The Use of Stolen Films
On the question of stolen films, that is, of fragments of preexisting films incorporated into my films — notably in The Society of the Spectacle — (I’m talking here primarily about the films that interrupt and punctuate with their own dialogues the text of the spoken “commentary” derived from the book), the following should be noted:
In A User’s Guide to Détournement (Lèvres Nues #8) we already noted that “It is thus necessary to conceive of a parodic-serious stage in which detourned elements are combined . . . in order to create a certain sublimity.”
“Détournement” is not an enemy of art. The enemies of art are those who have not wanted to take into account the positive lessons of the “degeneration of art.”
Thus, in the film The Society of the Spectacle the (fiction) films detourned by me are not used as critical illustrations of an art of spectacular society (in contrast to the documentaries and news footage, for example). On the contrary, these stolen fiction films, external to my film but brought into it, are used, regardless of whatever their original meaning may have been, to represent the rectification of the “artistic inversion of life.”
The spectacle has deported real life behind the screen. I have tried to “expropriate the expropriators.” Johnny Guitar evokes real memories of love, Shanghai Gesture other adventurous ambiences, For Whom the Bell Tolls the vanquished revolution. The Rio Grande sequence is intended to evoke historical action and reflection in general. Mr. Arkadin is at first brought in to evoke Poland, but then hints at authentic life, life as it should be. The Russian films also in a sense evoke revolution. The American films on the Civil War and Custer are intended to evoke all the class struggles of the nineteenth century; and even their potential future.
The situation shifts in In girum due to several important differences: I directly shot a portion of the images; I wrote the text specifically for this particular film; and the theme of the film is not the spectacle, but real life. The films that interrupt the discourse do so primarily to support it positively, even if there is an element of irony (Lacenaire, the Devil, the fragment from Cocteau, or Custer’s last stand). The Charge of the Light Brigade is intended to crudely and eulogistically “represent” a dozen years of the SI’s actions!
As for the use of music, even though it is detourned like everything else, it will be felt by everyone in the normal way; it is never distanciated and always has a positive, “lyrical” aim.
Manuscript note (31 May 1989) reproduced in In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni: Édition critique (Gallimard, 1999). This translation is from 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.