Situationist Films in New York

(#18, 1990)

[Bill] went to see "Film Modernism and its discontents: a perspective from Paris," which was designed to, in the words of program organizer Keith Sanborn, "bring to light four evenings of rarely seen, seldom recognized work from the Lettristes, the Lettriste International and the Situational [sic] International," at Exit Art, 578 Broadway. In particular, I attended the screenings of Friday, November 9, at which Jens Jorgen Thorsen's The Situationist Life (1964-68), Bruce Conner's A Movie (1958), Gil J. Wolman's L'Anticoncept (1952), and Rene Vienet and Gerard Cohen's La Dialectique peut-elle casser des briques? (1972) were shown.

I thought it was going to be a real cool time. I dressed for the occasion: black sneakers that had been splattered with bleach; ripped up blue jeans with red thermals beneath; and a detourned T-shirt, on the front side of which I induced the Democracy Statute erected in Tian-am-en Square to say, "Down with statutes!" and on the back side of which I applied the slogan "NEVER WORK!" to "You Can Not Massacre An Idea," which had been the T-shirt's official slogan. I drank beer and smoked pot all the way from Providence, Rhode Island, to Manhattan Island. I was sure that all manner of pro-situs (or would they be anti-pro-situs?) would be standing around outside the gallery, handing out scabrous attacks on this "most blatant recuperation of Lettrist/Situationist cinema." I wondered if I should've produced one of my own flyers for the event. Would my mine be anti-pro-situ? Pro- anti-pro-situ? How about anti-pro-anti-pro situ? Huh? The possibilities seemed unlimited. Shit, even if no one remembers to bring a flyer, it'll be a lotta fun simply because the place will be packed with anti-pro-anti-pro-situs just like me! Or, rather, such was my expectation.

Of course, I was disappointed. (After all, the screenings were held in New York City, the international capital of disappointment.) Not only weren't there any recuperation-denouncing, flyer-wielding, anti-pro-anti-pro-situs in attendance, but there weren't even any people in attendance who simply wanted to enjoy themselves. Paradoxically perhaps, the place was absolutely packed, "standing room only, sir." Typical Manhattanites: dressed in (apparently) very expensive clothes that came in two colors, black and dark brown. They all looked like they were on some sorta dinner-and-a-movie trip. No alcohol was served in the gallery itself. The mood was stone cold sober. Sanborn himself, or, rather, his introduction, was "scholarly" and tedious, very serious. Why were all these people here? I wondered. They were quite clearly far from selfish people: they had come to the gallery tonight to give, to give their precious time, to pay attention. If the members of this audience planned to take anything with them, it was clearly going to be the ridiculous idea that the films and what-we-all-did-here-together-this-evening is really important. Dig Sanborn: "This exhibition is offered not to embalm or to consecrate this work in the pantheon of museologically heroic dead, but to unleash what remains of its historical charge of creative destructive energy in an environment still sorely in need of demolition." Hur-rumph!

The (serious people in the) audience gave it up -- I mean, they applauded in the commonly accepted fashion -- for the videotaped copy of Jens Jorgen Thorsen's 18-minute-long film. Composed by adding a monotone voiceover about the various Situationists to a collage of footage taken from TV commercials, documentaries (one is about a sinking ship), and good old soft-core pornography, The Situationist Life is no longer alive. It's dead. It was probably a fun movie to make and to watch in a drunken revel with its "stars," but it struck me as pointless and boring. This isn't to say that this Life "hasn't aged well." I don't think it was ever intended to "age" at all. It was intended to be reborn, is all. It wasn't, and you know what they say, nothing rots like that which has not been superseded.

The (serious people in the) audience gave it up for Bruce Connor's 12 minute long, 16mm film, which was included here -- Connor was neither a Lettrist nor a Situationist -- for "context," as a "historical film antecedent/related film work produced concurrently," to quote the ever-eloquent Keith Sanborn. Though it was a little more pointed than Thorsen's film, A Movie was just as boring, perhaps even more boring because it was a comparatively well-produced, traditional work of avant-garde cinema.

