Screening of Guy Debord's film

The Society of the Spectacle

It was scheduled to take place on Tuesday, 20 February 1996, at the State University of New York at Buffalo's recently completed, very expensive and fuckin' ugly Center for the Arts. Though this screening of Debord's first full-length film was in fact the very first in the United States, it was publicized in an ambiguous fashion. In Buffalo (i.e., in the SUNY at Buffalo milieu, which is -- as we shall see -- not the same thing as in Buffalo), the screening was billed as an historic event: the very first American showing of a rarely seen film by a man -- famous in some circles -- who'd killed himself in 1994. But in the world at large (i.e., everywhere else), it wasn't publicized at all. (That is, until we found out about it.) This was either as a result of incompetence or intention: either way, this sideshow could serve as a kind of trial run or dress rehearsal for one Keith Sanborn before he took the film on the road to such really important places as New York City.

(From the crowd: "Hiss! Boo! Too bad we didn't take Sanborn's picture at the showing! Then we could insert a photograph of him here so that folks could see. . . . !")

Sanborn gave himself two roles to play in the dress rehearsal: on the one (very visible) hand, he was the young, handsome assistant professor of film at the SUNY at Buffalo who organized the event, which was made part of the rag-tag "Magnificent Media" series sponsored by the Media Studies Department; on the other (sleight of) hand, he was the bold revolutionary and radical filmmaker who'd managed to get hold of a pirated videotape of La Societe du Spectacle, who'd translated the film's voiceover monologue into English, who'd cleverly inserted the translation into the "original" videotape in the form of subtitles, and who was -- under the name Mr. Zero and the Ediciones La Calavera -- using the World Wide Web to advertise copies of the bootlegged film that were priced at only $30 a copy!

(From the crowd: "Broken down into plain English: 'Welcome to the show, which is powerful anti-capitalist and anti-commodity statement; you can buy a copy of it from me for only $30!'")

It is telling that Sanborn chose to show the film on campus and as part of a university film series, rather than downtown and under the aegis of a financially independent gallery, performance space or film archive. He wanted to be in control of all aspects of the dress rehearsal -- otherwise, it wouldn't be a dress rehearsal at all, it would be the real thing, and thus subject to all kinds of accidents, contingencies and unforeseen events that might damage Keith Sanborn/Mr. Zero's respective roles, reputations, aspirations and "secret identities." Preventing damage from occurring was obviously far more important to Sanborn than the golden opportunity to show his students and university chums where and what the "Buffalo art scene" is, and thereby help that scene in the long run.

We found out about Sanborn's little dress rehearsal "by accident": that is, when one of our comrades at the State University of New York at Buffalo saw a notice and "leaked" the news to us by e-mail. Within moments, we'd contacted the Village Voice and found out that nobody there knew anything about the showing. We then entered into a contract with the Voice: we would hand in a 600-word preview of the film, and it would run in the issue appearing the week before the screening.

Our next step was to e-mail Keith Sanborn ( We obtained his e-mail address from the World Wide Web sub-page that advertises copies of "his" videocassette "Society of the Spectacle" in the following banal way: (this is the URL he's using)

The films of Guy Debord have been an occult presence. Available at first only by pilgrimage to the Rue de Cujas, they became completely inaccessible in the mid-1980s when Debord withdrew them from circulation. In January of this year [1995], 2 older films and a new video collaboration with Brigitte Cornand were broadcast on French tv, shortly after Debord's suicide. The vcrs were running. Through the machinations of Ediciones La Calavera, Debord's film version of The Society of the Spectacle is now available in an English-subtitled NTSC version on VHS video. It may now enter the arena of theory and practice in the English language world. The subtitles are by Keith Sanborn. Proceeds will go to fund further subtitling projects.

At 12:35 pm on 5 February -- presuming Sanborn to be a reasonably receptive audience for our missives -- we sent him the following electronic message:

Writing up screening of SoS in Buffalo (2/20) in the Village Voice. Deadline is tomorrow at 5 pm. Please rsvp asap.

An hour-and-a-half later, we were looking at Sanborn's response, which was, "Given our previous 'encounter' I don't think you're informed enough to write intelligently on Situationist film."

