The Society of the Spectacle

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE

3/10

La Societe du Spectacle : France 1973 : Guy Debord : 90 mins approx

Debord once wrote that “There is no film. Cinema is dead. There can be no film.” So perhaps it isn’t surprising that he turns out to have no flair for film-making. The Society of the Spectacle‘s soundtrack of consists of Debord reading out long sections of his 1967 tract of the same name, pausing occasionally for brief sections of classical music. On the screen we see a collage of monochrome images, including fashion-shoot stills of scantily-clad models, clips from Hollywood classics and disparate political footage: this isn’t a film so much ‘directed’ as assembled.

Whatever his merits as a philosopher and social commentator – and his ‘Situationist’ writings have undeniably been massively influential – Society of the Spectacle represents a fatal mismatch of form and content. The flow of information and jargon-filled opinion rapidly becomes impossible to assimilate, and viewers unfamiliar with Debord’s theories and their context will soon tire of his relentless monotone – the choice of images, meanwhile, is only intermittently intriguing, falling a very long way short of this collage-format’s master, Jean-Luc Godard.

Though certain sections have clear and direct links to the passages they accompany, on many occasions the juxtapositions are clumsily banal. And for the most part randomness seems to prevail – Debord justifies himself by claiming that “the whole expanse of society is its portrait,” meaning that any image of society can therefore be used to accompany any analysis. As a philosophical manifesto, Society of the Spectacle does contain many powerful and original ideas – he diagnoses politicans as being ‘corrupted by contempt’ for the public. In his analysis of modern consumerism and politics in explicitly global terms, Debord is clearly a long way ahead of his time (the book was first published in 1967).

But Debord’s presentation of his ideas is more likely to alienate newcomers than persuade him of his arguments’ accuracy – he treats his book as some kind of sacred text, and the results may make audiences feel that they’ve stumbled into a bible-reading rather than a film performance. At ninety minutes, this becomes something of a punishing endurance test (the film is very rarely shown in public, and the ‘Not Bored’ website (www.notbored.org/sanborn.html) provides an entertaining – if perhaps unreliable – account of one especially contentious screening.) Those unwilling to ‘tough it out,’ may find it all to easy to retreat into sleep or head for the exits, because Debord simply isn’t enough of a film-maker to make convert his literary ideas into a more palatable format. He provides plenty of food for thought, but his preparation of the feast ensures it will remain – for the majority of viewers – alien, indigestible fare.

26th October, 2002
(seen 25th October, Cineside, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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