In Memory of Miss Havisham

A poem I wrote in Hyde Park, dreaming of Dickens:


The trees lovingly clap their branches

Like the withered hands of an upright heiress 

Though distressed where she waits in earnest

Upon the deceased veil of Winter’s dress

Her bosom is gleeful in expectation

Her heart ready to be caressed

And her soul, forever blessed. 


A potential theory of film: Psychoanalysis


Psychoanalysis is essentially a form of treatment, a therapy that allows us to go beneath the surface and find new meanings that govern our actions, and so on, and so on. This is the most common conception, but at a ground level, psychoanalysis really does rule the here and now, the everyday, and the inner and outer circles of life (the internal and external; the mind and the body).

Cinema reels together a number of relations that an audience is presented with at face value. Much like life then, the cinema provides an ordeal of interest for the participant preoccupied with psychology. Acting is psychology, the camera plays on this psychology, and then the audience is the final receiver of these psychological transactions. This is the interaction of film.

The above is an example of projecting onto film. Perhaps it is too abstract and too unclear. This essay argues, with reference to psychoanalysis, about such projections and what they could potentially mean for the cinema. There is no easy definition of cinema. Cinema is not simple.

“Everything is set to work to make the deception effective and to give it [the film] an air of truth.” Christian Metz (The Imaginary Signifier, 1982: 49).

The question as to whether we project too much on to film studies is determined by what we consider a film. In the strict sense, by looking at a film we can categorise that it consists of two principal themes: the message (the content) and the medium (the form of cinema and audience spectatorship). In cinema, and as for McLuhan, the medium has often become the message, in other words, film is strictly a form and is always taken as a film i.e. we know it is not reality, but just a film. However, we can begin to look beyond the film, we can take the elements that make up a film’s reality and use them, within our fantasy space, to constitute our own sense of a reality. This is the point at which studying film focuses on the spectator, the subject and their gaze. This is central to the contemporary field of film studies, how the audience is able to project onto the screen and into the world that is occupied by the film. Cinema asks for our prognosis and it does so by its very nature of foretelling us (human beings) in the first place; after all, cinema is about the journey and discovery of these human beings (the characters in the film just like us).

Psychoanalytical film theory predominantly originates from the work of Jacques Lacan, a theoretical psychoanalyst who lived and worked in France up until his death in 1981. He is known for his re-workings of Freudian concepts on subjectivity and sexuality. Perhaps Lacan’s most famous aphorism is “the unconscious is structured like a language.” Immediately it becomes clear how this structure can be applied to cinema, as cinema is the unconscious structured as a language, and so on. The unconscious is the figure of our defective communication; the unconscious disrupts communicative discourse with a similar structural regularity to language. Cinema is a disruptive discourse with a cinematic language similar to the regularity of our own language. Lacan is pre-determined with structures, the subject is never purely enacted, in other words, the subject must always battle with its a priori functioning of the self. This is important for cinema because the event is determined by the subjects own knowledge, a clear example of this is how every audience experiences a film differently i.e. we are well aware that it is a totally subjective medium for each individual.

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“Truth is structured like fiction” (Lacan). For anybody serious about cinema, it is always about finding a certain truth. A great film follows a line of enquiry that we feel emotionally involved in as human beings, it can therefore be argued that a form of truth is speaking to us. Yet, how is this possible? For Lacan, reality is always tied to its other, the imaginary, which means that reality is always accessible via fantastical engagements. Lacan then, in the simplest sense, must be the ultimate figure for pioneering the cinematic experience as meaningful for the subject. The escapism can even be answered for as the subject’s awakening; they are left to be awake in the dark and to enjoy their own egotism; they awake into a false reality, which is not a dream, yet still an escape from their everyday lives and encounters with the Real.

