Archival Trouble

The fiction-free science fiction of Adam Curtis
by Michael Atkinson  posted February 16, 2012
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

One would imagine that a documentary filmmaker working within the auspices of the BBC would have a difficult time establishing a personal voice, rewriting recent history, pursuing his or her own darkest fears, and/or limning a worldview at hair-raising odds with the established media posture. But this is the troubling stealth phenomenon that is Adam Curtis, the 21st century's calm, reasonable, insidious Cassandra, whose accumulating film corpus passes itself off in the mainstream as a set of mere history lessons slouching leftwardly, all about the State of Things and How We Got Here. As the filmography builds, however—with his new three-part film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2010), what could be characterized as pure-grade Curtis totals over 24 hours of thick archival trouble—it's clear that Curtis is hardly just a television pedagogue. He is, rather, a modern apocalyptist, a "deep politics" practitioner focused on outlining the vectors of force behind recent history that all of us have conscientiously forgotten, and which are largely responsible for the terminally compromised world we live in.

Curtis's brand of deep politics isn't theorist Peter Dale Scott's—he's concerned less with deliberate conspiracy than with the cascade of sociopolitical dominoes, beginning somewhere mysteriously decades ago, tumbling in a semi-secret dialectical train of disaster since, and culminating in flat-out catastrophe, be it 9/11 or the world economic meltdown or merely the Reagan-era state of rampaging consumerist narcissism. Formally, Curtis manufactures his flowcharts with the simplest means available: archival footage, talking heads, calm but ominous narration, associative montage, a pervasive sense of doomsday. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is paradigmatic: Curtis begins, as his Richard Brautigan-quoting title suggests, with the familiar suspicion that the mechanization of our lives is winding inexorably toward a dystopian nightmare in which the matrix of microprocessors and A.I.'s will end up commanding us, not vice versa.

But right away it's clear that Curtis isn't hypothesizing about a terrifying future, but unearthing the hidden patterns that have created the present moment. The villains are not machines. Curtis trips backward, as is his wont, to the '50s and the rise of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist creed in turn gave fitful birth to a spate of influential ideologies, all of which decided that both nature and human society were essentially self-sustaining, equilibrium-seeking logical mechanisms, and could be managed thus. "This is the story," Curtis intones, "of the rise of the dream of the self-organizing system, and the strange machine fantasy of nature that underpins it." The tales he tells to illustrate this harrowing and almost completely overlooked social saga all intertwine, and run from the "spaceship Earth" ideas of Buckminster Fuller, the communes that followed, the pessimistic forecasts of the Club of Rome, the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the genesis of the wholly fabricated Tutsi-Hutu dichotomy that turned Rwanda into a killing field more than once, the career of Dian Fossey, the late-century rollercoaster of economic feast and famine, and the work of theorist/geneticist George Price, who believed that humans were ultimately the slaves of their own genetic imperatives, and who demonstrated mathematically that both altruism and genocide were therefore rational acts, from "a gene's eye view" of things.

There's more, all of it reflecting back upon now; Curtis is nothing if not a staunch proselytizer for the idea of the past never being quite past. All Watched Over is more than a counter-story. Like all of Curtis's work it is approximately half well-circulated history and half "deep" background—that is, storylines and historical angles that have been pervasively and deliberately neglected by the gatekeepers of knowledge and information. The film feels something like a Craig Baldwin delusion-farce turned chillingly, menacingly factual, and the facts accrete into an interrogation of psychotic hubris. The Frankenstein monster constructed by the scientists and demagogues and politicians in All Watched Over is the last half-century or so of life on Earth, which in its ultimate tally amounts to a scoresheet of unimaginable injustice, mountains of bodies, and untold environmental ruin.

