The Agony of Thoughts of History:
Guy Debord and the Cinema of the Situationists
The cinema of the situationists has left us with an idea that is today rather detestable (detournement), and an important filmmaker, Guy Debord, whose works have been half-invisible in recent years and remained so until those that hold the rights to the author of The Society of the Spectacle (1973) decided otherwise. This curious heritage has not escaped the fate of being recuperated by former “pro-situationists” who are now advertising executives.
Situationist filmmaking began as a way to adapt the practice of detournement—whose theoretical premises first appeared in a 1956 article in the journal Les Lèvres nues signed Guy Ernest Debord and Gil J. Wolman—to the medium of film. According to the article, the practice was justified by the end of art and by the inanity that followed, and could be seen through the negation of the bourgeois conception of art, a negation of the act of negation itself. For the authors, “the literary and artistic heritage of humanity must be used for the goals of partisan propaganda.” Lautreamont, of course, is the reference invoked. In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord would give other theoretical justifications in which he saw “the fluid language of anti-ideology.”
Detournement distinguishes itself from citation, another process often used by Debord (sometimes in a hidden fashion), and speculates on the presumed absence of qualities in the original. As a result, the situationists applied detournement most often to the most common kinds of cheap commercial films. Du sang chez les Taoïstes (“Blood with the Taoists”), which appropriates Wang Ping’s film; La dialectique peut-elle casser des briques ? (“Can Dialectics Break Bricks?”), which appropriates Tu Kuang-chi (Doo Kwang Gee) and Lam Nin Tung’s film; and Les Filles de Kamare (“The Girls of Kamare”) which appropriates Suzuki Noribumi’s film, are the three films “worked” by René Vienet, who applied a particular treatment to genre films. It was the beginning of the 1970s, and the spaghetti western was losing steam and slowly but surely being replaced by Asian martial arts films. Grace to subtitles and postsynchronization, hand-to-hand combat scenes became metaphors for ideological or real fights. All of the enemies are represented as bourgeois or bureaucrats. A variety of institutions, political men and well-known personalities (with a predilection for representatives of the official Left, both political and intellectual) are blithely insulted and ridiculed in a sarcastic euphoria that is often dead-on. And yet, this technique soon seems like the expression of a meta-language that solicits the tacit agreement of the spectator to the detriment of an object that can do nothing for itself. Here detournement acknowledges its limits by announcing a derision—unfortunately much too common today—that is greatly fed by this call to sniggering surplomb. “It is the very technique of advertising discourse,” wrote Pascal Bonitzer in the Cahiers du cinéma.
If the first two films belong to an innocuous martial arts genre, the third, originally directed by Japanese director Suzuki Noribumi, is a strange piece, a kind of elegy for rebellion (the film takes place in a correctional institute for delinquent girls) and “bad impulses” (there are numerous torture scenes). The film is also part of the “women in prison” genre, of which Japan has provided several astounding examples (most notably the Female Prisoner Scorpion series). Far from detracting from the film’s sensibility and style, which was merely bad, the subtitling only adds a commentary at the limits of tautology, which saps the film’s radical energy. When one of the heroines is given the subtitle “It had a Potemkin aspect” after a final confrontation with the police, the title only underlines the plastic violence of a sequence that could have done without this “amusing” commentary on what was already immediately obvious. In actual practice, detournement as used by the situationists summoned in the background a meticulous knowledge of history in its final moments as the great structural form of critical thought. Thus, detournement was also a kind of gesticulated death throes, one of the last theatrical expressions of Grand Culture before its destruction by modern ludic analphabetism and fact. This even as the premises of its way of liquidating by derision, or by using things without qualities, were rendered useless by irony that went over the head of its subjects.
But above these appropriated apologues lies Debord’s oeuvre, which the filmmaker himself justified with no little pride in the following terms: “Yes, I flatter myself by making a film out of anything, and I enjoy the fact that the ones who complain are those who have made nothing of their life.” Debord’s works (four short films and two feature-length ones (Hurlements en faveur de Sade (“Screams in Favor of Sade,” 1952), Sur le passage de quelques personnages à travers une assez courte unité de temps (“On the Passage of Some People Through a Fairly Short Period of Time,” 1959), Critique de la séparation (“Critique of Separation,” 1961), La Société du spectacle (“The Society of the Spectacle,” 1973), Réfutation de tous les jugements tant élogieux qu’hostiles qui ont été portés sur le film La Société du spectacle (“Refutation of All Judgements Whether Laudatory or Hostile Concerning the Film The Society of the Spectacle,” 1975), In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978)) could be seen daily from 1981 to 1984 at the Studio Cujas in Paris. However, after the mysterious assassination of theater owner Gerard Lebovici, a commercial film producer and distributor and the major artistic agent of French film, Debord took his films back and would not permit them to be shown. He eventually made an hour-long film with Brigitte Cornard, Guy Debord, son art et son temps (“Guy Debord, His Art and His Time,” 1994), which was broadcast on French cable Channel Canal + one month after his suicide.
