Prof. Jason Read on Pervert’s Guides, Žižek and ‘They Live’

SPACE Gallery and the USM Philosophy Symposium have teamed up to present an ongoing philosophy film series since February, 2007. On Wednesday, March 20th, they will show A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the 14th film in their series. Presumably, a follow up to A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Ideology features a lot of Slavoj Žižek entertaining the viewer by deconstructing Full Metal Jacket and Jaws while at the same time critiquing capitalism and Stalinism in his Žižeky way.

Here is a clip of Žižek talking about the film:

I talked with USM Philosophy Professor Jason Read about the film, the success of the series, and that epic fight scene from They Live. Again, you can catch the film at SPACE Gallery on Wednesday, March 20th at 7:00 p.m.

I was thinking on the way over here that I interviewed you for The Bollard about the first film in the Philosophy Symposium film series, which was A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. It has been 6 years since then.

Yes, that is true. It has been a while since we have shown a Žižek film. He has actually showed up in many of the films throughout the series, from a A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema to Žižek to a part in Examined Life to A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. He is a little overrepresented, but that is his status in general.

Well when we last talked about this, you had made note of the then-emerging documentary genre that focuses on aloof and eccentric academics.

Yes, and very little has changed in that regard. [Laughs] Žižek is definitely a representative of this genre of the aloof academic documentary where you see him give lectures and you see fans, but with the two Pervert’s Guides, you see some crossing of the threshold that aims to come up with a more interesting visuals for philosophical ideas than just a person talking or some of the most generic forms of stock footage. For example, I don’t know if you saw Marx Reloaded, which we showed last year…

Was that an animated film?

Well, there was a very brief animation of the Matrix scene where there is choice between the red and blue pill and for some confusing reason it features Trotsky offering the pills to Marx, which makes no chronological or philosophical sense. But otherwise it featured generic images of the New York stock exchange and the London Stock Exchange, shots of malls representing the hurried pace of modern life combined with people talking, and it doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of visuals.

When we started the series, we put out four films in two months. I don’t think that at the time I was planning for the longevity of the series and it has been 6 years and they are not churning out philosophical documentaries fast though for us to show several per year. We burned though the existing backlog of these films in the first few years, and since then we have been dependent on the release of new films to keep the series moving.

Have you ever considered showing films that feature no overt philosophical narrative, but still have implicit philosophical themes?

The problem is that the rights to those films are expensive. We could show them here at the university if they are a part of an academic context, part of an official curriculum, but I feel that would break the bridge we have established with the community and the university because with showing the films at SPACE, we can draw off of their mailing list and people who go through the doors there who are aware of their programs, and we can bring in USM as well. So we bring together these two communities in a way that rarely ever happens, but should definitely happen more. That barrier of 295 is a conceptual barrier as well as a physical one.

But we have thought of showing those kinds of narrative films, but this is sort of what Žižek does for us in these documentaries too. Yeah, you don’t get to watch They Live, but Žižek talks about its philosophical or political subtext—though it is hardly even a subtext…

Right, John Carpenter doesn’t really go out of his way to cleverly bury the message he was working to convey.

But Žižek does come up with an interesting interpretation of that fight scene. The one thing that people show watch They Live either loves or can’t stand is why the fight scene goes on where… What is that thing in humor where if something goes on for a long time, it is unfunny, but if it goes on beyond that, it is funny again?

I was thinking about this fight scene the other day after seeing Giant. One of the many, many subplots of the film is one in which Rock Hudson’s character is forced to confront his own racism over the course of the film, and this culminates in a 4 minute long fight with a racist diner owner.

That’s funny, because Žižek suggests that the reason he thinks the fight scene is so long is that it is showing on film how stubbornly we cling to our prejudices or perceptions and we don’t want to give them up. He kind of reads them like the allegory of the cave where you have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the light, because the illusions you have are really comfortable and you don’t want to give them up. It is an interesting interpretation, but also I was reading about it and John Carpenter thought they were doing such a bang up job when they were shooting the scene that he just let them go at it.

It is also worth noting that in sticking with the times, A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology features a post-credit scene. If Iron Man has it, then Žižek has to have it.

I hope that it is Žižek eating felafel in New York with the rest of the Avengers. What has the perception of the overall series been?

First it went from this unknown, strange thing where we weren’t even sure if anyone was going to show up at all, to something where people would show up, and then it became where I would be at Target and someone would walk up and say, “You’re the philosophy film guy, are you guys having any movies this year?”

Like you are Joel from MST3K.

Right. Now it is like an institution where it is assumed that it will go on and people expect it. Apparently the University talks about it as an idea of the kinds of programs they want to start thinking about in terms of those which connect USM and USM students to various elements of Portland’s art scene. We always have great support, and the [Portland] Phoenix has always plugged us in the past, and the turnout is usually really good. And I don’t want to take credit for this, but I feel like there is now a push for SPACE to always do post-film discussions, so I feel like all of it has been positive.

There is a difficulty in that we are dealing with a niche within a niche within a niche, and we can only show the comparatively little that’s out there. Some of the films are better than others. It was my hope that the more we should show these things, the more that people would make these things because there are so many interesting philosophers out there with things to say that have been recorded in some shape or form and combined with the right kind of imagery, there could be something there.

I remember there being some degree of very early success. I remember seeing the film about Antonio Negri and during the Q and A, I seem to remember a man standing up and announcing that he was an air conditioner repair man or something like that. I remember simultaneously thinking, I am so glad that guy came and how the hell did that guy find out about this? Because, as you had touched on earlier, in my time at the University, there always had been that conceptual dividing line between the campus and the City of Portland.

I feel like a university should offer its community all kinds of intellectual stimulation. Yes, it should offer its students that, but it should also be something people in the community can turn to. But there has always been this weird paradox where as soon as classes are over, the university shuts down and despite the city having a strong interest in all kinds of literature, art, theater, philosophy and so on, the two never quite really meet in the way that they should. As someone who has taught at the university for almost ten years, I have seen that you can’t go into Portland without running into current and former students everywhere, but that economic permeation doesn’t seem translate to the institutions.

IMAGE SOURCE: University of Southern Maine Philosophy Department website

NOTE: These are the films that have been shown in the six year run of the series along with the year in which they were screened:


Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.