What exactly does this mean, "our previous 'encounter'"? Dear reader, we ourselves didn't know -- and still don't know -- to which event Sanborn was referring. We think his reference was to our conduct in the aftermath of Sanborn's Film Modernism and its discontents: A Perspective from Paris, a series of screenings held between 7-10 November 1990 at Exit Art in Manhattan. Having been given a copy of Sanborn's own translation of the voiceover of Gil J Wolman's extraordinary film L'Anticoncept in exchange for the price of admission, we felt free to reprint it in the 18th issue of NOT BORED! (December 1990). The only things we did to the hand-out that might be considered "objectionable" were A) write the phrase "Some asshole told me that this xeroxed hand-out would be valuable 'some day' as 'a collector's item'" at the top of its first page and B) cross-out the sentence "All Translations c Keith Sanborn 1990" and write next to it, "over-ruled by order of the Council for Maintaining even the appearance of being against private property." Oh, yes! and in the accompanying essay, we referred to Sanborn's introduction to the film as "tedious and scholarly." Mea culpa.

And so it appears that poor little Keith Sanborn didn't like the fact that we insulted and violated his apparently faultless and eminently reasonable claim to the copyrights on his own translation of the voiceover in a stolen situationist film. (Actually, it is a pre-situationist film, but there is no point in quibbling over relatively unimportant details.) When it came his chance to get even -- even though six years had gone by -- he hit us with his best insult. Pow! We are not "informed enough"! Only another academic could be wounded by such a remark. Our response, e-mailed at 3:50 pm on 5 February under the intentionally ominous subject heading "You just made a mistake," was as follows:

What you think about me, how "informed" I am, or whether I can write "intelligently" on situationist cinema just isn't relevant. What will be relevant -- at least in so far as the [Village] Voice is concerned -- is the fact that I gave you a chance to get the facts straight BEFORE I met my deadline. As for "encounters," you ain't seen nuthin' yet.

At the time, we had no specific plans for the evening of 20 February, other than the fact that we were committed to be in Buffalo for the screening of La Societe du Spectacle and have as much fun there as we could without getting arrested. Over the course of the next week or so, we were very busy. On 8 February, we took out and mailed to Ediciones La Calavera a United States Postal Money Order worth $30; our intention was to get a copy of the film before we traveled to Buffalo, so that we could sell copies of it, at Sanborn's showing of the film, for the far more reasonable sum of $5. (It is worth noting that Ediciones La Calavera operates out of a post office box in New York City, not in Buffalo; indeed, Sanborn's box is located in the very same post office station that we use.)

We wrote and sent in our 600-word piece for the Village Voice, even though we'd been told by its film editor that there was actually insufficient space for it to run as scheduled, and that we'd be getting a kill fee for our efforts. We also produced our own "original" edition of an English-language version of the filmscript for La Societe du Spectacle by bringing together into one text Richard Parry's translation of the film's camera directions, subtitles, printed boards and musical cues, and Donald Nicholson-Smith's translation of the book La Societe du Spectacle, from which the film's voiceover is taken. Our primary intent in producing this edition wasn't to correct problems in Richard Parry's version of the filmscript (published in Society of the Spectacle and Other Films, 1992) -- although that version could use the work -- but to have something meaningful to give out at the screening of the film in Buffalo, something that could be used to break Sanborn's effective monopoly on access to the content of the film. (We reasoned that even Keith Sanborn isn't stupid enough to make the same mistake twice and simply give out copies of his precious little translation to people he doesn't know very well; we assumed that he hadn't planned to give out any hand-outs at the showing. It turned out that these assumptions were correct; consequently we were well-prepared for the "encounter.") Because we have "friends in the right places," 200 copies of our edition of the filmscript were produced at no cost to ourselves, thus allowing us to give them out for free. We also had the idea of calling The Buffalo News in advance of the screening, to see if its Arts & Entertainment editor was aware of it and if he had already assigned someone to write it up. Significantly, the editor had been officially informed of the screening, but had also been rudely denied access to a copy of the film by Sanborn himself, about whom the editor had heard nothing but bad things: that he was a "prima donna"; that he'd insulted and had to apologize to his department's secretary for calling her "stupid"; that the chairperson of the Media Studies department wasn't having much success in keeping Sanborn and the rest of the department in line, etc. In other words, Sanborn was being as cooperative with his university colleagues as he was with us. Especially because we'd worked with the editor in question before, it was easy for us to get a contract with The Buffalo News to write up the screening. Though we had lost access to the "prestigious" Village Voice, we had gained access the only local newspaper in all of Buffalo, which would turn out to be far more useful to us than some over-the-hill rag published in New York City.

