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A Pervert's Guide to Family Slavoj Zizek


WhenSophieFiennesapproachedmewiththeideatodoa"pervert'sguide"tocinema,our sharedgoalwastodemonstratehowpsychoanalyticcinemacriticismisstillthebestwehave, howitcangenerateinsightswhichcompelustochangeourentireperspective.The"pervert" fromthetitleisthusnotanarrowclinicalcategory;itratherreferstopervertingturning aroundourspontaneousperceptions. Theusualreproachtopsychoanalyticcriticismisthatitreduceseverythingtofamilycomplexes: whateverthestory,itis"reallyabout"Oedipus,incest,etc.Insteadoftryingtoprovethatthisis nottrue,oneshouldacceptthechallenge.Thefilmswhicharefurthestfromfamilydramasare catastrophefilms,whichcannotbutfascinatetheviewerwithaspectaculardepictionofa terrifyingeventofimmenseproportions.Thisbringsustothefirstpsychoanalyticruleofhow toreadcatastrophemovies:weshouldavoidthelureofthe"bigevent"andrefocusonthe "smallevent"(familialrelations),readingthespectacularcatastropheasanindicationofthe familytrouble.TakeStevenSpielberg:thesecretmotifthanrunsthroughallhiskeyfilms ET, EmpireoftheSun,JurassicPark,Schindler'sLististherecoveryofthefather,ofhisauthority. OneshouldrememberthatthefamilytowhosesmallboyETappearswasdesertedbythe father(aswelearnintheverybeginning),sothatETisultimatelyakindof"vanishing mediator"whoprovidesanewfather(thegoodscientistwho,inthefilm'slastshot,isalready seenembracingthemother)whenthenewfatherishere,ETcanleaveand"gohome." Andthesamestorygoesonandon.EmpireoftheSunfocusesonaboydesertedbyhisfamilyin thewartornChinaandsurvivingthroughthehelpofanersatzfather(playedbyJohn Malkovich).IntheveryfirstsceneofJurassicPark,weseethepaternalfigure(playedbySam Neill)jokinglythreateningthetwokidswithadinosaurbonethisboneisclearlythetiny objectstainwhich,later,explodesintogiganticdinosaurs,sothatonecanriskthehypothesis that,withinthefilm'sfantasmaticuniverse,thedinosaurs'destructivefurymerelymaterializes therageofthepaternalsuperego.Abarelyperceptibledetailthatoccurslater,inthemiddleof thefilm,confirmthisreading.ThepursuedgroupofNeillwithtwokidstakerefugeefromthe murderouscarnivorousdinosaursinagigantictree,where,deadtired,theyfallasleep;onthe three,Neilllosesthedinosaurbonethatwasstuckinhisbelt,anditisasifthisaccidentalloss hasamagiceffectbeforetheyfallasleep,Neillisreconciledwiththechildren,displaying warmaffectionandcareforthem.Significantly,thedinosaurswhichapproachthethreenext morningandawakenthesleepingparty,turnouttobeofthebenevolentherbivorouskind...

