Lettrism and Situationism were two intellectual and artistic movements that foreshadowed the transcendence of the idea of the avant-garde. In the wake of Lettrism (1945–1952), a critique of the rational order of language was encountered; after Situationism, the discovery of the analysis and dismantling of a new regime based on the spectacle. Decisive to both movements was the reflection on film and cinephilia, and on the image and its transformation into a commodity. This series, therefore, joins both movements across three blocks: Lettrism, Guy Debord and René Viénet.
In “Esthétique du cinéma”, published in Ion No. 1 in April 1952, Isidore Isou wrote: “When the screening was supposed to start, Debord had to get up on stage to say a few introductory words. He simply had to say: ‘there is no film to screen’. I thought about intervening and associating his destructive scandal with the constructive theory of pure debate. Debord should have said: ‘Film is dead. There can be no more films. If you want, let’s proceed to the debate’”.
In barely a year, between the springs of 1951 and 1952, a series of films and filmic performances were presented in France which even today, in retrospect, can be seen among the most radical points of rebuttal towards the cinema institution. Isidore Isou, the founder of Lettrism — a movement which synthesised much of the energy in the post-Second World War avant-garde in France — presented, at Cannes Film Festival, the first version of his film Traité de bave et d’eternité (1951), which revolved around a complete separation of the image track and soundtrack; “discrepant editing”, in his own terminology. The screening unleashed a storm of controversy since the last third of the film was sound only and showed a black screen, opening the way for an even more radical practice by other young film-makers: in the two months that followed, different Lettrists conducted exhaustive research into the key components of the cinema device. Aspects to be vehemently desecrated were: the film screen and image in L’Anticoncept (Gil J Wolman, 1952); the film theatre and screening device in Tambours du jugement premier (François Dufrêne, 1952); and the support and public reception in Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Guy Debord, 1952). The last of these would also cause a rift to run through the group, and would definitively split the paths of Debord and the other Lettrists.
Although only recognised as such on a few occasions, Guy Debord wanted to be known as a film-maker. The central role cinema played in the “spectacular” society in the second half of the 20th century, which he would describe with acuity, afforded him the chance to become its only “accursed film-maker”. Therefore, Debord aligned his film practice with the permanent rejection of the institution — a practice which meant experimentally applying the Situationist directive of transcending art. His first public action entailed screening an imageless film, while his last rested on depriving the world of the chance to see his films, which actually occurred in the last ten years of his life. The publication, in book form, of the comments in his films (Oeuvres cinématographiques complètes, Gallimard, 2005) or the barren film version of his most acclaimed work (La societé du spectacle, 1973) were part of Debord’s calculated strategy to undermine the foundations of film culture and the society of the spectacle — the image — favouring instead its age-old adversary, the text.
The film work of René Viénet represents a counterpoint to Guy Debord’s abstractions and challenges in the Situationist movement. In his films, restored for this season, the film-maker takes detournement, or deviation, to the extreme, appropriating and re-signifying newsreels, Maoist documentaries and karate films to question, in a perpetually humorous and playful way, bureaucratised society.