At 1:50 pm on 14 February, we e-mailed Keith Sanborn with the intent of keeping a rattling hand on his cage. Under the intentionally vague subject heading "In an attempt to avoid making a mistake," we wrote (nothing but the simple phrase) "you just made another (mistake)." The provocation worked very well, indeed. Though we did not find out about it for another week and a half, on 14 February Sanborn sent a half-hysterical e-mail message to someone -- anyone -- at our Internet provider, claiming that he was being "harassed" by our e-mail messages and that he was considering legal action! Concerned that this bit of infantilism ("I'm gonna tell Mommy on you!") wouldn't do enough damage to us, Sanborn also sent us the following e-mail message at 5:30 pm, 14 February:

It seems you're the one with the history of mistakes from Buffalo to Providence. I know why you left town each time.

That is to say, after spending all afternoon or maybe even a solid few days digging around in the fetid pits of rumor, gossip and intentional distortion, Keith Sanborn finally had some dirt on us. But his clumsy attempt to insinuate that -- employee of the State of New York or not -- Keith Sanborn is not above resorting to innuendo and black-mail to "defend" himself didn't phase us in the slightest. The next day, we sent our last message to

Everybody knows what you claim to know. But it doesn't stop me from doing what I want, when I want and where I want. Have you realized what your second mistake was?

But no: Sanborn didn't yet realize that he'd not only alienated The Buffalo News, but also that we were the ones assigned by it to write about "his" screening. He would find out eventually, of course: but by then it was too late.

Since Ediciones La Calavera had not yet filled our order for a copy of the videocassette, there was just one more thing to do before we departed for the Queen City on the Lakes: design a suitable poster for the event that we could put up in all the places in Buffalo that we figured Sanborn would ignore. (We wanted a big turn-out, so that the heavy concentration of ovine undergraduate students at the screening would be diluted.) We have reprinted our poster and the one Sanborn designed for the event on the preceding pages. Note the differences, not only in style, but also in content: while we see ourselves throwing rocks at our enemies in the midst of a revolution, Sanborn sees himself seated comfortably in a theatre, watching a "revolutionary" movie.

Our article for The Buffalo News appeared the very day of the screening of the film. We've reprinted it on the following page. It's not particularly worth the effort of restoring the two or three paragraphs our friendly editor had to cut out due to a shortage of space that day, because the truly remarkable thing about the piece is that it was even printed at all, given the obscurity of its subject matter and references. But let us say that we elaborated further on the assertion that the primary purpose of La Societe du Spectacle was to re-edit and reinforce Debord's 1967 book of the same name in the "light" of the general wildcat strike that paralyzed France in May and June 1968 -- an assertion which was amply confirmed by our subsequent viewing of the film itself.

Four of us showed up at the screening, which was attended by approximately 60 undergraduate students. Two of us were dressed as fools: one handed out our edition of the filmscript and -- as baked as an Idaho potato -- smiled and laughed a lot, while the other took and handed out Polaroid shots of everyone in the audience and -- as roasted as a peanut -- smiled and laughed a lot, too. (Ours was the only creative demonstration to take place at the showing.) All the while, glum Keith Sanborn stayed up in the projection booth, brooding and busying himself with his introductory remarks. When it came time to be nervously and rather formally introduced by Media Studies chairperson, avant-garde musician and world-famous dim bulb Tony Conrad, Sanborn literally stood at the opposite end of the stage from his boss.

We would have relished the opportunity to introduce the film, but only or precisely for the reason that Patrick Buchanan (a genuine, homegrown American fascist) was doing very well in the Republican primaries, which were then in full swing. But when it came time for Keith Sanborn to deliver his introductory remarks, all he wanted to talk about on that balmy Tuesday evening in February was us, that is to say, our Buffalo News article and our edition of the filmscript! He used his introduction to do nothing but go on a very defensive offensive against li'l ol' us! We almost felt bad for the poor fuck: he demonstrably had no vision, project nor personality of his own. Claiming he preferred "accuracy" to "spontaneity" -- a stunning admission, given the intense commitment of the situationists to the latter -- Sanborn spent about 10 or 15 solid minutes identifying and sometimes correcting all of the apparently numerous errors in the News article, which he referred to as part of "the cesspool of yellow journalism," or something equally clever. The people who laughed at this remark appeared to be students hoping for a better grade in the course they were currently attending.