Schindler'sListis,atthemostbasiclevel,aremakeofJurassicPark(and,ifanything,worsethan theoriginal),withtheNazisasthedinosaurmonsters,Schindleras(atthefilm'sbeginning)the cynicalprofiteeringandopportunisticparentalfigure,andtheghettoJewsasthreatened children(theirinfantilizationinthefilmiseyestriking)thestorythefilmtellsisabout Schindler'sgradualrediscoveryofhispaternaldutytowardstheJews,andhistransformation intoacaringandresponsiblefather. AndisTheWaroftheWorldsnotthelastinstallmentofthissaga?TomCruiseplaysadivorced workingclassfatherwhoneglectshistwochildren;theinvasionofthealiensreawakensinhim theproperpaternalinstincts,andherediscovershimselfasacaringfathernowonderthat,in lastscene,hefinallygetstherecognitionfromhissonwho,throughoutthefilm,despisedhim. Inthemodeofthe18thcenturystories,thefilmcouldthusalsohavebeensubtitled"Astoryon howaworkingfatherfinallygetsreconciledwithhisson"...Onecaneffectivelyimaginethefilm WITHOUTthebloodthirstyaliens:whatremainsisinaway"whatthefilmreallyisabout,"the storyofadivorcedworkingclassfatherwhostrivestoregaintherespectofhistwochildren. Thereinresidesthefilm'sideology:withregardtothetwolevelsofthestory(theOedipallevel ofthelostandregainedpaternalauthority;thespectacularleveloftheconflictwiththe invadingaliens),thereisacleardissymmetry,sincetheOedipalleveliswhatthestoryis"really about,"whiletheexternalspectacularismerelyitsmetaphoricextension. Andthesamegoesforthemostsuccessfulfilmofalltimes:isCameron'sTitanicreallyaboutthe catastropheoftheshiphittingtheiceberg?Oneshouldbeattentivetotheprecisemomentof thecatastrophe:ittakesplacewhenthetwoyounglovers(LeonardodiCaprioandKate Winslett),immediatelyafterconsummatingtheiramorouslinkinthesexualact,returntothe ship'sdeck.This,however,isnotall:ifthiswereall,thenthecatastrophewouldhavebeen simplythepunishmentofFateforthedoubletransgression(illegitimatesexualact;crossingthe classdivisions).Whatismorecrucialisthat,onthedeck,Katepassionatelysaystoherlover that,whentheshipwillreachNewYorkthenextmorning,shewillleavewithhim,preferring poorlifewithhertruelovetothefalsecorruptedlifeamongtherich;atTHISmomenttheship hitstheiceberg,inordertoPREVENTwhatwouldundoubtedlyhavebeentheTRUE catastrophe,namelythecouple'slifeinNewYorkonecansafelyguessthatsoon,themiseryof everydaylifewoulddestroytheirlove.Thecatastrophethusoccursinordertosafetheirlove,in ordertosustaintheillusionthat,ifitwerenottohappen,theywouldhavelived"happily foreverafter"... Buteventhisisnotall;afurtherclueisprovidedbythefinalmomentsofdiCaprio.Heis freezinginthecoldwater,dying,whileWinsletissafelyfloatingonalargepieceofwood; awarethatsheislosinghim,shecries:"I'llneverletyougo!",and,whilesayingthis,shepushes himawaywithherhandswhy?Beneaththestoryofalovecouple, Titanictellsanotherstory, thestoryofaspoiledhighsocietygirlinanidentitycrisis:sheisconfused,doesn'tknowwhat

todowithherself,and,muchmorethanherlovepartner,diCaprioisakindof"vanishing mediator"whosefunctionistorestorehersenseofidentityandpurposeinlife,herselfimage (quiteliterally,also:hedrawsherimage);oncehisjobisdone,hecandisappear.Thisiswhyhis lastwords,beforehedisappearsinfreezingNorthAtlantic,arenotthewordsofadeparting lover's,but,rather,thelastmessageofapreacher,tellingherhowtoleadherlife,tobehonest andfaithfultoherself,etc.WhatthismeansisthatCameron'ssuperficialHollywoodMarxism (hisalltooobviousprivilegingofthelowerclassesandcaricaturaldepictionofthecruel egotismandopportunismoftherich)shouldnotdeceiveus:beneaththissympathyforthe poor,thereisanothernarrative,theprofoundlyreactionarymyth,firstfullydeployedby Kipling'sCaptainCourageous,ofayoungrichpersonincrisiswhogetshis(orher)vitality restoredbyabriefintimatecontactwiththefullbloodedlifeofthepoor.Whatlurksbehindthe compassionforthepooristheirvampiricexploitation. TheridiculousclimaxofthisHollywoodprocedureofstaginggreathistoricaleventsasthe