You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Willful iconoclast

Debord one of film world's great enigmas

HOLLYWOOD — A filmmaker who repeatedly declared in his work that cinema is dead, a revolutionary anti-capitalist who alienated virtually everyone who had joined him in the anarchistic and collectivist movement the Situationist Intl., Guy Debord remains one of the great enigmas of the French counterculture of the ’50s and ’60s.

Part of the riddle is a small group of three shorts and three features that Debord made between 1952 (“Howls in Favor of Sade”) and 1978 (“We Go Round and Round in the Night and Are Consumed by Fire”) — legendary as much for their aesthetic and political controversy as for their rarity.

So rare, in fact, that Enrico Ghezzi, curator of the retrospective of Debord’s films at the 58th Venice Intl. Film Festival, Aug. 29-Sept. 8, insists that at least one — a 20-minute 1961 short, “Critique de la separation” — has never been shown in public.

“Jacques Rivette, who’s a fanatical cinephile,” says Ghezzi, “even told me that he wasn’t able to see some of Debord’s films until 1984.”

The remoteness that Debord’s critics and ex-friends would accuse him of seems to have reached its zenith in his cinema, unlike, for example, his books, which remain widely available in print, hotly discussed and admired by some as potent expressions of radical anarchist thought.

He adapted his best-known volume, “The Society of the Spectacle,” which lays down the central tenets of Debord’s Situationist ideas, into his last feature in 1973.

Underlying many of the films is the same analysis informing the books: a fierce critique of consumer-oriented capitalism, which, he argued, transformed every ounce of human pleasure and desire for freedom into a commodity.

Debord’s own Paris Left Bank climes in the ’50s had yet to bow to McDonald’s and the MTV-ization of pop music, and Ghezzi notes that his early shorts such as “On the Brief Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time” (1959) and “Critique,” observe Paris “in a way that makes these films the missing pieces of the French Nouvelle Vague.”

Even though Debord made these early shorts with members of Rivette’s film crew, he was never a part of the French film community, and considered his work far more radical than, for example, Jean-Luc Godard’s. Instead, Ghezzi says, Debord’s films — which were usually made with found stock footage re-edited and accompanied by his generally flat voiceover –are closer to the montage of early Soviet filmmaker and theoretician Dziga Vertov, and likely influenced Andy Warhol’s film experiments.

Debord refused to have his films screened at all after March 1984, when his friend and publisher Gerard Lebovici was assassinated in an attack that the French right-wing press hinted was Debord’s own doing. Even his last film project, “Guy Debord: His Art and Its Time,” wasn’t publicly screened — by his own request — until he committed suicide in 1994.

“When he worked on this last film,” Ghezzi says, “he knew he was going to kill himself. It was his last theoretical gift, so sad, so final. I feel deeply that this is the right moment to show this body of work. They seem like they come from another planet. They have nothing to do with standard cinema, or even a lot of experimental cinema. To see them is like uncovering a forgotten archaeological dig in the desert.”

More Film

  • Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali, right)

    Read Variety's 1957 Review of 'Green Book' Pianist Don Shirley

    “Green Book” viewers who are not totally versed in the ways of ’50s and ’60s jazz may come away from the heavily Oscar-nominated movie wondering just how well known and respected the film’s central musical figure, Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali), really was in his heyday. The answer: revered enough to have picked up [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Steven Spielberg Remembers 'Friend and Early Mentor' Stanley Donen

    As news of the death of prolific director Stanley Donen spread Saturday, the industry was quick to remember the helmer of so many classic musicals. Donen directed such hits as “Singin’ in the Rain,” co-directed with and starring Gene Kelly; “Funny Face” with Audrey Hepburn; and “Charade,” with Hepburn and Cary Grant. “Stanley Donen was [...]

  • Aubrey Plaza Spirit Awards

    How to Watch the 2019 Spirit Awards Online

    The Spirit Awards are taking over television Saturday from Santa Monica, Calif., but viewers don’t need a TV to tune in. Hosted by “Parks and Recreation” star Aubrey Plaza, this year’s Spirit Awards are set to air on IFC at 2 p.m. PT and again on Feb. 24 at 9 p.m. ET. However, indie lovers [...]

  • Mandatory Credit: Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

    Oscars, After Repeated Tumbles, Take Center Stage in Hollywood

    At least the weather will be sunny for Sunday afternoon’s Oscars ceremony following one of the stormiest —  and strangest — awards seasons in memory. Expectations have been turned upside down in key categories amid a historic lack of consensus among guild and critics groups. The 91st Academy Awards will be the first in three [...]

  • Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his Night

    Box Office: 'How to Train Your Dragon 3' Speeding to Series-Best Debut With $58 Million

    Universal’s “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is far and away the box office champ for Academy Awards weekend with an estimated debut of $58 million from 4,259 North American locations. Three holdovers and an expansion will make up the other top four spots, with the sophomore frame of sci-fier “Alita: Battle Angel” [...]

  • Stanley Donen

    Stanley Donen, Director of Iconic Movie Musicals, Dies at 94

    Stanley Donen, the director of such stylish and exuberant films as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Funny Face” and “Two for the Road” and the last surviving helmer of note from Hollywood’s golden age, has died at 94. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips tweeted that one of his sons had confirmed the news to him. Confirmed [...]

  • '2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live

    Film Review: ‘2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action’

    The Academy skewed dark in its choice of live-action shorts this year, selecting four films to slit your wrists by — each one featuring child endangerment in a different form — and a fifth, about a diabetic on her death bed, that finds a glimmer of uplift at the other end of life. If that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content