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'Zizek!' is content to tag along with 'Elvis of cultural theory'

High-end furniture from the 1970s is back in vogue now, one hears. A viewing of ''Zizek!," which follows the antic Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek on a brief 2003 lecture circuit from Buenos Aires to New York to Cambridge and back home to Ljubljana, suggests that the same is true of that decade's intellectual accouterments.

It's not just Zizek's proletarian shirts and corduroy jackets that create this impression: It's the spectacle, in these supposedly post-ideological times, of hundreds of youths cramming themselves into university halls and art galleries to sit at the feet of a hirsute figure speaking passionately (and in an authoritatively heavy Central European accent) about ideology -- the subtle cultural means by which capitalism, in this instance, makes itself appear natural, inevitable, and eternal.

Not since the early-'70s heyday of former Brandeis professor Herbert Marcuse and his theory of ''repressive tolerance" has anyone taken seriously the paranoid-sounding argument that a liberal democracy is even more oppressive, in certain difficult-to-define ways, than an authoritarian regime. But when Zizek, who grew up in socialist Yugoslavia, expresses what appears to be heartfelt nostalgia for aspects of Stalinism, his educated, politically progressive audiences laugh appreciatively and applaud him like a rock star.

Why Zizek, and why now? Fledgling director Astra Taylor seems to have no clue. Despite her subject's insistence that ''everything must be theorized," she offers no theories and appears perfectly content -- titillated, really -- simply to tag along with ''the Elvis of cultural theory." (Considering Zizek's abundant flop sweat and eye-rolling twitchiness, let's make that the '70s-era Elvis.) The movie was produced by the Documentary Campaign, a nonprofit aiming to combine progressive politics with artistic filmmaking. It fails at the latter due to clumsy camerawork, inadequate lighting, and uninteresting editing; it fails at the former, one is pleased to discover, for more intriguing reasons.

Although Zizek's penchant for put-ons, well-rehearsed wisecracks, and self-contradictory statements has led middlebrow publications like The New Yorker to write him off as a comedian posing as an intellectual, the one valuable thing we learn about the man from this film is that despite his considerable postmodern cred, he identifies less with Derrida, et al., than with those peripatetic, eccentric ancient Greek philosophers who didn't pretend to be on a quest for truth. Proclaiming himself baffled by his own celebrity, again and again Zizek insists that he has no political message: Instead, he wants to frustrate what he calls ''liberal consensus," forcing would-be progressives to think for themselves and resist the allure of simplistic worldviews.

At one point, Zizek is interviewed lying shirtless in a hotel room bed. Aha! We suddenly understand: Zizek is Fielding Mellish, the character Woody Allen plays in Allen's 1971 movie ''Bananas." Like Mellish, who can't get his radical girlfriend to take him seriously until he dons a beard and wisecracks about revolution, Zizek is a revolutionary playing a comedian playing a revolutionary. Which makes him worth watching, even in this movie.

Joshua Glenn can be reached at

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