Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 26, August 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benjamin Noys

 

Howls for Debord

 

 

_Guy Debord: Complete Cinematic Works_

Translated and edited by Ken Knabb

Oakland, California: AK Press, 2003

ISBN 1-902593-73-1

62 illustrations, 272 pp.

 

The first volume of Guy Debord's autobiography _Panegyric_ begins: 'All my life I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction; I have joined in these troubles.' [1] He joined in these troubles as the leading member of the Situationist International, the radical group whose mix of Hegelian Marxism, council communism, and the negations of Dada helped inspire the May 68 events in France. Debord (1931-1994) was also author of _The Society of the Spectacle_ (1967), one of the most extreme, and still unsurpassed, critiques of contemporary society. His actions earned him a 'bad reputation', [2] which Debord wore as a badge of honour. What has been largely ignored is his work as a filmmaker, or as Debord puts it: 'My very existence as a filmmaker remains a generally refuted hypothesis' (147). Ken Knabb's collection of the scripts for all of Debord's six films, accompanied with relevant documents, extensive notes, and annotated bibliography, establishes beyond doubt Debord's existence as a filmmaker. Neither can there be any doubt about the radical nature of his filmmaking practice.

 

What is constant, and radical, in that practice is the desire to destroy cinema from within. At the beginning of his first film _Howls for Sade_ (1952) the soundtrack states that Debord would have announced that: 'There is no film. Cinema is dead. No more films are possible. If you wish, we can move on to a discussion' (2). The film itself is a film without images; when dialogue is spoken the screen stays blank white, while during silences it stays blank black, ending with 24 minutes of silence. No wonder that this film caused such a scandal. Debord's later films developed from this destruction of cinema, using the existing images produced by the society of the spectacle and subjecting them to detournement. This refers to the situationist practice of taking existing cultural elements and diverting them to subvert their meaning. However, this subversion does not simply presage the 'postmodern' culture of cut-and-mix, blank pastiche, and relentless citation. Debord's use of detournement, as Ken Knabb points out in his Introduction, creates out of these existing elements a new coherent whole, and criticises the existing world and the relation of his own productions to that world. It was, emphatically, a political practice directed toward a critique of the totality of contemporary society.

 

Although the situationists used detournement throughout their work, they argued that in cinema this practice 'can attain its greatest effectiveness and, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty' (209). Debord's films embody this practice through the relation between the images selected, the spoken commentary, and the subtitles, which through their interplay produce a critical effect. The images selected are often the images of our spectacular society, but Debord is not putting them on screen simply to expose the poverty of contemporary society. If, as he puts it, the 'existing images only reinforce the existing lies' (145), once subject to detournement they can also release the authentic life that remains concealed within them. For example, Nicholas Ray's _Johnny Guitar_ (1954) is used because it contains, for Debord, genuine moments of love that are occluded by the conventions of Hollywood narrative film (223). Like Ernst Bloch and Frederic Jameson, Debord considers cultural artefacts as enclosing within themselves a utopian hope, which can only be released through political intervention.

 

His films aim both at a total critique and at the release of these utopian moments of authentic life. They are not intended to liberate cinema but to *liberate everyday life*. As the script for his second film, _On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time_ (1959), states: 'This project implies the withering away of all alienated forms of communication. The cinema, too, must be destroyed' (23). To destroy cinema the language of cinema must be turned against itself. Debord refuses any sort of 'purism' that would refuse to intervene at all in cinema because it is constituted, in its dominant form, as a spectacle. Instead it is the very dominance of the cinema as the representation of the society of the spectacle that *elicits* the necessity of intervention. This is evident in the fact that the cover for the Black and Red edition of _The Society of the Spectacle_ shows a cinema audience wearing 3-D glasses gazing at a screen. To break this gaze, to encourage the active construction of situations rather than the passive consumption of the spectacle, is the task of the situationist filmmaker.

 

The most ambitious attempt by Debord to achieve this is his 1973 film _The Society of the Spectacle_ (1973). Eisenstein planned to make a film of Marx's _Capital_; Debord went one better and filmed his own book of revolutionary theory. Like his other films it combines the use of existing images, subtitles, and soundtrack (in this case the script consists of theses from the book). The images detourned range from a striptease to Orson Welles's _Mr Arkadin_ (1955), in each case accompanied by a spoken commentary drawn from the theses of Debord's book. The result is an affirmation of the continuing necessity of revolutionary theory, especially as the Situationist International (SI) had dissolved the year previously due to internal contradictions and struggles. At the same time the film is also a testament to friendship and practical struggles, a memorial to the acts of the SI and to the events of May 68. However, these memories are important not in themselves but because they encode lost utopian moments excluded as the society of the spectacle begins to re-establish itself in new forms.

 

This same memorial impulse is evident in Debord's final film, _In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni_ (1978) (a Latin palindrome meaning 'We go round and round in the night and are consumed by fire'), which forms a kind of autobiography. Again this is not indulgence in nostalgia for its own sake, but the record of what is threatened with being washed away by the tide of spectacular society. Without any awareness of this history of struggles we become cast adrift in the eternal present of spectacular consumption. Also, Debord is not simply applauding himself or the SI for their achievements, although he has no false modesty. Instead he records brief unities of time, moments of passion and authentic life, insisting that: 'Avant-gardes have only one time; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have enlivened their time without *outliving* it' (182). Like the charge of the light brigade, an image Debord uses while recounting the history of the SI, the moment of the SI is spent in what can appear to be futile action. However, out of this spectacle of futility Debord tries to release the passion for revolution that has become lost.