It is here that Freud can be used to further this almost narcissistic position of the subject. Mulvey argues, “The cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing ego” (cited in Flisfeder, 2012: 32). The protagonist provides an ego formulation par excellence for the spectator whose own drives, especially that of the id and super-ego, can be left to rest for the reason that there are no concerns of survival for the viewer to contend with and no ethical boundaries either; they are left untamed and can project as they wish, ego is only reinforced by ego. However, for Lacan and his dedicated disciple of what we might term Lacanian popular culture, Slavoj Zizek, these experiences most certainly do exist for the subject and their drives, even if they can only take place within the subject’s mind i.e. the subject’s experience still becomes their reality. Essentially, across all these ruminations, there is a distinct belief in the power of the imagination.

Before we project too much onto the subject of the psychoanalysed, Metz, quoted above, is an important scholar to note who battles with film studies and the notion of semiotics: the apparent meanings behind the images themselves rather than the spectator. Most of the material that existed prior to 1960 was vehement film criticism, and Metz wanted to construct a way to analyse the medium of the film image in the theoretical language that it was calling for, and in turn, summon the thought that can be applied to an institution. Cinema does exist as an institution, like a prison or an art gallery, there are a set of rules or understandings of how things function, even if they are not known to us. In Foucauldian terms, the institution would need to be a place where the body is regulated and confined, but perhaps the space of cinema for Foucault would be one of panoptics; the spectator who sits in the watch tower and gazes at his inmates trapped within the confinements of a screen. This would put the spectator in a position of absolute power. The spectator institutionalises his subject.

Metz’s line of enquiry was psychoanalytical as well as semiological because he realised that such an investigation of film – the medium par excellence of transparency – did not exist. The utterance that stands the test of time, and which I previously alluded to is that “a film is only a film… but all the same”. This is the suspension of disbelief that we see in the spectator: the threshold of “irreality” is crossed so that the spectator is tied to the illusion – the imaginary object becomes a true representation beyond the screen.

The irreality of the cinematic signifier invites a comparison with the Lacanian mirror stage in the sense that we must project onto the screen, or identify with the other; the child identifies their ideal self in the mirror just as the spectator in the image. The mirror and cinema are both about desires; they are manifest in the subject’s desire for the imaginary. Here cinema poses the problem of distinguishing a judgment between what is objective, or symbolic, from what is the pure expression of desire and subjectivity. Unlike the mirror, the screen does not reflect the subject itself and yet the subject’s pleasure must derive from an object, yet the pleasure in perceiving images that do not derive from such is a wholly imaginary position and therefore arguably, again, one of narcissism. This is what Metz identifies in his viewing of film as an approximation of the dream, nevertheless the spectator “identifies with himself, with himself as a pure act of perception” (1982: 49).


Projecting further onto Freud, we could argue that in the spectator’s disavowal of cinematic irreality into a dream they are comparable to Freud’s conception of psychosis. Dreams and hallucinations lead to confusion between the reality and illusion of a certain situation. However, the cinematic signifier makes it very clear to the spectator that the image is just an image, such was the same kind of pleasure derived from Jean Baudrillard’s conception of the trompe l’oeil in painting, it gives itself for what it is. Even so, this pleasure is akin in its nature to what fuels the subject’s drives: fetishism, scopic passion, voyeurism etc. all spring to mind. The spectator finds the fetishistic subject that is equivalent to the substitution of the penis in castration. He denies the absence of the penis (the object supposed to be) and marvels at the grand illusion. This is activity beyond the gaze, for which an illusion is always an illusion, and is rather identification with some form of utopian power. The cinema begins to function more and more in an idealistic way.

