May 2011, arsenal cinema

Using Cinema Against Cinema – The Films of Guy Debord


"It is society and not technology that has made cinema what it is. Cinema could have been a historical investigation, or theory, essay, memories. It could have been precisely the film I am making right now." Guy Debord (1931–1994) – critic of "The Society of the Spectacle" (also the title of his famous book of 1967); founding member and head theorizer of the Situationist International, a 20th century avant-garde movement (1957–1972), which operated at the interface of art and politics – had an ambivalent relationship to cinema: on the one hand, it was to be destroyed, along with all the other forms of spectacle; on the other hand, Guy Debord made six films between 1952 and 1978 and considered himself, not least, as a filmmaker. His objection to cinema was a vote in favor of an unalienated life, which coupled a radical critique of societal conditions with a focus on cinema and the medium of film. The questioning of cinema against the background of the relationship to art and society, of artistic and political practice, is possibly rewarding not just in retrospect, but could also enrich current discourses – reason enough to regard Debord's films from today's perspective.

Guy Debord declared a ban on screening his films in 1984, and they could recently only been seen on the Internet or on video. But since 2005 there has been a DVD edition, and prints of the films are again accessible. We are very happy to be the first in Germany to present all of his films. Expert introductions and lively discussions will be provided by our guests: Thomas Y. Levin, Diedrich Diederichsen and Roberto Ohrt.

IN GIRUM IMUS NOCTE ET CONSUMIMUR IGNI (We Spin Around the Night Consumed by the Fire, F 1978, 6.11. Introduction: Tom Levin) A Latin palindrome is the title of Guy Debord's last film, in which he, as narrator, explains that he will make neither concessions to the tastes of his viewers nor to the dominant ideas of his day. After extensively insulting the audience that goes to the cinema to forget its heteronomous life, the film becomes autobiographical, using images from the world of spectacle: advertising brochures, clips from feature films (Les enfants du paradis), comics, aerial footage of Paris, tracking shots through Venice, photographs of friends – all commented on by Debord, with an at times melancholy undertone: "This Paris no longer exists." His assessment is that one of the great pleasures of his life has been the sensation of the passage of time, and as a witness to the disintegration of social order, he has loved his epoch.

LA SOCIÉTÉ DU SPECTACLE (The Society of the Spectacle, F 1973, 7.11. Introduction: Tom Levin) This is perhaps the only time an author has presented his main theoretical work in film as well as book form: Guy Debord made a film version of his book of the same title, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), which had great influence on the revolutionary movements of the time. Its central thesis is: "The life of the societies in which modern conditions of production dominate seems like an enormous accumulation of spectacles. Everything that is experienced first-hand has disappeared into a representation." Debord was concerned with using film as a means to introduce revolutionary theories and thus put it in the service of abolishing capitalism. The most important strategy in this was "détournement", the misappropriation of already existing artistic elements into a new context. Along with excerpts from classic movies such as Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) und Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin (1955), Debord uses images from advertising, news and archive material. A "theory Western". (Le Monde)

RÉFUTATION DE TOUS LES JUGEMENTS, TANT ÉLOGIEUX QU'HOSTILES, QUI ONT ÉTÉ JUSQU'ICI PORTÉS SUR LE FILM "LA SOCIÉTÉ DU SPECTACLE" (Refutation of All the Judgements, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film "The Society of the Spectacle", F 1975, 7.11.) It is also unique for an author to bring both the praise and criticism of his of book to the screen (and refute both). This is perhaps the only film in the history of cinema that deals exclusively with the reception of a preceding film.

HURLEMENTS EN FAVEUR DE SADE (Howlings in Favor of de Sade, F 1952, 8.11. Introduction: Diedrich Diederichsen) Debord made his first film in 1952, at the age of 20, on the periphery of the Lettrists – and it caused a scandal. It was a film without images, an undertaking in the spirit of "cinematographic terrorism" (Alice Debord), which breaks with any form of filmic representation and instead presents the filmic dispositive and the process of filmic performance and perception itself. With an avant-garde gesture of negation, a black and a white screen alternate. In the bright light of the white screen, one hears text fragments and spoken dialogue on the soundtrack; the black screen brings silence to the dark room. The final black sequence lasts 24 minutes.

SUR LE PASSAGE DE QUELQUES PERSONNES À TRAVERS UNE ASSEZ COURTE UNITÉ DE TEMPS (On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, F 1959, 8.11. Introduction: Roberto Ohrt) "We would never come together again, later or elsewhere. We would never experience a greater freedom." A reconstruction, as sumptuous as it is without illusion, of the summer of 1952 in Paris – an important date for Debord, not only in this filmic note about the beginnings of Situationism that is angry and melancholy at the same time. "Within the first two minutes one sees the three images that – instead of political conviction or theoretical insight – form the starting-point of Debord's intention to make the world ungovernable: the streets of Paris, the faces of friends and a lot of alcoholic beverages." (Sebastian Lütgert)

CRITIQUE DE LA SÉPARATION (Critique of Separation, F 1961, 8.11. Introduction: Roberto Ohrt) A photograph of a woman in a bikini is followed by a number of panels of text, which announce "one of the greatest anti-war films of all time" with "real heroes" and "a true story" "coming soon to this theater." A questioning of traditional filmic means and narration, a demystification of documentary film; found footage from propaganda films, soap commercials, filmed press photos, newsreels with de Gaulle and the Pope and photos by members of the S.I. are combined with shots of Paris streets and brief acted scenes and underscored with situationist theorems. The "critique of separation" cannot be understood as simply an abstract critique of "consummate separation" through a "spectacular economy of goods", rather as a specific critique of separation from a few friends, as loss. "Which true project have we lost?"

GUY DEBORD, SON ART ET SON TEMPS (Guy Debord — His Art and His Time, Guy Debord, Brigitte Cornand, F 1994/95, 9.11.) "Guy Debord made very little art, but he made it extreme." This "untelevisable" (Debord) made-for-TV "televisual testament," (Tom Levin) is a collaboration with filmmaker Brigitte Cornand, made shortly before Debord's death. It devotes only five minutes to his art, and 55 to his times: Aral Sea, Chernobyl, Berlusconi, Paris, news programs, AIDS, "Purple Rain" and Bill Clinton jogging at the G7 summit in Naples.

This event is produced with the kind support of the Bureau du Cinéma of the French Embassy. With thanks to Christopher Yggdre (agnès b.).