Debord made his cinematic debut as part of the lettrist movement. In 1952, Hurlements en faveur de Sade, whose every screening caused a scandal, alternated silent black shots with white ones with a muddle of voices. In this film, Debord’s predictions of the death of film were already fused with aesthetic-political revolt. Debord’s subsequent works contain few images actually shot by the director, but are composed mostly of a collage of pre-existing images, the wealth of which clearly values strictly personal elements. Images with no advertising spirit mix with extracts from films, some famous, which are transformed admirably into fetishes.
Debord’s last work, Guy Debord, son art et son temps juxtaposes audiovisual clichés already frozen in publicity posters (the Chinese protester face to face with tanks in Tiananmen Square, the little Columbian girl emprisoned in a sea of mud), with a few ridiculous television moments (a literary-journalistic debate during which one of Debord’s books is attacked, Bernard Tapie’s defense of himself). To this juxtaposition, Debord added only a few cartoons as “theoretical” surplomb, as if it was no longer necessary to manipulate the existing images because one could already tell immediately that they were only lies that already existed. This is nevertheless little in comparison to his earlier work.
Can Debord’s art be reduced to the practice of detournement? With The Society of the Spectacle, made in 1973, the director tried to realize an old dream of Eisenstein, who wanted to tackle Marx’s Capital: filming theory. The point was to give his major work a cinematographic existence. To this end, the film superposes a variety of images with long extracts read by the author. It is up to the spectator to find meaning in the relations between images and sounds, and to grasp a dialectic that is sometimes clear and sometimes abstruse. The Society of the Spectacle (the film) proposes first the basis for a radical theory that notices a clear separation of spectacle and life. The separation appears at the moment that editing makes images and text seem to commune in a relationship that is no longer dialectic but aesthetic, no longer only semantic but also musical. The very instant that the spectator becomes conscious of what is happening, the following title appears: “We could find some cinematographic value in the film if the rhythm maintained itself; but it doesn’t.” Such a desire to foil the risks of fascination at the exact moment that they are felt necessitates having a perfect understanding of one’s art.
In the film, the intimate appears as a trace of the living to complement Debord’s implacable theory set out in a classic crystalline language. The Society of the Spectacle ends with a call—“We happy few, we band of brothers” on a background of blurred photographs—to indivisible yet faraway friendships (with Christian Sebastiani, Patrick Cheval, Asger Jorn and Ivan Chtcheglov). The film clips used in Debord’s first feature-length film already identify the author with Johnny Guitar and with Doctor Omar in Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (“I am thus the union of the most pure. I am parent to all the earth. All of humanity is family to me.”) But it was with In girum ius nocte et consumimur igni that Debord’s melancholic reason reveals itself in full. A retrospective vision and work of mourning for a past time, In girum… speaks to the past from now on, and ends it possibly with a belief that wanted to see the pathetic barricades of the Latin Quarter as the first assault in a greater offensive on the old world in 1968. With its tracking shots on the canals of Venice to Couperin, its long pans over a map of Paris, and Benny Golson and Art Blakey’s Whisper Not on the soundtrack, In girum… provokes rare and authentic emotion, a unique experience which remains forever with those who have seen the film. The film contains a Hegelian system of writing and thought that is consumed inwardly even as it is undermined by the sad perception of a time that has disappeared. Debord said of Paris that “It was a city so beautiful that people preferred to be poor rather than rich anywhere else;” the film evokes the city before its destruction by contemporary urbanism and the expulsion of the real residents. Debord’s citations of great fiction films allegorically describe the route taken by the author of The Society of the Spectacle, who dreams of being Errol Flynn at the head of the Seventh Cavalry (Raoul Walsh’s They Died with Their Boots On, 1941) or the Light Brigade (The Charge of the Light Brigade by Michael Curtiz, 1936), Lacenaire (Marcel Carné’s The Children of Paradise, 1945, a film made almost watchable in this new incarnation) or the devil (Carné’s The Devil’s Envoys, 1942). An introspection lit up by the cinema, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a poetic demonstration of how an existence can enlighten film itself. Detournement dissolves in the dream of a life.
—Translated by Sarah Teasley
Program director of the Cinémathèque française, and columnist for the daily newspaper Le Monde.