Situationism Now

By David Pinder


Few intellectuals have influenced contemporary culture and political thought as much as Guy Debord. Fewer still have made films themselves. And only Debord has made work like this

Guy Debord has become increasingly well known in recent years for his central role in the revolutionary Situationist International and for his devastating critical writings on ‘the society of the spectacle’. Yet his work as a filmmaker – one of the few labels that he willingly accepted – remains obscure. This is hardly surprising given that Debord withdrew all his films from circulation in 1984 in protest at newspaper reports on the murder of his friend and patron, the film producer Gérard Lebovici. Even before then the films were not widely shown outside France. Yet his six black and white 35mm films between 1952 and 1978 are remarkable cinematic interventions. He collaborated on a further television programme entitled Guy Debord, Son Art et Son Temps in 1994, completed shortly before he committed suicide, and shown subsequently on Canal Plus along with two of his other films that have since been circulated as pirate recordings. More recently, the films have started to be aired once again, with his widow Alice Debord screening them all at the Venice film festival in 2001, and in Paris the following year.

Guy Debord’s Complete Cinematic Works: Scripts, Stills, Documents offers authorised new translations by Ken Knabb, whose texts will be used for English-subtitled versions of the films that are promised soon. Knabb deserves praise for previously disseminating translations of situationist writings through his Situationist International Anthology. He does another excellent job here, presenting scripts and stills from the original French collected works as well as descriptions of corresponding images, music and texts. ‘Cinema is dead. No more films are possible,’ the audience is informed early in Howls for Sade, highlighting the struggle that all Debord’s films had with the medium. The fragmented dialogue and refusal of images in that first film – the screen turns white with sound, black with silence – provoked outrage at initial screenings, especially after its parting shot, which involved twenty-four minutes of silence and darkness. The final film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, also begins by confronting audience expectations, throwing back at them an image of themselves. The film proceeds to reflect, often poetically, on Debord’s life in Paris and beyond, on his letterist and situationist colleagues, and on their struggles to change the world (‘we brought fuel to the fire’).

The films are dense and politically charged, repaying multiple readings (and viewings). They make extensive use of the tactic of détournement, reworking or hijacking footage from other films as well as lines that echo or directly quote from other writers. Knabb identifies a number of the sources in his useful notes and includes several interesting brief documents and instructions by Debord about the films, alongside extracts from relevant texts already available in the situationist anthology. This is not the first time English translations have been available – earlier versions were published by Rebel Press and Pelagian Press in the early 1990s – but this clearly designed volume should assist them in gaining the greater recognition they deserve.

When combined with the long awaited re-release of the films themselves, it might also help to strip away some of the mystique that surrounds them, allowing them to be seen in their historical contexts alongside the works of better known figures later using similar techniques or addressing related themes, especially Godard (about whom Debord was scathing). Not that the point of the films was ever formal aesthetic innovation or canonisation as part of the historical avant-garde. As Knabb reminds readers in his introduction, they were designed to provoke and challenge people as part of a revolutionary project, to ask questions about how one is to live one’s own life.

Guy Debord’s Complete Cinematic Works: Scripts, Stills, Documents is translated and edited by Ken Knabb (AK Press, 2003).

David Pinder is a cultural geographer and lectures at Queen Mary University, London.