Indeed, one could argue that such analysis projects too much onto the object-subject split, especially when in society our individualism is ultimately passivism. Perhaps any analysis projects too much, and everything can be analysed, and that everything can also be analysed perpetually. It is therefore our task to focus on a specific field, as we are, but still then one can always question the “what?” of any situation, rendering to Jacques Derrida’s line of thought. This may exceed the nature of projection, but such is the nature of psychoanalytical studies in film. One obsessive attracts another; Zizek’s fervent approach attracts the media, and visa versa. This analytical paraphernalia is a source of new inspiration and creativity, for it is not concerned with protecting the status quo of ‘correct’ thinking or ‘correct’ punctuation, but rather opening up new ways of thinking, being and ultimately of freedom. This is an argument for film as a philosophical study, a subject of metaphysical analysis. Just as Derrida stripped down the text to its bare minimum in On Grammatology, so we can strip down cinema by means of psychoanalysis. Fundamentally, there are always new ways to critique a subject, which raises an enquiry into the history of what it is to create these so-called subjects.

We can also look at cinema as a form of therapy. Foucault had a conception that to escape the disillusionment of the modern world we must simply turn back to historical antiquity, our care of the self, or rather what he called ‘technologies of the self’ (1988). However, despite Foucault’s slight disregard for cinema, can it not itself be seen as a technology of the self, a technology that allows the subject to be freed from their own forms of repression and to experience actuality beyond their own? Cinema can act as a fresh perspective on the familiar; Foucault always wished to see the ordinary with a fresh perspective. You might be rightly thinking that Hollywood offers no such perspective, but let us now turn to the vast heritage of world cinema.


Lars Von Trier is a filmmaker who allows for complete expression of the self, the spectator is allowed to see the so-called underbelly of the human condition and make of it entirely what they will. In Melancholia we see a genuine and disturbing portrait of two sisters with severe depression and anxiety. They are confronting the truth of human existence and letting their inner demons out on the screen. Yet, these demons do not infect the spectator, rather they have the opposite effect. We have witnessed the Lacanian Other experience these demons and so the other has cleansed them of ourselves so that we may leave disinfected. By using the imaginary signifier we have dissolved into the characters and learnt their pitiless lessons. One still may react in vigorous distaste, or one may feel deeply moved and wish to resolve his or her own inner conflict, a reaction is dependent on the life condition of the particular spectator. Cinema of this free-nature has no ideological function, it is purely powered by a notion of the self (the director’s ego par excellence, if you like), and it could even be labelled as a productive power. Is this not slightly perverse?

The subject who watches cinema must be a perverse subject. It was the acclaimed filmmaker David Fincher (known for putting Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box – Seven) who said, “I think people are perverts”, which is of course why they love cinema. What are we as a cinema spectator if not a Peeping Tom (a metaphor for our behaviour)? Quite literally we seek out the lives of others who do not know we are watching them, and from a very close proximity. For Walter Benjamin, this alluded to the ‘optical unconscious’, the shock that we can experience from a close-up in cinema that the human eye could never see. A great film director like Fincher will use such cinematic devices to manipulate the audience into feeling uncomfortable or deeply involved, as two suggestions. Does a close-up not embody an act of sadism?

Cinema does not always have to act as if the camera were a sadist, or as Kraceur would say, by insisting, “on rendering visible what is commonly drowned in inner agitation” (1960: 58). Though, the audience can be just as sadistic as the filmmaker. Take for example, the Hays Production Code of the classical period in Hollywood, during which time restrictions on sex and violence etc. were severely restricted. Zizek argues that such excess provokes the very prohibition it seeks in the first place i.e. if you don’t show the audience something it enables them to imagine it for themselves, or a more common conception is that you tell someone not to do something, and as by some divine intervention, this gives them the will to do just that. For example, in the film Casablanca, Rick and Elsa are kissing and the screen fades to black, cuts to a watch tower (the phallic symbol perhaps) and back to Rick who is now smoking a cigar and looking out the window. What happened? They most likely had sex. Even if they didn’t have sex, it does not matter as for the Big Other (that Real space blurring lines of the real) they most definitely did. Classical cinema still allows us to interact with the Symbolic order in ways manifest with the Lacanian other. Even in Hollywood, the Big Other is staring at us, but we just don’t know it – it will hide in plain sight like the ideological content that it transmits alongside.


