a good way to spoil it.
His introductions and analyses of the films at Telluride, then, took place a very high level. He did not comment on the performances or photography or lighting, but rather on the cultural and philosophical examples that could be drawn from the film’s central point.
He scheduled a screening of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, in which an aging bank manager undergoes a procedure. When he wakes up, he is Rock Hudson, living the life of a well-to-do artist at a California beach house with young, free-loving friends. None of this makes him any happier, of course. Žižek says that it’s interesting because it shows that even our dreams, when they are completely fulfilled, are no escape from reality because they are rooted in reality, a theme he also found in the ending to a film made in Nazi Germany called The Great Sacrifice, which he also brought to Telluride.
In a delicious tangent to his talk about John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, Žižek explained what was so wrong with I am Legend. The short story on which it’s based is very multiculturalist: for us, the vampires are mythological legends, but in the short story, it is humanity that becomes the mythological legend. The title connotes seeing ourselves from the other’s point of view. Over the years, he says, the movie remakes have become more and more human-centric until this last one, which is pure human chauvinism. No longer does “legend” connote an understanding of the other’s point of view. Instead, Will Smith will become a human legend for discovering the means to destroy the other. He says it’s a very “conservative” (”right-wing” might be a better word) bastardization of an otherwise positive left-wing story.
The Great Sacrifice was shot in 1943 and 1944, and released in 1944. It’s an approachable, if unexcellent, love triangle formed by a man, his fiancée (and later bride), and his mistress. Josef Goebbels himself had something to say about the ending, which differs from the book on which it’s based. Rather than wrongly explain what Žižek got out of it (and out of the ending in particular), I’ll give you my own take. The movie features some very iconic Aryan actors and characters. Both women are blondes and the mistress is rounder and stouter. She practices archery and horse-back riding, and in one strikingly weird scene, she rides bareback on the beach in her swimsuit, target-shooting with her bow and arrow, the very picture of Aryan ideals: beauty, power, militarism, and nature. (No wonder the protagonist fell for her!) But the mistress is also sick and not long for this world. The end of the movie involves just about everyone making some sort of sacrifice for the happiness of the others. Actually, I agree with the women in my audience who think that only the female characters actually made any sacrifices. In any case, The Great Sacrifice is interesting because of its pedigree, but it’s not great cinema, and frankly the conversation it sparked wasn’t as interesting as some of the other films.
The film that Žižek brought that I wanted to see but couldn’t get in to is called The Fall of Berlin, which I only know from the blurb in the festival program and a few after-movie conversations. In short, Stalin (played by an actor) is a matchmaker in what amounts to a movie romance. There are actors playing Roosevelt and Churchill, too; they are portrayed as Nazi stooges, naturally. And Stalin himself saw to it that the production had plenty of planes and tanks for the battle scenes set in Nazi Germany. Sounds great! I hope it’s on video. Now, if only I could get Slavoj Žižek to come over and introduce it for me….