Then Sanborn spent about 5 minutes on our edition of the filmscript, which he faulted for relying on Donald Nicholson-Smith's translation of Debord's book, which was, of course, inferior to his own translation of the passages from it that appear in the film. There was a funny moment in which Sanborn threw out some remark questioning our ability to speak French; when we called out "Bien sur!" from the exact center of the very back of the room, he just didn't know what to say or do! There was another moment in which Sanborn himself -- in response to a remark from the crowd -- had to admit that a truly revolutionary element of our edition of the filmscript was the fact that it was given away for free. (It was quite clear from the audience's total unfamiliarity with the film and its maker that we could have charged at least $5 for a copy of our edition and sold all of the copies we had brought with us.) We think it was shocking, given his admission, that Sanborn didn't say one damn thing about Mr. Zero, Ediciones La Calavera, or the fact that he was "clandestinely" selling pirated copies of the film for $30 apiece.

When he was done wasting his time on us, Keith Sanborn told us that Debord's film was meant to "change the world." That was the only thing he said about the film itself in all of his introduction. Shit, back in 1968, even the Beatles could sing, "We all want to change the world"! Who knows what Sanborn would have talked about had we not crashed "his" semi-public party!!

Then there was the film itself. Although there are some great moments in it -- we have written about one of them elsewhere in this issue under the title "Walk in Space" -- La Societe du Spectacle is a 90-minute-long bore. There is nothing to do while it is showing other than look at it. As we've mentioned in "Situationist Symphony, No. 1" (elsewhere in this issue), there is hardly any music in it, and what music there is, is a few snippets of "classical" music. While it is quite true that the sound and sense of Debord's voiceover is shattering, the audience still can't look away from the spectacle of the screen (and thus at the building they are in, the people they are with, and the situation as it then-and-only-then exists) for fear of missing more than a few of the many famous stills and shots Debord-the-filmmaker has assembled. It was, in short, far too much of a film, and too little of a ploy designed to create a scandal.

We don't mean to imply here any judgments of Debord's five other films, the work Debord did after the dissolution of the Situationist International in 1972, or situationist films in general. We just don't seeing any point in denying that the "revolutionary" cinematic techniques used in La Societe du Spectacle (sudden cuts, quick edits and, above all else, ironic juxtapositions) are neither provocative nor particularly significant in 1996. Furthermore, we see no point in perpetuating the myth that Guy Debord, or any situationist for that matter, could turn his talents to any medium that struck his fancy and never make a dud nor a merely interesting failure.

Upon returning to NYC, we experienced a couple of appropriately anti-climatic events. We learned, as we've mentioned, that Sanborn tried to tell "Mommy" on us. The Village Voice found that it had the space to run an article on a showing of The Society of the Spectacle in Manhattan. We have reprinted it on the following page, simply because the thing is ridiculous to the point of absurdity, and thereby likely to bring mirth to even the most cynical of our readers. Note as well the one remark attributed to Keith Sanborn: Debord made this movie to "change the world." Elsewhere in NYC, Sanborn received, opened and, on 11 March 1996, sent back to us our letter and postal money order for $30, on the grounds that it was "Opened in error," no doubt because Sanborn realized that this particular request for a copy of The Society of the Spectacle originated from the same post office box that is listed as a NOT BORED! contact point in our edition of the filmscript. Perhaps Sanborn had learned of the open call we had issued on the World Wide Web -- at this URL -- to obtain, duplicate and sell for a reasonable price the subtitled-version of The Society of the Spectacle. Perhaps he's merely a petty, spiteful little bastard. We'll see, if (and when) he refuses to sell copies of "his" film to other people who have gotten in his face and yawned loudly and unceremoniously.

[Editor's note added 3 October 1996: Keith Sanborn has FINALLY respondedto this text.]

[Editor's note added 16 November 1996: there have been a coupla new developments.]

[Editor's note added 11 March 2000: on the pricing of the tapes.



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