PRINT February 2006

Greil Marcus

“THE NEIGHBORHOOD HAS REMAINED the same,” says the first narrating voice in Guy Debord’s 1959 film On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time. “Paris 1952,” a title has read, opening this nineteen-minute montage of buildings in the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, young people drinking and talking in a cafe, police assaulting demonstrators—and a soap commercial. The film tells the tale of a small group of people, “a provisional microsociety,” who came together to start a revolution, to overthrow a society’s “idea of happiness.” The revolution was to begin and end in the realm of everyday life—how one spoke and gestured, ate and drank, made friends and made love.

Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle), 1973, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 90 minutes.

The tiny band—they called themselves the Lettrist International—would practice a new way of life. “The group,” the narrator says, “lived on the margins of the economy. It tended toward a role of pure consumption, and most of all, the free consumption of its time.” “Its time”: The boys and girls of this circle would consume their own days and nights, and finally they would consume their epoch itself. “Let the dead bury the dead and mourn them,” Debord had quoted Marx’s 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge—it was the epigraph to his first book, the 1958 Mémoires, his first attempt to capture the “adventure” he had lived in Paris in 1952—“Our kind will be the first to blaze a trail into a new life.” When the members of the LI looked back, they would recognize themselves, but the world would be changed.

“The neighborhood has remained the same”: In 1959, as the tired but affecting voices in On the Passage spoke over its silent footage, that meant the revolution begun seven years before had not been made, that nothing had changed. It also meant that the setting of the story—the place where, in his 1978 film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Debord, again looking back, again narrating a collection of mostly found and scavenged footage, this time across 105 minutes, would say, “One felt the earth turn”—was still there. It was still a free field, “a neighborhood where the negative held court,” a place where one could seek “a different, evil Grail.” It is not there in In girum. In In girum, “Paris no longer exists.”

On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time unfolds smoothly, quietly, seductively. As an account of the prehistory of the Situationist International—the prestigious, glamorous, seemingly more daring group Debord and others founded in 1957—the film is, for all its melancholy, suffused with its own glamour: a sense of being in the right place at the right time. When, for a long sequence, Debord simply takes a snapshot of four people who were part of the milieu he is celebrating and pans across the picture, moves in and out of it, he orchestrates the whole of a drama, a story with heroes and perils, traitors and delight. You want to know how the people in this picture got where they are; you want to know where they went. You don’t necessarily care who they are.

The tone of the first twenty minutes or so of In girum is so sour, bitter, and malign that it seems cultivated. It’s 1978: Almost twenty years have passed since On the Passage was made; the near-revolution of May ’68 has come and gone, and so has Situationist International. Debord is a legend and a recluse. A critique of a society’s idea of happiness, even a wholesale rejection of it—why bother, when you can vomit? Even the footage Debord is using—scenes from westerns and war movies, from Les Enfants du paradis and a Robin Hood picture—is worthless, he says, just there to make a point. Let the banal bury the banal.

Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle), 1973, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 90 minutes.

It doesn’t work—or rather it works perfectly. In girum has the scope and sweep of a saga, beginning in the moneyed squalor of the present day, then descending into the sewers and catacombs of the past, when everything was possible. The calm, assured, self-satisfied ranter who opens the film—Debord, speaking quietly, as if he is already dead, as if he has come to bury his epoch and himself as well—yields to a man looking back to recognize himself and his onetime comrades as, two decades before, he thought he might. And so, for the next hour and more, the tiny story told in On the Passage is retold, but as an epic.

Those who, in the first years of the 1950s, set out to change life now reappear in the costumes and settings of distant lands and vanished times—and Debord himself as Errol Flynn. He is General George Custer in They Died with Their Boots On, from 1941, when he, Debord, born December 28, 1931, would have been nine; he is Major Geoffrey Vickers in The Charge of the Light Brigade, made in 1936, when he would have been four. “Guy tends to stay with the films of his youth,” a longtime friend of Debord’s said in 1983, eleven years before Debord shot himself. Debord loves this footage. As it plays on his own screen, he can’t turn away from it, and he won’t let you.

For nearly eight minutes, the Light Brigade moves through the Valley of Death, their mission, their adventure, their folly—their affair, somehow—more insane with every man who falls. Flynn raises his sword, points it forward, galloping to his doom; as with his Custer he will be the last to fall. Why is Debord telling this story, or turning his own story over to Michael Curtiz and Warner Bros.? You can’t really understand precisely how this morally bankrupt, commercially craven, masochistically colonialist footage seals the glory of those four people whose snapshot Debord had explored so delicately years before—but you may understand that you don’t get the joke because there is none.

One picture is small, but seems to expand from within itself; another is big, but for all its spectacle seems to contract to its smallest elements. Is that too neat? The title In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is, after all, a palindrome, but Debord wrote his whole life as a palindrome. As his Mémoires began with that 1843 letter from Marx, the memoir that is In girum ends with it: “You cannot say that I hold the present too high; and if I do not altogether despair, it is only because its own desperate condition fills me with hope.” The last word rings false; it seems, in the world Debord made in these two movies, like a substitute for a word that was too embarrassing to use, for either Marx or Debord, but closer to the truth: romance.

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.