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"Power Needs Obscene Comedy": Zizek Intros Duck Soup

By Christopher Campbell

You should never need an excuse to see Duck Soup, but if you ever have the chance to see the film introduced by Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek, then consider it an extra reason to revisit the Marx Brothers as they wreck havoc in Freedonia. The Reeler caught such an occasion Thursday evening as Zizek made the last of two appearances at the Museum of Modern Art; he was in town to present the American premiere of Sophie Fiennes' documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, in which he hosts a slew of film clips -- some of which he inserts himself into -- and discusses them from a psychoanalytical perspective.

The Pride of Slovenia: Slavoj Zizek introduces Duck Soup Thursday night at MoMA (Photo: Christopher Campbell)

Between his thick Eastern European accent and his highbrow intellectualism, Zizek was a bit difficult to follow as he parsed the evening's most important themes, but his crazed manner and lowbrow enthusiasm compensated for the fact that a lot of his speech went over my head. He started off simple by addressing the recurring topic of identity in the jokes and gags of the Marx Brothers, citing examples from Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera and finally Duck Soup, for which he primarily referenced the famous mirror sequence. "I think there is a deep insight here," he said about the topic, "How in order to be what you are, there has to be an antagonism. In the sense that if the identity is pure, it's a surprise. Like if you look as an idiot and you are an idiot, it's a surprise."

For his main approach to the film, Zizek brought up the issue of totalitarianism in Duck Soup. He argued that comic and carnivalesque presentations of dictatorships are not necessarily ridicules of totalitarianism. "A certain kind of carnivalesque suspension of the rule of law is part of totalitarian regimes," he said. "So this kind of obscene comedy is not simply the way to undermine totalitarian regimes; it is part of these regimes themselves. Does this mean that carnival liberation jokes are simply always on the side of those in power? No, I think the situation is more complex, it's undecidable."

He continued this topic, particularly in terms of his mistrust of carnival, by bringing up the movie V for Vendetta, which he claimed is not radical enough. "I was shocked at how the film missed an obvious possibility," he said. "What did strike me is a whole series of parallels between [Sutler, the dictator, and V, the revolutionary]. What I expected, but it doesn't happen in the film, is that when V dies at the end, they take his mask off and discover that he is Sutler, the dictator. That is to say that this carnival, this terrorist carnival was part of the game of the power itself to reproduce itself. Like all those films about the carnivalesque liberation, it ends precisely when the old power disintegrates. I would be very interested to see V for Vendetta, Part II. What happens then? How did the government function the day after? My thesis would be maybe even worse than before."

Zizek ended the introduction with a summation of his lesson for the day: "Don't mistake this kind of carnivalesque, cynical irony, whatever, for subversion. It's strictly part of how power reproduces itself. Laughter and irony is not automatically on the side of the oppressed. Forget those thoughts that power takes itself seriously and laughter is liberating. No, there is also a cynical totalitarian laughter. Power needs obscene comedy to reproduce itself. Just think about what you find in any film about the Marines, the so-called marching chants, which meets nonsense rhymes with sexual obscenities. For example in An Officer and a Gentleman: 'I don't know, but I was told, that Eskimo pussies are rather cold.' There is nothing subversive about it. This is power at its purest."

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is screening at MoMA through Monday. In addition to Duck Soup, which was shown in conjunction with the doc's run, the museum has also dug from its collection prints of The Birds, Wild at Heart, Dr. Strangelove and Blue. Alas, Zizek is now back in Slovenia and will not be introducing the rest of the selections.

Posted at April 20, 2007 8:11 AM

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