Guy Debord Mini-Fest and the Rest of the Retro Lineup Carry Film Comment Selects


With Mondo Kim’s now shuttered, New York cineastes must realize that nothing can be taken for granted. Don’t fail, then, to commemorate the 10th birthday of Film Comment Selects. Whatever one thinks of the series’ namesake magazine (Lincoln Center’s highbrow house bimonthly), it’s a precious rarity: a glossy unafraid to take Light Brigade editorial charges, garrisoned away from online hype hysterics and kingmaking.

FC Selects fancies itself the bizarro New York Film Festival, a place where Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1981) is a programming no-brainer. Neither tunes nor tour bus drama warrants the occult reputation of this scarce-screened tale, following a Raincoats-esque Art Brut girl group’s rise and fall during a stretch of gigs across the dregs of Pennsylvania. (It’s worthwhile, however, for one funny, perfectly observed performance: the Tubes’ Fee Waybill as a poodle-haired Sunset Strip leftover.)

The authenticity versus sell-out dialectic is a borrowed hook for The Stains; in the cinematic output of Guy Debord—founding doctrinaire of Situationist International and the would-be Saint-Just of May ’68—it means everything. Withdrawn from distribution after a brouhaha in French papers over the 1984 murder of producer Gérard Lebovici, these works have only recently resurfaced. Lincoln Center’s marathon screening is a harangue-gauntlet that every moviegoer should run. Debord posited that modern “spectacular” (read: mass-mediated) life had locked us, unknowingly, into an Alcatraz of total artifice, in which “images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream [where] fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at,” leaving us united by our alienation (sort of like The Matrix, bro!).

Debord’s jailbreak from the pseudoworld was complete abnegation, and he walked the walk. His antifilms’ antisubjects? That pseudopeople shouldn’t make films, so as “not to add more ruins to the old world of spectacle and memories.” Debord’s debut, Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952), abandoned images, alternating gapes of silent black with a white screen and a voice-over scrapbook of appropriated quotations and sudden lyricism. The Society of the Spectacle (1973) matches the drubbing march of anti-everything maxims in Debord’s print manifesto, read aloud, to a Winston Smith–esque collage of stock footage, including topless beaches and fragments of Johnny Guitar. (Debord on his decoupage process: “Most films only merit being cut up to compose other works.”)

What is tragedy to Debord plays as farce in R.W. Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979). Making a cokehead-frantic backstage “Comedy” of bourgeois left-wing revolutionaries, the director literally knew his subject—members-to-be of the Baader-Meinhof gang had attended Fassbinder’s Munich theater productions. A clueless terrorist cell, played by the Fassbinder repertory company, imports conspiratorial postures from American noir and copycats its actions from the nightly news. (Why will they demand the release of political prisoners? “Because that’s what you do!”) Dialogue is one layer in the multimedia white-noise babble. Nobody’s likable, though the ostensible villain, Eddie Constantine’s string-pulling plutocrat, is a comparably refined aesthete who watches Bresson—he may even have read Society of the Spectacle (“Film lies 25 times per second”). Third Generation‘s stated thesis is that the Man and the Revolution are a Ouroboros construct—”Capitalism invented terrorism to force the state to protect it better.”

The Killing of Sister George (1968), also screening, might’ve taught Fassbinder something about domestic sadomasochism and the marketplace of desirability. (The fest’s retro lineup suggests a conversation of ideas—within film culture and with the world as a whole—that one misses in the premieres.) Sister George stars Beryl Reid as June Buckridge—by day, England’s favorite boxy surrogate mum on a bucolic daytime soap; by night, the transcendently misbehaved gin-breath taskmaster to her infantile live-in lesbo lover, “Childie” (Susannah George). Producer-director Robert Aldrich, adapting from a stage play, didn’t scale down the emotional fervency for the camera; there’s a riot of feeling in Childie’s big kewpie eyes, and in sozzled June evoking Sydney Greenstreet with a croaked “There’s not enough kindness in the world.”

Sister George ends on an abject bovine ululation. Fassbinder OD’d in 1982. Debord self-slaughtered in ’94. A former foot soldier in his revolution, Philippe Garrel, can’t forgive himself for surviving—the Henry James of the psychological close-up further testifies to this in his latest, Frontier of the Dawn, also playing. Here are some of cinema’s furthest archipelagoes of despair and libertinage (personal and formal). The milder climes of the faint-praiseworthy World Cinema sampler don’t benefit by contrast. There’s Better Things, a gallery of clay-complexioned chav junkies, brought to a semblance of animation through dab-handed cutting; Revanche admirably maintains a central suspense on boil, but its immaculate construction ultimately seems inspired only to attract measured admiration; A Woman in Berlin evokes the revenging rapists’ free-for-all following the Red Army’s occupation in run-for-cover-handheld, the tedious house style of re-enacted historical cataclysm; and The Mugger, with a backpack-eye-view of a round of stick-ups.

Staying with their determined stylistic throughways, none of the above go off-road—Debord’s chockablock films frequently do, and for this, they stand re-watching. The same goes for Paul Schrader’s kinky tangle Adam Resurrected, an adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, with Jeff Goldblum as a fatuous, elegant, anguished product of music hall and Holocaust. And though Lincoln Center’s loyalty to Michael Almereyda’s dilettantism is baffling, who else started proselytizing for Jean-Claude Brisseau? His À l’aventure faces the void armed with God, elementary physics, and lots of female masturbation—the porno-generic staging begs ridicule, but if you think the sum total is smut, the joke’s on you.