There is pleasure to be had in the order of the Symbolic language that the cinema allows. There are sinthomes, often projected by the Big Other, these are literally symptoms of jouissance, of the enjoyment that is raised by the spell of fantasy. Every individual experiences this differently; it is what is unique to their experience and can therefore raise questions about the subjects’ ethics, and so on. For example, “I thought that character was great,” response: “are you kidding? He was evil!” The way this element of enjoyment is organised in the cinematic exchange raises such questions about our need for this jouissance. There will always be an element of the perverse and unattainable desire, which can only prevent a true awakening, as Lacan says: “the ultimate ethical task is that of the true awakening: not only from sleep, but from the spell of fantasy which controls us even more when we are awake” (cited in Zizek, 2007). Can cinema escape this spell of fantasy that is locked to the human condition of being? It is either a magnification of the spell, or in this very excess we could argue that it renders the spell obsolete. We know very well that the spell exists so that we may transcend it? This speculative, Kantian, way of perceiving cinema is tribute, once again, to the power of cinematic projection – the cinema.

No essay on film studies is quite complete without a reference targeted at David Bordwell, a prolific scholar of the field who keeps a tradition of the art form in check. His work Post-Theory is largely a rejection of psychoanalytical film theory. It stems from a concern of the emphasis being placed on the subject over the object, such as a particular film by a particular director and with a particular side note of cognitive functioning within a rational agency. However, Zizek would see this as an ideological gesture par excellence; the presentation of cinema as objective is exactly how and when ideology is allowed to function. This is Hollywood cinema and in Hollywood cinema there is a correct way to view a film, the way in which the gap is filled, there is no lack, ambiguity, or an abjection (Kristeva) in which to experience a difference, or perhaps a welcomed nothingness, but rather the path is paved by the definite gesture. The subject/cinema-goer concerned with freedom should look beyond the Hollywood cinema and beyond the work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.

Of course, if the defining feature of film is that it is an ‘impression of reality’, then there would be little concern for film studies to grow beyond where it stands. To be taken seriously, we have to take into account the very real accounts of the spectator and how cinema functions in the grander scheme of society; where ideology comes out to play and cinema inevitably becomes a tool – a form of political technology. While psychoanalytical film theory gives some revitalising perception around spectatorship, should film scholars really be so concerned with the mediation of reality over the image? After all, isn’t film characterised by the image and the aesthetics of this image moving at twenty-four frames per second? Should we not be concerned with film just as an art form, the mise-en-scene, and so on? The latter achieves a level of critique that often falls short of a film theory, even if it is the synthesis adopted by most film studies textbooks.

As a conclusion and in keeping with the themes of this essay, let us argue that film studies deserves to be projected amidst every academic discipline, or indeed line of thought, as a method of learning first and foremost. Films are fantastic tools for analysis across the arts and humanities; one can even find scientific regularity and argument, in science fiction films for example. Every day we are consuming signs and images, and the cinema is the temple for such things. Laterally then, the cinema is not removed from everyday reality. Thus, even a thinker such as Jean Baudrillard can be applied to cinematic language. For Baudrillard, to simplify, there is no real left over in a post-structural society, we have consumed so many images that they have become more real than real itself (commencing from a lack of any original, authentic copy, and so on), and as such as new reality is ever evolving, known as the hyper-real (the fourth stage of simulacra where physical reality is rendered decadent). An easy example would be Facebook being more important to an individual than their very own life. Either way, such latitude is the essence of cinema and the direction for film studies.

Written by Charlie Bury





Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bordwell, D, Carroll, N (1996). Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Fincher, D. (2014). David Fincher – People are Perverts. Available: Last accessed 12th May 2015.

Flisfeder, M (2012). The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Zizek’s Theory of Film. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 32.

Foucault, M (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M (1988). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Kracauer, S (1997 [1960]). Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 58.

Kristeva, J (1984). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lacan, J (1998). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lechte, J (2007). Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

McLuhan, M. (2001). Understanding media. London: Routledge Classics.