backgroundoftheformationofacoupleisWarrenBeatty'sReds,inwhichHollywoodfounda waytorehabilitatetheOctoberRevolutionitself,arguablythemosttraumatichistoricaleventof theXXthcentury.Thatistosay,how,exactly,istheOctoberRevolutiondepictedinthefilm? ThecoupleofJohnReedandLouiseBryantareinadeepemotionalcrisis;theirloveisre ignitedwhenLouisewatchesJohnwho,onaplatform,deliversanimpassionaterevolutionary speech.Whatthenfollowsistheirlovemaking,intersectedwitharchetypalscenesfromthe revolution,someofwhichreverberateinanalltooobviouswaywiththelovemaking;say, whenJohnpenetratesLouise,thereisacutontoastreetwhereadarkcrowdofdemonstrating peopleenvelopsandstopsapenetrating"phallic"tramway...allthisagainstthebackgroundof asingingoftheInternational.When,attheorgasmicclimax,Leninhimselfappears,addressing apackedhallofdelegates,heismoreawiseteacheroverseeingleadingthecouple'slove initiationthanacoldrevolutionaryleader.EventheOctoberRevolutionisOK,ifitservesthe reconstitutionofacouple... Whenthecatastropheismorespectacular,threateningthelifeonearthitself,onecansafely presumethatthefamilialdeadlockisalsomoreunsettling,goingbeyondordinarylove troubles.InMimiLeder'sDeepImpact(1998),agiganticcometisthreateningtohittheEarthand toextinguishalllifefor2years;atthefilm'send,theEarthissavedduetotheheroicsuicidal actionofagroupofastronautswithatomicweapons;onlyasmallfragmentofthecometfalls intotheoceaneastofNewYorkandcausesacolossal,hundredsofyardshighwavethatflushes theentirenortheastcoastoftheUSA.ThiscometThingalsocreatesacouple,butan unexpectedone:theincestuouscoupleoftheyoung,obviouslyneurotic,sexuallyinactiveTV reporter(TeaLeoni)andherpromiscuousfather,whohasdivorcedhermotherandjust marriedayoungwomanofthesameageashisdaughter(MaximilianSchell).Itisclearthatthe filmiseffectivelyadramaaboutthisunresolvedprotoincestuousfatherdaughterrelationship: thethreateningcometobviouslygivesbodytotheselfdestructiverageoftheheroine.

Theentiremachineryoftheglobalcatastropheisthussetinmotionsothatthefather'syoung wifewillabandonhim,andthefatherwillreturn(nottohiswife,theheroine'smother,but)to herdaughter:theculminationofthefilmisthesceneinwhichtheheroinerejoinsherfather who,aloneinhisluxuriousseasidehouse,awaitstheimpendingwave.Shefindshimwalking alongtheshoreline;theymakepeacewitheachotherandembrace,silentlyawaitingthewave; whenthewaveapproachesandisalreadycastingitslargeshadowoverthem,shedrawsherself closertoherfather,gentlycrying"Daddy!",asiftosearchforprotectioninhim,reconstituting thechildhoodsceneofasmallgirlsafeguardedbythefather'slovingembrace,andasecond latertheyarebothsweptawaybythegiganticwave.Theheroine'shelplessnessand vulnerabilityinthissceneshouldnotdeceiveus:sheistheevilspiritwho,intheunderlying libidinalmachineryofthefilm'snarrative,pullsthestrings,andthissceneoffindingdeathin theprotectivefather'sembraceistherealizationofherultimatewish...Thissceneistoberead againstthebackgroundofthestandardHollywoodmotif(renderedfamousinFredZinneman's FromHeretoEternity)ofthecouplemakingloveonthebeach,brushedbywaves(BurtLancaster andDeborahKerr):here,thecoupleisthetrulydeadlyincestuousone,notthestraightone,so thewaveisthegigantickillingwave,notthemodestshakeofsmallbeachwaves... Interestinglyenough,theotherbig1998blockbustervariationonthethemeofagiganticcomet threateningEarth,Armageddon,alsofocusesontheincestuousfatherdaughterrelation.Here, however,itisthefather(BruceWillis)whoisexcessivelyattachedtohisdaughter:thecomet's destructiveforcegivesbodytohisfuryatherdaughter'sloveaffairswithothermenofherage. Significantly,thedenouementisalsomore"positive,"notselfdestructive:thefathersacrifices himselfinordertosaveEarth,i.e.effectivelyattheleveloftheunderlyinglibidinaleconomy erasinghimselfoutofthepictureinordertoblessthemarriageofhisdaughterwithheryoung