Few academic stars are beloved enough to pack lecture halls around the world, and Slavov Zizek is one. The Slovenian-born social philosopher is famous for applying the tenets of Lacanian psychoanalysis to the culture at large, and analyzing the way people and societies alike delude themselves into thinking that they act freely and responsibly. He sees the relentless cosmetic changes of capitalism as the engine driving the last century of world history, and he sees post-modernism—especially as expressed in cinema—as the best method of describing the nature of the now. Zizek can even explain how toilet designs in different countries reflect national attitudes towards deep thought.
Astra Taylor's documentary Zizek! treats the professor as a force of nature and a man out of time—an eruptive, eloquent thinker in ill-fitting clothes, co-existing awkwardly with television commercials, fast food restaurants, and automated teller machines. Zizek ran for president of Slovenia in 1990, and the footage of him countering political platitudes with detailed arguments illustrates the folly of an intellectual trying to impress an electorate weaned on sound bites. Equally silly: a clip from a late-night cable talk show where the happily dense host tries to explain who Jacques Lacan was in a "just us folks" way. In that milieu, Zizek looks like some kind of alien prophet, as he points out how we compulsively consume products to ease the discomfort of excessive consumption.
Zizek! is very much in the mode of other philosophers-who-would-be-king documentary profiles, like recent films about Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Ram Dass. It's a straightforward, relatively style-free piece, primarily of interest to those who want to hear Zizek's pronouncements. But what distinguishes the film is Zizek's peculiar self-awareness, which borders on paranoia. He mocks his own tendency to use references to movies and food as a way of playing the "I am human" card when he lectures, and he admits that he's afraid of his fans because he thinks they want him to tell them what to do. He seems to understand that part of what makes his sociological theories attractive is that they let disciples off the hook for their own hypocrisy and venality. The movie's most penetrating peek into how Zizek-the-man intersects Zizek-the-thinker comes when he describes a trip to McDonald's with his young son. "I take him there so he'll be happy," he says. "He pretends to be happy so that he won't disappoint me. What the hell? The game works."