Metz, C (1982). The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 49.

Zizek, S. (2007). Slavoj Žižek. From Che vuoi? to Fantasy: Lacan with Eyes Wide Shut.. Available: Last accessed 12th May 2015.

Žižek, S. (1997). The plague of fantasies. London: Verso.

Zizek, S (1991). Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. London: The MIT Press.



Curtiz, M (1942). Casablanca. USA: Warner Brothers.

Trier, L (2011). Melancholia. Denmark: Zentropa Entertainements.

Fincher, D (1995). Se7en. USA: New Line Cinema.

A potential theory of film: Slavoj Zizek?


Hollywood cinema is well known for marking ideological content. After all it is only an extension of the American dream. However, let’s dig deeper and use some of the contemporary theories of radical thinkers like Slavoj Zizek to help us get there. We are concerned with Hollywood and the cinema it promotes, and we are concerned with it because we are part of the ideological machine, in fact, we have come to love it.

To what extent can ideological content manifest itself? Is ideology not limited and defined by the very term ideology? Ideology can therefore not be defined, in other words, ideology is constituted everywhere, for any thing has a contingent value that will inevitably manifest itself in ideological terms. We are on the path to denouncing ideology, but our key concern here is how can this space be analysed, how can it manifest itself? If all content gives way to a naturalism i.e. it forms a system that becomes the natural way of doing something (such as economy being tied to social responsibility etc.), then the space of an ideological basin can not exist a priori to the event that forms it; the space where ideology is denounced must remain empty. The problem is arguably an irresolvable one: any material content becomes ideology, but an empty space can’t have any meaning, ideology is therefore a trap of the highest degree.

For the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek it is this empty space underneath ideology that forms a potential cyberspace. In society, this notion by Zizek is clearly a critique of the liberal elite in left politics, what Zizek calls the ‘passive-interactive’ dynamic. Zizek is not a fascist, but he does wish to take over the radical ground occupied by the extreme right by way of revitalizing Marxist political action. The liberals ignorance hides in plain sight, their passive-interactivity is not externalised, not enacted upon and, thereby, does not actually deal with any real world consequences. A subject must be enacted to make a difference. A literal example of this would be the liberals in support of multiculturalism, but remaining at a distance and therefore evidently not willing to live in multicultural communities. In such an instance, ideology is useless; it does not function as an act, it is denounced in cyberspace. Essential antagonisms are not resolved, for example, multiculturalism, sexual differences, the rising global economy, and so on. What does this mean for Hollywood cinema? It means exactly what it means for ideology and the liberal elite, which is that Hollywood doesn’t have to deal with it, it can denounce ideology as cyberspace and the consequences will not be sought after, but will hide in plain sight.

We live in a society where the avoidance of suffering is addictive and this is the impotence of our culture. One always wants more. Could consumer society and capitalism function were this not the case? It is the difficulty of Zizek’s thought that a post-modern sensibility cannot tolerate, rather than an adequacy on part of the thinker himself. There is desperation in the climate of contemporary thought, and cinema is a direct way to channel this desperation into a format that hides from reality, yet is essentially made up of it. As cinema is so fully materialised, ideology has to function, even if it is not easily denounced, as we have just established. This is the function par excellence then of ideology as a political tool, a function of power. However, Zizek is not arguing that modes of ideology are essentially this simple and already giving, rather that the latter can manifest itself in a variety of instances, of which all are intimately complex and indefinable.


The cinema can formally embody certain beliefs and provide examples of certain falsified implications for society, for example, running from coast-to-coast will not make you famous and happy, but it will for Forrest Gump. Is this film not the ultimate simplification of life and its various obsessions? A man with a disastrously low IQ can cascade through a destructive, and yet wonderful life for the sole reason of good intention. Despite the lack of reality, and investment in any form of Lacan’s Big Other (or, the Real), in other words, a false rejection of fantasy (“it’s just a film”), Forrest Gump is able to pass as a grand romantic drama with a powerful message of common sense (ideologies hidden form): “…life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Or, life is unpredictable, but that is life and you will always come out on top as long as you go with it (and get lucky). In Hollywood, there is enough space for everyone in the world to get lucky. We can see how Hollywood is telling a universal lie in order to sustain public morale, a ‘Noble lie’ because it is knowingly told as untruthful.

