Letter about Debord’s Film On the Passage...
You have rightly noticed the difference in the text-image relation between the first and second parts of Passage. Detourned phrases can be found throughout the film, but the majority are in the first part. My plan was as follows: The film begins like a typical, technically ordinary documentary. Gradually it becomes less clear and more disappointing, which might at first seem to be the result of a pretentious “ideological” interpretation of an otherwise clear subject, because the text appears increasingly inadequate and pompously inflated in relation to the images (the tone of Lefebvre = Marx-Goldman-Huizinga!). The question then arises: What is the subject of this film? — which I think represents an irritating and upsetting break with the habitual spectacle.
With the appearance of the first blank screen, the film begins to contradict itself in every way — and thus becomes more clear as its creator takes sides against it. It is both a rather explicitly anti-art-film about the unaccomplished work of this era and an ultimately realistic description of a way of life deprived of coherence and significance. The form corresponds to the content. It does not describe this or that particular activity (merchant marine, oil exploration, some historic monument to admire — or even to demolish, as in Franju’s magnificent Hôtel des Invalides), but the very core of present-day activity in general, which is empty. It is a portrayal of the absence of “real life.” This slow movement of exposure and negation is what I was trying to embody in Passage. But very summarily and arbitrarily, I must admit. Despite the prevalent fixation on the economic obstacles, the main problem is actually that short films are quite unsuitable for truly experimental cinema. Their very brevity tends to encourage a moderate, neatly edited form of expression. But it does seem interesting to detourn the fixed form of the traditional documentary, and this tends to tie us to the inviolable 20-minute limit.
Letter from Guy Debord to André Frankin (an early Situationist International member), January 26, 1960, about his film On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (1959). The original French version of this letter can be found in Debord’s Correspondance, Volume 1 (Fayard, 1999), pp. 302-303.
The above translation is from Guy Debord’s Complete Cinematic Works (AK Press, 2003, translated and edited by Ken Knabb), which includes the scripts of all six of Debord’s films along with illustrations, documents and extensive annotations. For further information, see Guy Debords Films.