Technical Notes on
Guy Debord’s First Three Films
Howls for Sade, a feature-length film created in June 1952, contains no images whatsoever. The soundtrack is accompanied by a completely blank white screen during the spoken dialogues. These dialogues, which altogether total no more than twenty minutes, are broken up into short fragments amid passages of total silence totaling one hour (the final portion of the film consisting of an uninterrupted 24-minute period of silence). During the silences the screen, and thus the theater, remains totally dark.
The voices — all monotone — are Gil J Wolman (Voice 1), Guy Debord (Voice 2), Serge Berna (Voice 3), Barbara Rosenthal (Voice 4), Isidore Isou (Voice 5).
The film contains no other sound or accompaniment, with the exception of a solo lettrist improvisation by Wolman during the first white screen passage, immediately before the beginning of the dialogue. The first two statements comprise the only credits.
The content of this film should be considered in the context of the lettrist avant-garde of the period, both on the most general level, where it represents a negation and supersession of Isou’s conception of “discrepant cinema,” and on the anecdotal level, from the mode of using double first names (Jean-Isidore, Guy-Ernest, Albert-Jules, etc.) or the reference to Berna, the organizer of the Easter 1950 scandal at Notre Dame, to the dedication to Wolman, creator of the preceding lettrist film, the admirable Anticoncept. Other aspects should be considered in the light of positions since developed by the situationists, particularly the use of detourned passages. Among all the passages drawn from various external sources (newspapers, Joyce, the Civil Code, etc.) mixed into the dialogue of this film (with its equally indiscriminate use of different styles of writing), the present Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism edition has retained the use of quotation marks only for four of them, which are treated as conventional quotations since they would probably otherwise not be recognizable. The first three are by Isou (respectively, from his Esthétique du cinéma, from a letter to Debord, and from Précisions sur ma poésie et moi); the fourth is a line from a John Ford Western (Rio Grande).
The first showing of Howls for Sade — in Paris, June 30, 1952, at the Ciné-club d’Avant-Garde, then directed by A.-J. Cauliez, in the Musée de l’Homme building — was violently disrupted almost from the beginning by the audience and the film club managers. Several lettrists then dissociated themselves from such a crudely extremist film. The first complete showing took place October 13 of the same year at the Ciné-club du Quartier Latin in the Sociétés Savantes room, defended by a group of “left-lettrists” and a couple dozen additional supporters from Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A few months later the presence of these same people prevented the same film club from presenting a Sadistic Skeleton which had been announced and attributed to a certain “René-Guy Babord,” a joke which was seemingly intended to consist merely of turning out all the theater lights for a quarter of an hour.
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On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time is a 600-meter short (20 minutes), 35 mm, black and white. Produced by the Dansk-Fransk Experimentalfilmskompagni, it was shot in April 1959 and edited in September 1959.
Cameraman: André Mrugalski. Editing: Chantal Delattre. Assistant Director: Ghislain de Marbaix. Assistant Cameraman: Jean Harnois. Continuity: Michèle Vallon. Grip: Bernard Largemain. Laboratory GTC.
The spoken commentary is read in somewhat apathetic and tired-sounding voices by Jean Harnois (Voice 1, tone of a radio announcer), Guy Debord (Voice 2, more sad and subdued) and Claude Brabant (Voice 3, a little girl).
The sound track during the opening credits is from a recording of a discussion during the Third Conference of the Situationist International in Munich, primarily in French and German. The Handel theme is from the ballet suite The Origin of Design; the two themes by Michel-Richard Delalande are from Caprice #2 (a.k.a. Grande Pièce).
The spoken commentary includes a large portion of detourned phrases, drawn indiscriminately from classic thinkers, a science-fiction novel, and the worst pop sociologists. In order to go against the usual documentary practice regarding spectacular scenery, each time that the camera is on the verge of coming upon a monument this has been avoided by shooting in the opposite direction, from the viewpoint of the monument (just as the young Abel Gance shot a passage from the viewpoint of a snowball). The initial plan for this documentary envisaged more détournements from other films, particularly recent ones (for example, during the passage on the failure of revolutionary efforts of the 1950s, this sequence of two different scenes: a worried young woman, in the luxurious decor of a detective film, telephones someone to urge him to wait; the Russian general in For Whom the Bell Tolls, seeing planes pass overhead, replies to a telephone that it is unfortunately too late, that the offensive is already launched and that it will fail like so many others). These extensive film-quotations were ultimately prevented because several distributors refused to sell reproduction rights for at least half of the scenes selected, which refusal destroyed the montage envisaged. Instead, more extensive use was made of the Monsavon soap ad, whose star was to have a brighter future.
André Mrugalski is responsible for the sequence of detail photos detourning the style of “art documentaries.”
This short film can be considered as notes on the origins of the situationist movement; notes which thus naturally include a reflection on their own language.
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Critique of Separation was shot September-October 1960 and edited January-February 1961. Production: Dansk-Fransk Experimentalfilmskompagni. 20-minute short, 35 mm, black and white. GTC Laboratory; sound recorded at Studio Marignan.
Cameraman: André Mrugalski. Editing: Chantal Delattre. Assistant Cameraman: Bernard Davidson. Continuity: Claude Brabant. Grip: Bernard Largemain.
Before the credits, a hodgepodge of meaningless images is punctuated by a series of text frames — “Coming soon to this screen . . . One of the greatest antifilms of all time! . . . Real people! A true story! . . . On a theme the cinema has never dared to confront!” — while Caroline Rittener reads the following passage from André Martinet’s Elements of General Linguistics: “When one considers how natural and beneficial it is for man to identify his language with reality, one realizes the level of sophistication he had to attain in order to be able to dissociate them and make each an object of study.” All the rest of the film’s commentary is spoken by Guy Debord. Caroline Rittener also plays the young woman in the film. The music is by François Couperin and Bodin de Boismortier.
The images in Critique of Separation are often taken from comics, ID photos and newspapers, or from other films. In many cases subtitles are added, which may be rather difficult to follow at the same time as the spoken commentary. The people who have been directly filmed are almost always none other than members of the film crew.
The relation between the images, the spoken commentary and the subtitles is neither complementary nor indifferent, but is intended to itself be critical.
The original French version of these notes appeared in Contre le Cinéma (Institut Scandinave de Vandalisme Comparé, 1964), a collection of the scripts of Debord’s first three films.
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.