This concept of the Noble lie originated in Plato (The Republic) as the telling of a fictional tale. We can then take cinema itself, according to Plato, as the grandest of all noble lies. Cinema could be “a contrivance for one of those falsehoods that came into being in case of need” (414b-c). This is Hollywood cinema. It is intended for good effect, but the authorities know otherwise. Ideology is often referred to in the guise of knows, “he knows that we know that he knows that we know.” The last know is a Zizekism, the fact that we know that he knows that we know renders us stupid and powerless. They act anyway and we let them knowingly do so, yet we invest in our false belief (that we don’t know) so much that we end up believing in what we are subscribing too. Do we believe that Bruce Willis will come and save us when we are taken hostage by German terrorists in a tower? Yes we do. This is Zizek’s message of the “unbearable” universality. “The secret to be unveiled through analysis is not the content hidden by the form… but, on the contrary, the ‘secret of this form itself” (1989: 11). The form presents this uncanny belief, that “the failed mediation [or medium] is the message”.

The self-referential nature of cinema and the performance of the spectator is also an important position for Zizek. It follows what we previously mentioned of false belief: the spectator will “kneel down and you will thereby MAKE SOMEONE ELSE BELIEVE!” (2006: 353) This is the parallax view that belief is de-sublimated onto an Other which is belonging to the Symbolic order and can therefore become universal, and so on. The problem of this universality is that there are now “impossible positions of enunciation we all recognise only when they are pointed out to us” (2010: 95). How can we see beneath these subtle effects when “a thing is its own best mask” (2006: 28)? The simple answer is by thinking about it, “As a matter of face, I’ve always known it; only I’ve never thought of it” (1995: 192). Here, Thompson captures the essence of Zizek’s thought when he talks about the mediascape. A landscape that tells us what it is doing but doesn’t give us a chance to think about it, quite literally shown by programs that give speakers two minutes to comment on a topic that would realistically need over an hour’s analysis or debate to come to any rational conclusion or detailed explanation.


Let’s not forget that cinema is moving-images and moving-images require a significant level of audience attention to process in there entirety, as Rene Clair claimed, “if there’s an aesthetics of cinema it’s movement”. Hollywood’s technical brilliance, beautifully rendered worlds and action-packed sequences, serve to cover up their conservatism. A recent Oscar smash-hit American Sniper had invigorating scenes of Army SEALS in battle over during Middle Eastern conflict. These scenes are exciting for teenage boys who carry one perspective under their hood – that of the American hero/dream – yet in reality War is, of course, a damning activity. We do not suffer as the victims, we do not witness any pain from their perspective, however we can certainly witness the pain of an American death, which is to be glamorised in the film with marvelous funeral proceedings. The Hurt Locker is a similar film that deals with recent turbulence and continues to ignore the debate about US intervention. “In its very invisibility, ideology is here, more than ever; we are there, with our boys, identifying with their fears and anguish instead of questioning what they are doing there” (2012). Zizek also uses the term “white man’s fantasy” to conjure up these glorified images that Hollywood produces. For example, the aborigines in Avatar, the agents in The Matrix, or more explicitly, every superhero movie or film starring Harrison Ford.