And then . . . and then the (serious people in the) audience gave up on Gil J. Wolman's L'Anticoncept (60 minutes, 16mm), quite possibly the greatest film I've ever "seen" (experienced would be a better word, since the film is completely bereft of filmed images). The audience members left in droves as L'Anticoncept was taking place, obviously thinking that it was pointless and boring, a "little too self-indulgent." When it was over, they were only about 15 people left in the gallery, including the people who worked there. What went wrong? or, rather, Wow! How did the film construct the provocative situation that it so obviously did?

Wolman's creation needs, wants and takes nothing from its "audience"; there is nothing to give it, neither recognition nor approval. L'Anticoncept is a machine that produces giving; it does nothing but "give" (in all senses of the word). Upon a huge white spherical weather balloon, the film projects or casts either bright white light or nothing at all, darkness. There is nothing to look at, or, rather, nothing more to look at than a simple signaling device (perhaps a traffic signal with only two colors, or, in the case, all colors [black] and the total absence of color [white]) going On, Off, On, Off, On, Off, On, Off, On, Off etc. etc.

The voiceover is Wolman's own voice, speaking, crying, rejoicing, ranting, mumbling, singing, noisemaking, remaining silent. It is an absolutely virtuosic poetic performance. The text of the voiceover, which Sanborn has translated from the French (and is claiming or trying to retain copyrights upon!), is beautiful, even moving. The members of the audience who left the film while it was "showing" did so because they didn't know what to do with themselves -- with their bodies (suddenly so cumbersome) -- and because they had nothing to feed their eyes upon. Without a spectacle, which is in the simplest sense of the word something to look at, there was no film at all for them. And so they left.

It clearly never occurred to them -- or never occurred to them as a serious possibility -- that they might stop watching, get up out of their chairs and (with Wolman's voice ringing in their ears) wander around a bit, in the way that they might conduct themselves if it was the intermission. The vast majority of the audience never "got" the concept of L'Anticoncept, or, perhaps more simply, they never "got" the anticoncept. And that's because the anticoncept is not something to understand, to "give" or to "get": it is something (a unique opportunity, a constructed situation, call it what you will) to take advantage of, something to seize and enjoy to the fullest. At the very least, a "showing" of L'Anticoncept is an opportunity to look at something other than the film when a film is being screened.

For whatever reason (abstract or concrete), I couldn't sit still during L'Anticoncept. Fuck! I couldn't even sit still for The Situationist Life or for A Movie! And so I walked, I paced, I wandered, I tried to drift within the confines of the gallery. One moment I was in the back of the room; another I was in the front, up where that silly fucking balloon was, in the spectacle, where people could see me. I was hoping (I almost wrote "hopping") that other people would start dancing, dancing in the dark. But everybody (so far as I could see) kept their eyes on the ball, er, balloon. And so I danced alone. The only one to say anything to me about my little pas de un was some guy (Sanborn himself?) who told me to stay clear of the video-camera. Yeah, right. Here this guy is -- videotaping a buncha people who, after allowing themselves to be bored by an unusually interesting film, get up and leave -- and he doesn't want me "fucking up a perfectly good videotape"?!

There was no discussion after the screening of this film.

After a break, Rene Vienet and Gerard Cohen's La Dialectique peut-elle casser des briques? (The dialectic, can it break bricks? 90 minutes, shot on film but shown on video) was screened. Vienet was certainly one of the most talented and lucid Situationists: like Guy Debord, he was an accomplished filmmaker, theoretician of "the new forms of art" and writer. In a manner similar to The Situationist Life, Vienet and Cohen's film is detourned, i.e., composed by adding a voiceover to plundered footage. In the case of the latter, the appropriated footage is an entire Kung Fu movie; the premise of the detourned film is a battle between the forces of "radical subjectivity" (the good guys) and "ideology" (the bad guys). From what I gathered, I wasn't the only one who thought that Vienet and Cohen's "detournement" was empty and redundant -- if not because the themes of radical subjectivity and ideology where in the original film to begin with, in the form of an underlying conflict between the Koreans and the Chinese (and if this is true, or, rather, acceptable to us, it seems to raise questions about the differences between uplifting, negationist "appropriation" and condescending, affirmationist cultural imperialism), then certainly because Woody Allen had already done this shtick to death in What's Up, Tiger Lily?

There was no discussion after the screening of this film.



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