lover. AndthisbringsustothetwoHollywoodproductionsreleasedtomarkthe5thanniversaryof the9/11:PaulGreengrass'sUnited93andOliverStone'sWorldTradeCenter.Thefirstthingthat strikestheeyeisthatbothtrytobeasantiHollywoodaspossible:bothfocusonthecourageof ordinarypeople,withnoglamorousstars,nospecialeffects,nograndiloquentheroicgestures, justaterserealisticdepictionofordinarypeopleinextraordinarycircumstances.Thereis undoubtedlyatouchofauthenticityinthefilmsrecallhowthelargemajorityofcritics unanimouslypraisedthefilm'savoidingofsensationalism,itssoberandrestrainedstyle.Itis, however,thisverytouchofauthenticitywhichraisessomedisturbingquestions. Thefirstthingonecannotbutnoteishowbothfilmstellthestoryofanexception: United93is abouttheonlyoneofthefourkidnappedplanesinwhichtheterroristsfailed,whichdidnothit itsdestination;WTCtellsthestoryofthetwoofthosetwentywhoweresavedfromtheruins. Thedisasteristhusturnedintoakindoftriumph,mostnotablyinUnited93,wherethe

dilemmathepassengersconfrontis:whatcantheydoinasituationinwhichtheyknowforsure theywilldie?Theirheroicdecisionis:ifwecannotsaveourselves,letusatleasttrytosave others'livessotheystormthepilot'scabintobringtheplanedownbeforeitwillhitthetarget intendedbythekidnappers(thepassengersalreadyknewaboutthetwoplaneshittingtheTwin Towers).Howdoesthistellingthestoryofanexceptionfunction?Acomparisonwith Spielberg'sSchindler'sListisinstructivehere:althoughthefilmisundoubtedlyanartisticand politicalfailure,theideatochooseSchindlerasaherowasacorrectoneitispreciselyby presentingaGermanwhoDIDsomethingtohelpJewsthatonedemonstrateshowitwas possibletodosomething,andthustoeffectivelycondemnthosewhodidnothingclaimingthat itwasnotpossibletodoanything.InUnited93,onthecontrary,thefocusontherebellion servesthepurposeofpreventingustoaskthetrulypertinentquestions.Thatistosay,letus indulgeinasimplementalexperimentandimaginebothfilmswiththesamechange:American 11(oranotherflightwhichdidhititstarget)insteadof United93,thestoryofitspassengers; WTCremadeasthestoryoftwoofthefirefightersorpolicemenwhodiddieintherubblesof theTwinTowersafteraprolongedsuffering...Withoutinanywayjustifyingorshowingan "understanding"fortheterriblecrime,suchaversionwouldconfrontuswiththetruehorrorof thesituationandthuscompelustothink,tostartaskingseriousquestionsabouthowsucha thingcouldhavehappenedandwhatdoesitmean. Thesecondfeature:bothfilmsrestrainnotonlyfromtakingapoliticalstanceabouttheevents, butevenfromdepictingtheirlargerpoliticalcontext.NeitherthepassengeronUnited93flight northepolicemeninWTChaveagrasponthefullpictureallofasudden,theyfind themselvesthrownintoaterrifyingsituationandhavetomakethebestoutofit.Thislackof "cognitivemapping"iscrucial:bothfilmsdepictordinarypeopleaffectedbythesuddenbrutal intrusionofHistoryastheabsentCause,theinvisibleRealthathurts.Allweseearethe disastrouseffects,withtheircausesoabstractthat,inthecaseof WTC,onecaneasilyimagine exactlythesamefilminwhichtheTwinTowerswouldhavecollapsedduetoastrong earthquake.Or,evenmoreproblematically,wecanimaginethesamefilmtakingplaceinabig Germancityin1944,afterthedevastatingAlliedbombing... OrwhataboutthesamefilmtakingplaceinabombedhighrisebuildinginsouthernBeirut? That'sthepoint:itCANNOTtakeplacethere.Suchafilmwouldhavebeendismissedasa "subtleproHezbollahterroristpropaganda"(andthesamewouldhavebeenthecasewiththe imaginedGermanfilm).Whatthismeansisthatthetwofilms'ideologicalpoliticalmessage residesintheirveryabstentionfromdeliveringapoliticalmessage:thisabstentionissustained byanimplicitTRUSTintoone'sgovernment"whentheenemyattacks,onejusthastodoone's duty..."Initbecauseofthisimplicittrustthat United93andWTCdifferradicallyfromthe pacifistfilmslikeStanleyKubrick'sPathsofGlory,whichalsodepictordinarypeople(soldiers) exposedtosufferinganddeathhere,theirsufferingisclearlypresentedasameaningless sacrificeforanobscureandmanipulatedCause.

