In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), Zizek makes a Lacanian argument for the illusion of cinema – that it tells you not only what to desire, but how to desire. Zizek invokes Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifer in asserting the cinema as the site of the imaginary, with the spectator falsely aligning themselves with the images portrayed onscreen. Zizek calls for the perception of reality not behind the illusion but within the illusion itself, breaking through the symbolic order through film. This philosophic framework breaks through the notion of reality, asserting that our conception of reality relies on the symbolic order. In this sense, the filmic screen acts as a sort of mirror (as in Lacan’s mirror stage concept), providing the spectator with an idealized, cohesive version of the self. Zizek discusses this in terms of autonomous partial objects, giving examples from Mulholland Drive (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (1951) to illustrate the discrepancy between reality and the real, the part existing outside of the whole. He also discusses the Freudian concept of the divided psyche as it manifests in films like Hitchcock’s Psycho, among other philosophical and psychoanalytic principles in relation to cinema.

What Zizek fails to address, however, is the role of tropes in film, at once reflecting and sculpting the identity of the spectator and the culture at large. When films employ common tropes, they give us a greater sense of cohesion, providing us with the illusion of consistent selfhood. For example, filmmakers often ascribe villainous characters with traits associated with ‘the other,’ effectively associating antagonists with queerness. For example, Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) is portrayed with traditionally feminine characteristics and is uncomfortably close with his mother. Likewise, the villain ofThe Lion King (1994), Scar, is portrayed as feminine, with a flamboyant voice and stride. Both characters’ jealousy leads them to murder the films’ father figures. Another example of a common filmic trope is the damsel in distress; from King Kong (1933) to the Star Wars franchise toTaken (2008), films have repeated the time-old trope of a beautiful woman in need of a male savior to escape a dire situation. These, among countless other tropes, help provide neat parameters for human behavior. They allow us to define and identify versions of the self, aligning with certain characters to help shape our conception of our own imagos.

Each time we watch a film, as Metz argues, we are experiencing a version of the mirror stage again. The cinematic screen is merely a tabula rasa onto which we project fantasies, illusions, and desires. When turned off, we are reminded that it is merely a blank slate, and we are forced to confront its utter nothingness, akin to the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Confronting the blank screen, according to Zizek, is a version of confronting the real – inherently traumatic in its absence of the image.