A Very Public Situationist

By Lee Hill

guy-debord.jpgGuy Debord

In recent years, Guy Debord, like Georges Bataille, has become one of those French philosophers that has become a kind of conceptual brand. The name registers a certain transgressive je ne sais quoi in the mind of the average well read or well educated member of the public, but the ideas themselves seem a bit of a jumble compared to the rigor one associates with Roland Barthes during the heyday of structuralism in the 80s or popularity of existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the 50s. Bataille has become synonymous with kinky sex and the likes of Christophe Honoré’s adaptation Ma Mère are probably going to do little to dissuade the casual interloper that there is much else in the way of big ideas after the fact.

Debord suffers a more complicated confusion. In 1990, Greil Marcus published his magisterial Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, which made dazzling linkages between Dadaism, Debord’s situationism in the 60s and punk (especially as it was personified by The Sex Pistols). It is hard not to overstate the importance of Lipstick Traces. Although others had pointed out the links between Debord and the likes of John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren in the past (not to mention the countless graphic designers had appropriated the imagery for everything from billboards to album covers), Marcus made the case more palpable.

Debord, a failed law student turned poet, filmmaker and general agent provocateur, was a key influence through his Situationist International on the communication tools – posters, billboards, impromptu lectures, happenings – that gave weight to the events that shook France in the spring of 1968. More so than punk, situationism questioned the idea of consumerism (and the illusory freedoms of liberal democracy) to their core. Leisure, in the form of guaranteed holidays and various welfare state benefits (or those received via employment through statist-like corporations) was merely another form of enslavement. Advertising, with its promise of a more exciting life if only the right products were purchased, was the key form of control in the new tyranny. These notions were articulated at their most passionate and cogent in Debord’s 1967 book, Society of The Spectacle. It was a tract just a few minutes ahead of its time to make a difference when not just students and intellectuals came out on the streets, but the working classes and bourgeoisie.

guy-debord-3.jpgGuy Debord, Michèle Bernstein and Asger Jorn in Paris

The films, which have been restored and screened at the 2008 London Film Festival, are vivid, but somewhat opaque documents of Situationism in its prime. Aided by the producer and publisher, Gerard Lebovici, Debord made six films between 1959 and 1978. The two on view, his first, On The Passage of A Few People Through A Rather Brief Unity of Time, and his last, In girum imus nocte et consuminir igni, are remarkably similar in many ways. We have lots of shots of people talking in cafes or watching or waiting. There is a distinct use of found images, whether they be commercials or billboards. Despite a certain technical improvement in the latter film, the two titles could have been made within months of each other. Debord’s preoccupations were solidified very early in his life and they can be felt quite intensely in these two films.

Yet one cannot help but think of how Debord was superseded in his impact by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, a contemporary, in almost all his post-Breathless films and then his collaborations with Jean Pierre Gorin. Similarly the films of Bruce Conner, especially A Movie (1958) made in the same period as Debords, probably had a far greater impact and distribution on the tenor of avant-garde and independent film than Debord’s work.

Yet it is remarkable, given the complete refusal of Debord’s films to deliver his ideas to his audience in anything other than a tangential way, that these films were produced with enthusiasm on a regular basis through the assistance of one patron. French culture may have been the target of Debord’s critique, but whatever its failings, there were enough figures on the margins (and continue to be so) with sufficient capital and enthusiasm to keep the revolutionary spirit (if not the actual revolution) alive. It is this constant in French film culture which points out the failings of so many other national film cultures, especially England and the US, which occurs to one when viewing Debord’s films.

Lastly, but more importantly, Situationism, as expressed in these two films, is a movement that requires mere the resources of the imagination. I do not pretend to know everything Debord was grasping for in these two odd, but enticing films, but I am delighted to know that the impossible is never out of reach when it comes to filming the unfilmable. These films were made in states of fervid conspiracy and intense debate and if they do not always communicate their secrets, they do convey the grandeur of what it is to imagine a new way of living.

Lee Hill is a writer and consultant based in London.