Thisbringsusbacktoourstartingpoint,tothe"concrete"characterofthetwofilms,depicting ordinarypeopleinaterserealisticmode.AnyphilosopherknowsHegel'scounterintuitiveuse oftheoppositionbetween"abstract"and"concrete":inordinarylanguage,"abstract"aregeneral notions,asopposedto"concrete"reallyexistingsingularobjectsandevents;forHegel,onthe contrary,itissuchimmediaterealitywhichis"abstract,"andtorenderit"concrete"meansto deploythecomplexuniversalcontextthatgivesmeaningtoit.Thereinresidestheproblemof thetwofilms:bothareABSTRACTintheirvery"concreteness."Thefunctionoftheirdownto earthdepictionofconcreteindividualsstrugglingforlifeisnotjusttoavoidcheapcommercial spectacle,buttoobliteratethehistoricalcontext. Here,then,iswherewearefiveyearslater:stillunabletolocate9/11intoalargenarrative,to provideits"cognitivemapping."Ofcourse,thereistheofficialstoryaccordingtowhich,the permanentvirtualthreatoftheinvisibleEnemylegitimizespreemptivestrikes:precisely becausethethreatisvirtual,itistoolatetowaitforitsactualization,onehastostrikein advance,beforeitwillbetoolate.Inotherwords,theomnipresentinvisiblethreatofTerror legitimizesthealltoovisibleprotectivemeasuresofdefense.ThedifferenceoftheWaron TerrorwithpreviousXXthcenturyworldwidestrugglesliketheColdWaristhatwhile,inthe precedingcases,theenemywasclearlyidentifiedasthepositivelyexistingCommunistempire, theterroristthreatisinherentlyspectral,withoutavisiblecenter.Itisalittlebitlikethe characterizationofthefigureofLindaFiorentinoinTheLastSeduction:"Mostpeoplehaveadark side...shehadnothingelse."Mostregimeshaveadarkoppressivespectralside...theterrorist threathasnothingelse. Thepowerwhichpresentsitselfasbeingallthetimeunderthreatandthusmerelydefending itselfagainstaninvisibleenemy,exposesitselftothedangerofmanipulation:canwereally trustthem,oraretheyjustevokingthethreattodisciplineandcontrolus?Theparadoxical resultofthisspectralizationoftheEnemycanthusbeareversalofrole:inthisworldwithouta clearlyidentifiedEnemy,itistheUSthemselves,theprotectoragainstthethreat,whichis emergingasthemainenemy...asinAgathaChristie'sMurderontheOrientExpressinwhich, sincetheentiregroupofthesuspectsisthemurderer,thevictimitself(anevilmillionaire) shouldturnouttobethecriminal. Thelessonisthusthat,incombatingterror,itismorecrucialthaneverforthestatepoliticstobe democraticallytransparent.Unfortunately,wearenowpayingthepriceforthecobweboflies andmanipulationsbytheUSandUKgovernmentsinthelastdecade,reachingtheirclimaxin thetragicomedywiththeIraqiweaponsofmassdestructions.RecalltheAugust2006alert aproposthethwartedterroristattempttoblowadozenplanesontheirflightfromLondonto theUS:nodoubtthealertwasnotafake,toclaimthiswouldbetooparanoiacbut, nonetheless,asuspicionremainsthatallofitwasaselfservingspectacletoaccustomustoa

