By Olivier Assayas
Originally published as ‘Dans des Circonstances éternelles du fond d’un naufrage‘ in Cahiers du cinéma 487 (1995). Written in memory of Guy Debord (December 28, 1931 – November 30, 1994). Olivier Assayas will take part in the DISSENT ! series on 22 November 2013.
NOTE: in the meantime, a much better translation of this text has been published as part of the English version of ‘Une adolescence dans l’après-Mai’, published by the Austrian Filmmuseum.
I would have never imagined finding myself writing these lines on Guy Debord.
He has always kept himself out of the media glare, as subject as well as object.
And I have always dreaded that, in expressing the vital and essential importance his thinking, his writing, his art has had for me, I could only give to understand something as far as I would be authorized to do so.
Yet nothing authorizes me.
If, amongst the artists of this century, I consider Debord as the equal of Duchamp, Mallarmé and even if – he would have hated this affiliation – I consider Warhol and Beuys as their cousins, how can one pretend, when practicing cinema, cinema today, having received, having understood, having accepted what they have said, when one hardly puts it in practice?
In the aftermath of his disappearance I nevertheless need to try to say a word or two.
To recount what his work has represented to me.
Even if it means venturing on a terrain where he didn’t allow anyone.
I belong, we belong to other times, other times that Debord hated or perhaps more simply despised. And me, I don’t despise this time, one doesn’t choose his historical moment, one tries to get the most out of it, the best one can.
Debord has chosen to take his own life and turn it into his work.
He also wanted to be its chronicler, instead of waiting for others to come, who’d understand nothing and make up absurd accounts: he thought that there were no more real historians nowadays to rapport the simplest of histories and moreover, that his real history was at risk of having no place in a world which stability it aimed to undermine.
Do we write our history? Oh certainly not, there are few artists and men left with the arrogance to think they could, it would already be a lot if they had the sense of living it. But no, today the object is accepting the instant, its consumption, its miserable and sinister jouissance. The most subversive thing would certainly be to take Debord literally and restitute the historical consciousness: to remind us that, as time passes by, it is up to men – for a miniscule period of time – to transform it. And that, just when it comes in sight, it has already passed. “One traverses his time like one passes the point of the Dogana, that is to say fast.”
Each generation has, for a short while, the power to act on the world and, after all, it is not much else then its capacity of having done so that posterity will judge it on.
“What this era has written and filmed is so utterly contemptible that the only way anyone in the future will be able to offer even the slightest justification for it will be to claim that there was literally no alternative — that for some obscure reason nothing else was possible. Unfortunately for those who are reduced to such a clumsy excuse, my example alone will suffice to demolish it. And since this gratifying accomplishment has required relatively little time and trouble, I have seen no reason to forgo it.”
This should be the foreword to every life and every life’s work. It is the substance itself of the confrontation between the artist and the world. And henceforth, when one accepts that films are objects, that they are determined by the rules of circulation of goods – and even at the moment when potato mashers and lawnmowers are exhibited in museums as witnesses to their times – we accept to withdraw the cinematographic practice from the movement of history in order to entirely pledge it in consumption, which laws are governed by economy. We renounce its time and we renounce its only, very tiny chance to belong to the history of its art.
What did Jean Eustache say again when, in this sequence that sends the same shivers down my spine that Debord’s cinema often does, he asks Jean-Pierre Léaud to retake the refrain of La chanson des Fortifs, sung by Fréhel: ” …mais d’autres viendront, héros différents, qui disparaîtront, à chacun son temps… “ (“but others will come, different heroes, who will disappear, to each his times”).
Different heroes, stresses Jean-Pierre.
What to make of our time, lost as it is in its narcissism and its good taste?
Will we be, different heroes, will we have been, did we miss all chances of being it? Or else the good professionals, the good agents of reproduction, depressed by boredom and the past and good savoir-faire.
The recovery of the public lost by the crisis of cinema: here’s the exhilarating task at hand, seemingly arousing the energy around us, thanks to the efficient, bulletproof scenarios and the state-of-the-art techniques inspired by vacuity and the vacant technicism of marketing strategists dominating the American film industry.
Of which we wish to be the good colonized.
Is this the impassable thinking of our times?
Are we supposed to participate in this history?
What a crock of shit.
When the times need intelligence and audacity and only the practice of poetry, through whatever art, but also through no art at all, when one knows to inscribe it in life itself, when one lets it go all the way, opens up to the sole adventures that deserve being lived.
