The Bureau of Public Secrets recommends:


“Can Dialectics Break Bricks?”

— Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, 19 March 1992, 7:30 p.m. —


“Imagine a kung fu flick in which the martial artists spout Situationist aphorisms about conquering alienation while decadent bureaucrats ply the ironies of a stalled revolution. This is what you’ll encounter in René Viénet’s outrageous refashioning of a Chinese fisticuff film. An influential Situationist, Viénet stripped the soundtrack from a run-of-the-mill Hong Kong export and lathered on his own devastating dialogue. . . . A brilliant, acerbic and riotous critique of the failure of socialism in which the martial artists counter ideological blows with theoretical thrusts from Debord, Reich and others. . . . Viénet’s target is also the mechanism of cinema and how it serves ideology.” (PFA Program Note)

Since Guy Debord has permanently withdrawn all his films from circulation, Can Dialectics Break Bricks? is virtually the only available example of a situationist use of cinema. Viénet’s film is a far lesser creation than any of Debord’s, but still well worth seeing for its consistent use of the situationist technique of détournement — the diversion of already existing cultural elements to new subversive purposes. Other filmmakers have used aspects of this technique, but only in confused and half-conscious ways, or for purely humorous ends à la Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

Viénet’s film is even funnier, but its humor comes not so much from its satire of an absurd film genre as from its undermining of the spectacle-spectator relation at the heart of an absurd society. In both its social-critical content and its self-critical form, it presents a striking contrast to the reformist whining and militant ranting that constitute most supposedly radical media. By turning the persuasive power of the medium against itself (characters criticize the plot, their own role in it, and the function of spectacles in general), it constantly counteracts the viewers’ tendency to identify with the cinematic action, reminding them that the real adventure — or lack of it — is in their own lives.

March 1992


Leaflet circulated at a Berkeley showing of Vienet's film. Reprinted from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.

No copyright.

[Italian translation of this leaflet]

[Guy Debord’s Films]