 

So how might we characterise Debord's filmmaking practice as a whole? It is something like a form of political documentary, although taken to its limit. In the film _Critique of Separation_ (1961) Debord states that: 'To demystify documentary cinema it is necessary to dissolve its 'subject matter'' (30). Through detournement, the play of image, voiceover, and subtitle, his films dissolve the totality of representations that structure our societies. There is no possibility, for Debord, of a single-issue politics or documentary, as everything leads back to the false totality of the spectacle. Of course virtually the sole accepted representative of the political documentary today is the American filmmaker Michael Moore. [3] From _Roger & Me_ (1989), detailing the collapse of the car industry in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, to _Fahrenheit 9/11_ (2004), his most recent critique of the hypocrisies of American foreign policy, Moore's work has restored political documentary to mainstream cinema. Whatever the achievements of Moore, not least the hostility he has attracted, his films fall far short of the total critique intended by Debord. They remain attached to single issues, despite Moore's success in recognising those which strike at the heart of American identity, and do not dissolve the subject matter of documentary.

 

His films do, however, use some of the techniques that Debord had explored: the use of autobiography; the detournement (or pseudo-detournement) of existing images; and the interplay between image and soundtrack. I am not claiming any direct path of influence between them. Debord and the situationists were well aware how their techniques, actions, and critiques were liable to be recuperated by the society which they wished to destroy. The techniques for attacking the spectacle can also be turned around in support of the spectacle as well. It may well be that what Moore is turning to a political use are techniques that have been absorbed (by the managers of the spectacle) from the SI and other avant-garde movements and filmmakers. Once again we face the loss of any history of these actions, and so any ability to grasp our current existence. In this way we are condemned to make the same mistakes, to repeat the same gestures, without any sense of their past.

 

It would not be hard to predict the reaction of Debord or the situationists to a filmmaker like Moore. During their existence the situationists were particularly critical of what they regarded as 'pseudo-radical' cinema, and how this cinema would often recuperate their ideas to serve its own purposes. The hostility they felt to Jean-Luc Godard is a clear indication of their opposition to 'pseudocritique'. [4] Also, their remarks offer some useful points for a radical critique of Moore's work. As the situationists state: 'Godard's 'critiques' never go beyond the innocuous humour typical of nightclub comics or _Mad_ magazine', [5] a fitting comment also for Moore's use of humour. Their primary objection to Godard is that he retains a notion of a 'critical art', rather than making a *critique of art*. Moore, I believe, also fails to make this step, although there are other criticisms one could also direct at his work. The point is not that we must return to the invective of Debord or the situationists, but, through Knabb's work of recovery, recover the possibilities of authentic life and radical critique that have been lost to us.

 

Of course, despite the way in which Knabb's book allows us to reconstruct the films in our minds, including its copious illustrations, what is more vital is to be able to see these films in the cinema. Debord had withdrawn his films from circulation after the assassination of his friend, publisher and producer Gerard Lebovici, in 1984. In 2001 Debord's widow began to re-release his films with a showing at the Venice Film Festival, and another in Paris in 2002. It is possible that the films will be made generally available in 2004 and Knabb's translations will be used for subtitling these works. Even if the films are made generally available it may well be unlikely that there will be an opportunity to view them in the cinema. It is not hard to predict that even if they are shown they will be confined to the usual sites of 'alternative' or 'radical' cinema, sites for which the situationists often felt a deep contempt. However, it is not a question of purism, and what Knabb has achieved is the recovery of a political history that has been obliterated, either by simple repression, recuperation, or being buried under lies.

 

That recuperation often takes the form of reducing works such as the films of Debord to another spectacle of radicalism. We passively contemplate these films, with nostalgia or with horror, and in doing so they become another part of the society of the spectacle. The implication is that this society of the spectacle has advanced so far that it can afford to show critiques of itself, safe in the knowledge that they can never be acted upon. To resist this fate Knabb insists on a *political* reading of the films as calls to action; as he says in his Introduction: 'The real issue posed in these films is not what Debord did with his life, but what you are going to do with yours' (x). Therefore it is not a matter of absorbing Debord's films into the canon of 'avant-garde cinema', or mining them for new concepts or techniques that can be deployed within the neutered fields of academic specialisation. Rather these films, today, pose to us the difficult question of the politics of cinema *in its totality*. Not better representations, or better readings of representations, but the possibility of actively constructing our lives.

 

University College Chichester, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Debord, _Panegyric_, trans. J. Brook (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p.3.

 

2. See Debord, _Cette mauvais reputation..._ (Paris: Gallimard 1993).

 

3. For example, we might cite the lack of attention given to Peter Watkins's _La Commune_ (2000).

 

4. Situationist International, 'The Role of Godard' (1966) <http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/10.godard.htm>, p.1.

 

5. Ibid.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Benjamin Noys, 'Howls for Debord', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 26, August 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n26noys>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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