I remember, I was twenty years old when the re-edition of the bulletins of the Situationist Internationale were published by Chez Libre, in 1975. I discovered Paris, a few months before we had demolished les Halles, and I dreamt about what this city could have been while reading Debord abouts dérives, reading the theory of situations, exclusions and debates, the congress in the gates of Europe, while examining the pictures. And most of all, I was haunted by this announcement that appeared in the first issue, in 1958, that said:
“YOUNG MEN, YOUNG WOMEN,
Some aptitude for excelling and playing.
Without special knowledge.
So intelligent or beautiful.
You can go in the direction of History.
WITH THE SITUATIONISTS
Don’t phone. Write or come by:
32, rue la Montagne-Geneviève, Paris 5e”
Aptitude for excelling? I don’t know, I don’t know if I, in my existence, have proven myself of this particular aptitude, but I don’t have the feeling either of having observed a lot of convincing examples. On the other hand, I felt apt enough for destruction. In any case at the time that’s what seemed to be compelling. And I thought that they could be of equal merit; that through the years this message was perhaps destined for me.
But how to respond?
And to which address to address.
Would they only want me?
It was too late.
And even if I made myself dizzy reading and rereading Debord and IS, it was impossible to escape from the idea that it was up to my generation to write its history. But it resolutely kept delaying it, stuck as it was in the ultimate fights at the rearguard of a leftism that discouraged me with its intrinsic bureaucratism, the daft transfer of its desire for allegiance to totalitarianism, over the heads of the USSR which were regrettably indefensible from then on, to the bloody dictatorship of Mao Tsé-Toung.
And after all it wasn’t much later, around 1976, that the crypto-situationism of the London punk revived for a short while the revolt against a society that had it for breakfast: everything went back to normal very quickly.
But there were a few years there.
And me, who was Thirteen in May 68, I immediately recognized the same shiver, unforgettable, of the foundation of things trembling.
Of the society in fear because it is under attack were it wasn’t expecting it and the antidotes are not available right away.
Useless to say that the system, today, is much better protected against these incidents.
And that through the great ideological and social calmness of the world where I have lived the essential part of my youth and my adulthood, through its torpor via media or chemicals, the thinking of Guy Debord, his art, his writing have been the only place where I have always felt living life, revolt and history intact and so, through him, there is always the possibility that the fake has not ended up covering up the world and that a movement, somewhere, something, can soon relight the fire.
Of which Debord will have been the watchman.
I wish I could write simply about Guy Debord.
To say that to me he is first and foremost one of the great poets of this century, maybe the greatest. That the admirable collage of Mémoires, created between 1952 and 1953, printed for the first time in 1958 and only published the year after in overall silence (precursory sign of the disappearance of its author?) is the shattering work of a twenty year old poet, heir of Mallarmé. And without a doubt one could say the same about his first film without images, Hurlements en faveur de Sade, produced in 1952, of which I only know the text.
“Totally dark, eyes closed to the enormity of the disaster.”
“Order reigns but does not govern.”
“Guy, one more minute and it’ll be tomorrow.”
“I knew it. And there was a time when I regretted it very much.”
“Like lost children we live our unfinished adventures.”
By chance, on two pages of Mémoires (pieces of printed and cut up sentences are dispersed on the page amidst strokes of ink by Asper Jorn)
“In the history of discoveries
A floating city
A game of life and setting
The effect of such or such center of attraction
The decors, the characters participated so well in this vision
In the fire of insults, threats, execrations and blasphemies
It is probably too soon
A notice put up on the walls of Paris announced the ephemeral passage
Spectacle without well-defined specialty other than scandal
Open all night long
Such adventure in the heart of the XX century is unheard of.”
In Panégyrique in 1989, Debord wrote “I rather believe that what, with me, has aggravated in a hard-wearing way, is what I’ve done in 1952.”
Because he knew, just like the other great poet of those days, Jean Genet, that poetry would henceforth, at once, be nothing else but a declaration of war to society.
And that the only poets, for those times, would be those who would be able to put their poetry in action.
In accordance with the programme of the dadaists, such as only Duchamp and Schwitters applied.
But Debord would have done it better than them, in the matter of excelling.
In the matter of excelling art as well.
Taken off where they had arrived, he started with the conviction that from then on, if art could no longer subscribe to society and its new order, if it could no longer be its mirror, he would take it upon himself to be the radical contradiction.
It is artistic poetry and theory that have led Debord to think the world, decipher it, and inscribe the traces of the struggles that he will have fought, in acts in the annals of his time.
His work is there.
In its absolute coherence.
It’s that which all that counts in the artistic thinking of the century will have theorized and which only he will have realized.
No doubt his poetry will be acknowledged.