However, cinema is not all so explicitly ideological like Hollywood that it is able to hide in plain sight, or rather, run over and into the minds of the viewer without any apparent awareness of what is actually taking place. There is also cinema that enables the viewer to see shades of grey, which almost acts as a critique of ideology itself by open-ended interpretations to psychoanalytic theories and the subject’s experience. Such cinema beyond Hollywood allows us to greater see the dichotomy of various ideologies. European cinema, for example, can offer refreshing interpretations in a less distilled form of ideological content, a form in which the content is not so telling or exclusive. The films of Michael Haneke, an Austrian writer/director, are layered with an underlying trauma, which Lacan would term elements of the Real. His cinema reveals less to the audience, yet in doing so provides a far richer experience – the aphorism “less is more” has never been more effective. Funny Games is an exploration of the terror and games involved in home-invasion. The pace is slow, threatening, and intimidating, just as we imagine the act to be if it took place. Amour has a similar theme of death in which Haneke never looks away from the truth surrounding an old couple’s last moments alive together, the truth being the piercing reality that not even love is unbounded enough to escape our mortality, and so on.


In the above examples, technique is also used to emphasise meaning,  such as the use of realist tricks (the long and wide takes, the subtle nature of the camera etc.). Technique does not drown out meaning like it often does in Hollywood. However, as Kraceur noted on cinema, “the transmitting apparatus overwhelms the contents transmitted” (1960: 293). Here, Kraceur is foreshadowing McLuhan’s aphorism the “medium is the message.” This is evident of Tarantino’s films in which he purposefully showcases his flair, or the recent Birdman, for example, in which the whole film is made to look as if it was shot in one take (without any cuts). Such cinematic bravado serves to get in the way of, rather than compliment the story and its meaning. We can escape the ‘apparatus’ if the latter becomes invisible by effective modes of storytelling (invisible cinematography and editing). Yet still, this cannot distill ideology, as the camera is what gives birth to ideology.

Like ideology, pre-existing models of subjectivity are always hiding in plain sight. There is no unique benefactor, for example, models of love and beauty do not feature in exclusivity, they are part of a process. This is according to Julie Kristeva who accounts for the subject in-process, instead of being subjected to phenomenological accounts that posit the transcendental ego-subject. For example, love is an “open system”, the psychic space of love’s subject is consistently modified and such can expand and enrich the symbolic and capacities of the imaginary (1984). Hollywood cinema abolishes any notion of this ‘open system’, as ideology does not allow for a subject to posit such space; they are always refrained by their material value, by the knowledge and interpretation of ideologies own content. However, in reference to earlier examples, cinema as a medium is able to offer alternatives, in which spaces can be consistently modified in the viewer’s speculation of ideological content, if the film is unassumingly open-ended. When a film is open-ended, as is the case with Haneke (when Cache ends, we can only guess who the culprit was by certain clues, not even Haneke himself has the answer) the subject is always enacted in-process and never subjugated to a defined discourse.


Guy Debord is another thinker whose critique is highly engaged with ideological discourses. His conception of The Society of the Spectacle features a society of representations and surfaces with no depth, and no layers other than exchange-value. It is a display that makes the commodity one mediated by a fetishisation of the image – “images which have become detached from their essential position: the true has become the false” (1967: 19). These images are the “unreality” at the heart of a real society; ideology is the heart of this ‘unreality’. And, therefore what hides in plain sight, the ‘unreality’, actually becomes more real in effect than what is left over: “reality rises up in the spectacle, and the spectacle is real” (1967: 19). However, the spectacle is in exact opposition to the opening up of ideas or exposing being (the unconscious mind for example). Hollywood is part of the network of egos that construct this spectacular world – a battleground for capitalism to emerge. Ideology, or the Noble lie, does not allow for an environment of being, In other words, it does not gives access to ideas which by-pass the ego, and therefore this system becomes a central aspect to how ideology is allowed to function in Hollywood films.

