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.”

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