permanentstateofemergency,tothestateofexceptionasawayoflife.Whatspacefor manipulationopenupsucheventswhereallthatispubliclyvisiblearetheantiterrorist measuresthemselves?Isitnotthattheysimplydemandfromus,ordinarycitizens,toomucha degreeoftrustthatthoseinpowerhadlongagoforsaken?THISisthesinforwhichBush,Blair, andtheirconsortsshouldneverbeforgiven. Thirdfeature:inbothfilms,thereisakeymomentwhichviolatesthisterserealisticstyle. United93startswithkidnappersinamotelroom,praying,gettingready;theylookaustere,like somekindofangelsofdeathandthefirstshotafterthetitlecreditsconfirmsthisimpression:it isapanoramicshotfromhighaboveofManhattaninthenight,accompaniedbythesoundof thekidnappers'prayers,asifthekidnappersstrollabovethecity,gettingreadytodescendon earthtoripetheirharvest...Similarly,therearenodirectshotsoftheplaneshittingthetowersin WTC;allthatwesee,secondsbeforethecatastrophe,whenoneofthepolicemenisonabusy streetinacrowdofpeople,isanominousshadowquicklypassingoverthemtheshadowof thefirstplane.Theseshotsconferonbothfilmsastrangetheologicalreverberationasifthe attackswereakindofdivineintervention. RecallthefirstreactionofJerryFalwellandPatRobertsontothe9/11bombings,perceiving themasasignthatGodliftedupitsprotectionoftheUSbecauseofthesinfullivesofthe Americans,puttingtheblameonhedonistmaterialism,liberalism,andrampantsexuality,and claimingthatAmericagotwhatitdeserved...Inahiddenway,United93andWTCtendtodo theopposite:toreadthe9/11catastropheasablessingindisguise,asadivineintervention fromabovetoawakenusfrommoralslumberandtobringoutthebestinus. WTCendswith theoffscreenwordswhichspelloutthismessage:terribleeventsliketheTwinTowers destructionbringoutinpeopletheworstANDthebestcourage,solidarity,sacrificefor community.Peopleareshowntobeabletodothingstheywouldneverimagineofbeingable.It isasifoursocietiesneedamajorcatastropheinordertoresuscitatethespiritofcommunal solidarity.Thisiswhy,again,United93andWTCarenotreallyabouttheWaronTerror,but aboutthelackofsolidarityandcourageinourpermissivelatecapitalistsocieties... ...andabouttheredemptivepoweroffamilyloveUnited93cannotrestrainfromrepeatedly showingapassengerwho,closetodeath,callsaspouseoraclosestrelativewiththemessage"I loveyou."Does,however,thisreallymeanthat"loveturnsouttobetheonlypartofusthatis solid,astheworldturnsupsidedownandthescreengoesblack,"asMartinAmisputitinhis celebrationofthefilm?Asuspicionremainshere:isthisdesperateconfessionoflovealsonota fake,thesamekindoffakeasthesuddenturntoGodofsomeonewhofacestheproximityof deathahypocriticalopportunisticmovemadeoutoffear,notoutoftrueconviction?Amis himself,theauthorofascathingbookaboutStalin,shouldknowhowmanyofthecondemned atStalinistshowtrialsfacedthefiringsquadprofessingtheirinnocenceandtheirloveforStalin, apatheticgesturewhichaimedatredeemingtheirimageintheeyesofthebigOther.Why

shouldtherebemoretruthinwhatwedoinsuchdesperatemoments?Isitnotratherthat,in suchmoments,thesurvivalinstinctmakesusbetrayourdesire? Thisbringsustowhatwouldhavebeenatrueethicalact:imagineawifephoningherhusband inthelastsecondsofherlife,tellinghim:"Justtoletyouknowthatourmarriagewasafake, thatIcannotstandthesightofyou..." MOVIES ShortCuts VolgaVolga KubanskieKazaki Opfergang (listed by Zizek as one of the best films of all time) The 13th Warrior

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