A movement of thought that arrived largely before and inspired the post-modern thinkers of Zizek, Badiou, Habermas, and so on, is that of structuralism, a French undertaking that initiated deep analyses of the underlying structures widespread amongst the mixed fashions of society. While an ‘objectivist’ illusion often occurred at this level, structuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Bourdieu can provide a valuable insight into ideological functions. For example, in a critique of television, that can also be applied to films, Bourdieu exclaimed that in the pretense of being open to the world was in fact a form of censorship because intrinsic to its mode of production and format is a limitation to what could be said and communicated (1996). This critique does not function at an ideological level, but instead introduces an epistemological relationship, which serves not to get caught in a battle between either-or issues of a singular truth, or the reductionist thought that Marxism often provokes. Is cinema not reductionist in its matter of inevitable singularity? For psychoanalysis, such considerations are irrelevant as the spectator is just as aware of what they are not shown as what is shown. In fact, the power of the film director comes often from what he doesn’t show, a clear example of this uncanny notion is seen in horror films where the monster is never actually revealed – The Blair Witch Project is a well-known case.


Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou is deeply concerned with a truth, and sees it as an epistemological split i.e. “knowledge does not give access to truth” (2011: 234). Truth exists in a void, perhaps the same void that we must find in order to denounce ideology, but this would reduce truth to an empty space, yet for Badiou truth can only be presented and not represented, hence why it is able to exist in a non-ideological form. Badiou uses set theory and the ontology of mathematics to present the void (truth) as a singular multiplicity, the paradoxical being present due to the fact that there is no “set of all sets”, which presents being as a unity that engages with the infinite. This is the realm of truth, as opposed to interpretation (ideology, hermeneutics, and so on) that is always concerned with finitude, or the meaning in the thing. When applied to cinema, Badiou’s framework of truth is a method of showing how this empty space can pre-exist a form of ideology in cinema, unlike Zizek’s framework in which this space is equivalent to ideology and the subject. For Badiou, the subject, or ideology, does not exist until the event has taken place. In other words, it is the experience that brings something into being. By analysing a film’s truth content, we will never be able to exist as a subject equivalent to what is taking place, we will exceed the content as we enter from an above position and thus, become restricted from the truth because we are not able to exist prior to this actual event. We cannot know what came before, but is this not the truth of cinema? As we experience it, we are subjectivised under a new guise of knowledge and so ideology is able to blossom at its most pure.

“Philosophy can always go astray, which is the sole reason why it can go forward” (1990: 14). Ideology can always wane, but this is the sole reason why it is able to exist in such powerful form. The minute we believe ideology has vanished is the exact moment when it is functioning at its purest. In this sense, ideology functions like philosophy; it is a system of mediating life that will never, and can never, strike a cord with its absolute function. The cinema suffers the same result, and is therefore a medium with an infinite resource of functioning for ideology, ideas and philosophies. Quite literally, the cinema has endless resources. However, Hollywood cinema seeks to diminish its own resources to the extent that ideology can repeat itself and this is Hollywood’s ultimate function, to enable ideology to work at the level of near invisibility.


Badiou, A (2011). Being and Event. 2nd ed. London: Continuum. 234.

Bourdieu, P (1996). The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Chicago: Stanford University Press.

Debord, G (2000 [1967]). Society of the Spectacle. London: Black and Red. 19.

Kracauer, S (1997 [1960]). Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 293.

Kristeva, J (1984). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Plato (2000). The Republic. London: Dover Publications.

Taylor, P (2010). Zizek and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press. 95.

Thompson, J (1995). The Media and Modernity. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. 192.

Sider, J. (2012). Slavoj Žižek on War and Cinema: The Hurt Locker Between Theory and Post-Theory. Film Matters. 3 (2).

Zizek, S (2006). The Parallax View. London: The MIT Press. 353.

Zizek, S (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso. 11.


Eastwood, C (2014). American Sniper. USA: Warner Brothers.

Hanake, M (2012). Amour. France: Wega Film.


Hanake, M (2005). Caché. France: Wega Film.

Zemeckis, R (1994). Forrest Gump. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Hanake, M (1997). Funny Games. Austria: Wega Film. The Matrix

Bigelow, K (2008). The Hurt Locker. USA: Voltage Pictures.

On a final note, and if you have made it this far, you will definitely be interested in watching Sophie Fiennes documentaries on Zizek: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.