Somewhere, Guy Debord
is smiling -- or at least nodding in approval. Although it's been nearly 15 years since the French author, filmmaker and all-purpose radical put a gun to his heart and ended his life at the age of 62, his anarchistic spirit was alive and well this past weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
's Walter Reade Theater, where a screening of Debord's 1952 film Hurlements en faveur de Sade
(Howls For Sade
) came as close to inciting a riot as any movie I have ever seen play out before an audience. Admittedly, this may not have been such a surprise, given that Debord's 75-minute debut film -- which, to the best of my knowledge, has never before been commercially exhibited in the U.S. -- consists almost exclusively of a black screen and silent soundtrack.
Periodically, that silence is interrupted by flashes of a white screen accompanied by a cacophony of voices (belonging to Debord and fellow members of his "Letterist International" collective) spouting uncited literary quotations and snippets of dissociated conversations. "Love is only possible in a pre-revolutionary period," says one, while another reads a news item about the suicide of a child radio actress. Someone, presumably Debord himself, rattles off a "crib sheet for the history of cinema" that naturally includes his own birth (among such other milestones as Chaplin's City Lights
and Méliès' A Trip to the Moon
) and ends with Hurlements
itself. Gradually, the dark, silent passages grow longer and the bright, sonic ones less frequent, until the film ends on something like 20 minutes of uninterrupted blankness.
Given those variables, it's little wonder that Hurlements
has enjoyed something of a clandestine existence since its initial public screenings. Even Greil Marcus, who wrote at length about Debord and the Letterists in his essential Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
, had to settle for "seeing Hurlements
on the page," in the form of Debord's published screenplay and various other written accounts. Per Marcus, when the film was first screened, at the Musée de l'Homme in June of 1952, the projection was stopped after 20 minutes, with several LI members resigning in disgust over the film's very existence. Eight years later, when Hurlements
was booked by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, it created more outrage, with viewers leaving one showing pleading with those lined up for a later one to go home and save themselves the agony -- which, of course, only made the second group even more eager to see the film.
Something not dissimilar transpired Sunday at the Walter Reade, where Hurlements
capped a day-long marathon of Debord films organized by the editors of Film Comment
magazine and presented, per the wishes of Debord's estate, in reverse chronological order. About 20 minutes into the screening, two people seated close to the screen started to audibly chatter (about what I'm not sure) during one of the film's silent passages. This prompted a patron seated near the back to loudly reprimand the talkers for disrespecting Debord's film. The talkers responded in kind by uttering a profane imperative and insisting that the blank screen wasn't really part of the movie. This was followed by another 30 minutes or so of relative quiet (during which several viewers filed into the lobby to report a projection problem), before more voices -- speaking in a fascinating babel of American, British, Indian and South African accents -- made themselves heard. "We could try holding our breath to see who lasts the longest," said one. "The whole point of this movie is to provoke discussion," reasoned another, in response to a second attempt to restore calm and order. Then, during the sustained final stretch of darkness, a voice from the middle of the theater endeavored to lead the audience in a group sing-a-long to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," followed by the 1915 union anthem "Solidarity Forever" (at which point the staunchly anti-union Debord may have gone from nodding in agreement to roiling in his grave).
Now, generally speaking, I am of the opinion that cinemas are holy sites far more deserving of our reverence than most churches, and that the films shown there should by approached with a worshipful silence. When a news item
appeared late last year about an incident at a Philadelphia multiplex in which one man shot another in the arm for talking during a screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
, my sympathies were squarely with the alleged assailant -- no matter that Benjamin Button
is a film for which I personally feel no great enthusiasm. But if ever there was a movie that invited a violent (and vocal) reaction, it's Hurlements
, and the fact that it is still able to engender one more than a half-century after it was made, when we are now more than ever prisoners of what Debord termed "the spectacle" -- a post-capitalist society in which representations have entirely supplanted reality -- is no mean feat. Quite frankly, I can't recall the last time I felt so enlivened in a cinema.
In all fairness, it may be asking too much to expect an audience to give Hurlements
due consideration without at least some grounding in Debord's theories, which is why the Film Society's counter-clockwise homage seemed to make perfect sense. The afternoon began with an encore screening of Debord's final film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni
(1978), which received its own belated American premiere as a special screening during last fall's New York Film Festival, where it was followed by a panel discussion featuring Debord scholars and acolytes including Marcus and the French filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Arguably Debord's most forcefully articulated, personal statement, In girum
(whose palindromic Latin title translates as "We turn in the night, consumed by fire") begins with the static image of a cinema audience suspended in a state of artificial bliss, while Debord's spoken narration tells us, "I will make no concessions to the public in this film." What follows is a succession of of original and repurposed images -- Paris street scenes and cavalry raids from old Hollywood movies figure prominently -- as Debord mounts his own full-frontal attack on "a totally commodified society" and everything therein. "From the very beginning, I have devoted myself to overthrowing this society," Debord states, and so profoundly does In girum
believe in the possibilities of revolution (even as it mourns a post-'68 Paris whose revolutionary embers had apparently burned out) that it seems to me impossible not to get caught up in its idealistic furor.
After two viewings, I can say that I find In girum
among the most beautiful of all films, even if most audiences -- then and now -- may be ill-equipped to fathom its beauty. Put another way, Debord is not for those who blindly subscribe to what they have been taught in schools or by their parents; who happily swallow, like patients in an asylum, the mass-produced lies proffered by most Hollywood movies and the largely counterfeit art that gets classified as "art cinema"; or who measure their own self-worth by any yardstick of "acceptable society" (personal wealth, family, career advancement, etc.). For Debord, the only life truly worth living was one lived in a constant state of opposition -- opposition to the status quo and the anti-status quo alike (since rebellion itself was in constant danger of being commodified), to capitalism and to the perversion of Marxism that masqueraded as Communism, and to the various misreadings of Guy Debord's own work. Fittingly, in addition to Debord's 1973 film adaptation of his famous 1967 text, The Society of the Spectacle
, the Film Society program also included his 1975 short Refutation of All the Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film "The Society of the Spectacle"
, in which Debord systematically debunks all the major reviews of his film in the French press, reserving his greatest contempt for the favorable ones.
Which brings me back to that blank screen -- Debord's earliest celluloid provocation and one of his most intriguing. Presented with it, most audiences will instinctively bolt for the exit, incensed at having wasted their "valuable" time when there are so many "better" and "more important" things they could be doing. But those who stay to ponder Debord's non-images may find themselves afflicted by the dawning revelation that this apparent emptiness is no more meaningless than most of the ephemera of our lives inside the spectacle (or, as some latter-day Debord disciples would term it, The Matrix) -- the null objects to which we ascribe significance, the choices we sheepishly believe are ours to make, and the conformity we do not question, or question only in the most conformist of ways. And that is the moment when Debord will have begun to have his desired effect. Now that these films have surfaced in New York, will anyone in Los Angeles (or any other American city) dare to show them, or to see them? Discuss -- as loudly as you desire -- amongst yourselves.