No doubt his place amongst the great writers of the century is already assured.
No doubt his thinking in France and the world will give the century to come something to take up.
But I also maintain – and as Léo Ferré said, “j’prends date”, that he was a filmmaker of major importance.
If I dream of seeing Hurlements en faveur de Sade, Critique de la séparation, or Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps, it is of course due to reading his texts.
But also due to the description Debord gave of their images:
Inside the labyrinth of bricks.
Police vans depart.
The isle of Saint-Louis at dusk.”
“Tracking shot in a café. Its movement is arbitrarily cut by boards: “the celebrations and passions of a violent age”; “in the course of movement and accordingly on the transitory side.”; “the most exciting suspense.”
“Tracking shot over a group of people on a café terrace. The camera, hand-held as in a news report, zeoes in on Debord talking to a young brunette. Medium-long shot of the two of them walking together. Another young woman, blonde.”
“A couple kiss on the street. Teenagers at a café table. Two of the “lost children” of Saint Germain des Prés. A prison guard in a watchtower. THE SCREEN REMAINS DARK”
Since its publication in 1978, Complete Cinematic Works has been one of my bedside books.
But that would not be enough: I also have to mention the overwhelming effect that the discovery of In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni had on me, when it came out in 1981 in cinema ‘le Quintet’, that since then has closed down.
I have seen it several times back then, each time in the same state of feverish exaltation.
Something I have only felt, I think, a few other times, discovering Bresson’s L’Argent and Pickpocket, Garrel’s L’enfant secret and each time I have seen La Maman et la Putain.
The scenes on the water in Venice, the voice of Debord, the echoes of the voices of the past.
“Gun Crazy. You remember. That’s how it was. No one was good enough for us. And yet . . . Hailstones striking banners of glass. We won’t forget this cursed planet.”
And then Marcel Herrand playing Lacenaire in a fragment of Les Enfants du Paradis: Arletty tells him “But it’s glory, Pierre-François.” He answers him: “Yes, it begins… but on second thought, I would however have preferred a brilliant literary success.”
And the faces: “Ivan Chtcheglov, Gil j. Wolman, Robert Fonta, Ghislain de Marbaix, Debord at twenty. She who was the most beautiful that year.” And then starts Art Blakey’s Whisper not.
Just by recalling tears swell up in my eyes – time again I have reread this enumeration, time again I have replaced those faces with my own, as anyone has probably done, taken up by the flow, the oblivion, the obliteration.
Would I be able to show it one day? Would I be capable?
Does it deserve to be?
Would I be able to speak about my time?
Watching In girum…, reading and rereading it, these questions have obsessed me, they have haunted my twenties, as well as my thirties.
“At this point the spectators, who have already been deprived of everything else, will also be deprived of images.”
Of course in this film he raises a terrible portrait of our world, frightening in its lucidity, burning with rage against the invasion of our passivity, the invasion of the consumptive dupery and silliness; and we were only in 1978, when antibodies still subsisted, while today, nothing blocks, nothing at all, while week after week, ever more things are taken up in the flux of the gavage of culture, neutral things, of good taste, an exhausting programme endlessly renewed for the neo-spectators of good will.
The art of the new domesticated.
Free for some time, revolted for some time, dangerous for some time, today first of all preoccupied with pleasing, being of quality. Being convenient, that is to say to suit the taste of the bourgeoisie.
In In girum…, as elsewhere, Debord depicts the disaster of today. But then, like no other he becomes lyrical to show what the world can be, what it has been in the eyes of its youth, the incandescent beauty it could have to live, love and fight in, not anywhere else, not at another time, here, on these sidewalks, in these bars and on these streets we walk on, if not sleeping, in any case fighting to stay awake in the face of the humiliating and devastating good behavior of our years.
In these footsteps we dream of Aurélia and Nadja.
Of the poetry of revolt that have their face and which ghosts haunt our boulevards, our nights, our wanderings.
He tells us it is always too soon too late.
That lost opportunities do not present themselves again.
But also that thought can shake up the city.
Not only has he said so, he has done so and set an example.
So that everyone, deep down, knows that it can be done
Isabelle told me about Guy Debord’s suicide by chance, one night in the subway, sometime after midnight, between Réaumur-Sébastopol and Château d’eau .
And for me, something in the world broke.
Writing these lines, outright humble in regards to their subject, I can still feel it.
And for a longtime: for always.
Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).
In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts
* The title of this piece is taken from Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard’ (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance).
* Most English translations from Debord’s film scripts are Ken Knabb’s, available on bopsecrets.org.