Curtis is in reality telling just one story, again and again in various threads and tangents and in dazzling three- or four-hour chunks, reaching back to the immediate postwar years and then forward to the present over and over, limning an infinitely complex genogram of our present existence. Ironically, for a history-rewriting filmmaker/producer boxing so much information into evenings of television, Curtis is fierce about the disastrous effects brought about by the artificial and intellectualized imposition of order. He began in his present mode with 1992's Pandora's Box, a massive autopsy on the worldwide cataclysms that unrolled as a result of every kind of postwar effort to systematize, organize, compel, and codify humanity, from Soviet over-industrialization to game-theory Cold War strategies to Keynesian economics to nuclear-power utopianism. Politically, this is a rocket targeted not at the Right per se, but upward, at the power elite, whose perpetual folly in trying to maximize profit and control leads ceaselessly to societal breakdown—a condition very often beside the point for the elite in question, once they've stood to benefit. The Century of the Self (2002) goes all attack-ad on this dynamic, specifically homing in on propagandist/marketing mahatma Edward Bernays, and how he used Freudian psychoanalytic insights to initiate the gold rush of institutionalized thought control—advertising, propaganda, public relations—that could be said to absolutely dominate 20th-century public discourse.

The Century of the Self

The Century of the Self

Curtis's vision seemed wholly formed at first, despite the fact that he's obviously digging up unknown connections with each new project. But it took the spiral mindquake of 9/11 for Curtis's reverse-engineered prophecies to gain a global profile. The Power of Nightmares (2004) follows the gunpowder trails from the mid-century (uniting Muslim Brotherhood messiah Sayyid Qutb and neocon pope-king Leo Strauss as complementary agents of desolation) to the attacks of 2001, and then maintains that, just as the farcical depiction of the USSR as a global spider kingdom of evil influence is destroyed by direct testimony from CIA agents and a lying Donald Rumsfeld in old news footage, the sudden postulation of Al Qaeda as a terrifying, organized worldwide threat was a manufactured myth used by Western governments and agencies to broaden and tighten their grip on international power systems and the profit to be gained therein.

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

 The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

It's a chastening, horrifying notion, but even if Curtis pulls out the agitprop stops himself (his way with menacing dramatic music complements Michael Moore's comic use of pop song montages), you'd be foolish to dismiss him. If Al Qaeda eventually appeared to be less of a myth than he'd maintained, the reason why scans like another Adam Curtis scenario: Bush II's efforts to instill fear, demonize Muslims and take over Iraq simply created the blowback of massive Al Qaeda recruitment and the creation of ad hoc Al Qaeda affiliates, a cold fact explicated since by piles of research-filthy books, Pentagon reports, and declassified State Department releases. Power exerts pressure on the masses, due to heedless institutional gluttony or blind intellectual vanity or both, and shit comes out the other end. The power, meanwhile, persists.

Critic J. Hoberman pegged Curtis in a sense when he suggested that his worldview was closer to DeLillo than Chomsky—if we can first take another moment to reflect on the oddity of those choices, that spectrum, in an office at the BBC. True enough, Curtis's corpus has the seething, portentous air of science fiction, without being fictional, and the disconnect there suggests a new kind of culture that may well be a natural byproduct of the postwar era's steamrolling power structures, capitalistic need for growth, ecological devastation, and extra-human technology. Why should the old categories of history, science fiction, journalistic truth, conspiracism and apocalyptic vision retain their mutual exclusivity, as the conceptual barriers between news and entertainment, reality and virtuality, government and corporation, national and global, all vanish like stray broadcast signals? For many of us, a lot of Curtis's historical weaves are a fiction-free science fiction, a massive grid of Orwellian-Dickian-Casolaroesque intimations and eruptions that reveals a nascent totalitarianism spreading like a mushroom colony beneath the surface of everything we see and hear—all of which, of course, is devised and programmed by corporations and governments. If you don't think things have gotten radically different and substantially worse, then you don't, like most people, remember anything significant about the way life was before. As it is, observers who know firsthand about how society chugged, climbed, and conceived of itself before World War II, before Bernays, before the invention of the computer, before the International Monetary Fund, are becoming fewer every year. Attrition will guarantee the absence of informed and memoried resistance soon enough, an inevitability that may well haunt Curtis at night. As it should us. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, directed by Adam Curtis
Photo Gallery: Archival Trouble


February 11–April 14, 2012 Adam Curtis: The Desperate Edge of Now


documentary  |  Adam Curtis  |  television  |  political film


Revolutionary Mode by Richard Porton
More: Article Archive


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct