After work last night I headed over to CCA to catch the latest film in the Paul McCarthy curated exhibition Low Life Slow Life, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The film is a fairly straightforward explication of Debord’s critique of capitalism’s superstructure, in which the artificial becomes more real than what it is presumed to represent. The perceived distance between ourselves and all aspects of the spectacle, be it body image, sex, status, family life, even our attitudes toward the system itself, drives the never-ending pursuit of commodities. Judged against the hyper-real allure of life as depicted in film and advertising for example, even personal histories are deemed inadequate and are superseded and realigned to resemble “pseudo-history.”
Whereas most of the imagery is selected to complement the film in a completely literal fashion (an explication of the banality of tourism is accompanied by the expected clips of holiday-makers traveling en masse in crowded busses and river boats), there are some inspired selections from cinema. The Shanghai Gesture especially resonated since I saw it recently and regarded it with complete incredulity. We are after all, expected to accept that that Victor Mature is Egyptian and that Ona Munson and Clyde Fillmore are Chinese, and yet von Sternberg never stoops to having any of the bit players of legitimate Chinese descent speak in broken English: only white characters mockingly adopt offensive pidgin dialect. When Gene Tierney as Poppy enthuses over Mother Gin Sling’s gambling den as a luxuriantly satisfying hive of depravity and evil, a “place where anything could happen” you could almost believe Debord was handing her lines. Mature’s lubricious come-ons also seem like observations on the spectacle itself: when he metaphorically claims that he and Poppy have been alone since the first time they’ve met, there is more than a little truth to it. Within the frame of the camera lens, the pair dominate the visual space, their characters literally larger than life. Even incidental scenes in the film are startling in their appositeness. Late in the film, woman are suspended above the streets in cages, ostensibly to be raffled off as slave chattel based on their allure. But Mother Gin Sling explains that the practice has been long abandoned and this is but a sop for the tourists.
There is plenty of footage from war films here; cavalry charges ad nauseum. As one would expect from a doctrine that sprung in part from Marxist theory, there is plenty of footage from propaganda cinema of the Soviet era as well as that of actual street protests. In the face of the domination of a culture by commodities, Debord’s answer was proletarian uprising (guided by the wise hand of intellectuals) and to be honest there is a kind of fetishism here too in the loving presentation of riot police and students meeting head on in a flurry of batons, tear gas and hurled cobblestones. My enthusiasm for Debord’s stunning assessment of the spectacle in all its particulars waned a bit by the time we reach Hegel, whom he dismisses outright for his dialectic (synthesis = collaboration). Although Debord mentions in passing that the only other tendency in humanity besides outright buying into the spectacle would be a longing for metaphoric sleep, from what I can tell it also inspires an opposite appetite for destruction.
Interesting stuff all around and now I’m excited to dig through my bookshelves and read more about Situationism again. The audience for such a presentation was pretty spotty as you can imagine and a lot of people left early. I think maybe some of the attendees in the theater began to question whether Debord’s barrage of imagery of nude women was entirely in service of a stoic appraisal of exploitation. It was freezing outside when I left and it’s a long walk back to my little corner of the Mission. Luckily there were plenty of sights and sounds to distract me on the walk: liquor store workers pulling down their gates for the night, distracted walkers jabbering on their cels. Hey, what’s that up there?