Adam Curtis is my second-favourite filmmaker. Ahead of the arrival of his new iPlayer film, Bitter Lake, I want to explain why his work matters to me. Read on for my musings on pleasure, complexity, and why his films aren’t fascist.
I work at a university in a media and social sciences department. The beauty of working across media and social sciences at the same time is that you can investigate the ways in which power and media representation are interlinked. Adam Curtis has developed a method for exploring this very issue. I think it is ingenuous.
Before I describe his approach to filmmaking i want to make an important distinction between the form and the content of an artwork. And the best way to illustrate this is to introduce you to my very-favourite filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard.
Jean-Luc Godard: a story for those who still need one
Godard is a French-Swiss filmmaker. He’s in his eighties now and still producing outstanding work, but his reputation was built on a sequence of films he made in the 1960s and early 1970s. Film theory students will know them well.
To get into Godard’s way of thinking, I want you to think about the standard arrangement of a film. It starts off by introducing characters and establishing the plot. It works through the plot towards a climax, after which there is an ending (often a happy one, but an ending either way).
Does this correspond to anything that actually happens in real life? Obviously not. There are no beginnings or endings. Life is just a constant flow of stuff that you are born into and that carries on after you die. Whatever happens, no matter how exciting or definitive, there’s always the next day.
So what is a film plot? It’s an attempt to organise the complexity of real life into something logical and coherent. In other words, a plot frames the world.
Now think about a photograph. A photograph is a selection – it frames the world within the bounds of the lens. There is always something else outside the boundaries of the image.
Let’s explore this. Remember the widely-shared image of a white policeman comforting a black boy in Ferguson at the height of the protests in December? You can see the photo by clicking on this link.
Further down the page linked to above are two other images that purport to show the context in which the photo was taken. There’s a bit of a crowd waiting with their cameras out, and the cop and boy are having a chat. The argument is that the photo was staged. Far from being a spontaneous expression of simple humanity, the photo was cooly planned and framed.
Or was it? Could the other photos themselves be staged? Could they be from after the moment of the hug? Could they be from an entirely different incident, involving entirely different people? It’s impossible to tell from the still images.
Godard had a phrase for this. “It’s not an image of reality: it’s the reality of an image”. In other words, images are not valuable as mirrors on reality. Images are images, and valuable in those terms. Think of them as things in their own right, separate and different from the world they claim to represent.
There are three ways in which artists can respond to this insight. The most common approach is to ignore it. Another approach is to withdraw into silence. But the most interesting (and to me the most valid) is to build this insight into your work.
And this is where we distinguish form and content.
Using film as an example, the content of a film is its plot. In It’s A Wonderful Life, the plot is about George Bailey’s descent into despair, followed by Clarence showing him what the world would have been like without him. In other words, the content is the story that the filmmaker tells us.
The form is the way the material is arranged. The standard form for a film is to have a beginning (introducing the characters), a middle (working through the plot) and an end (plot climax followed by everyone living happily ever after, or whatever). The genre of the film is also part of its form; a film noir, for example, or a western. In documentary film, there might also be a voice-over from a narrator who explains things to the viewer. This is also a formal technique.
Godard played all sorts of games with form and content to make clear to the viewer that his films were artificial constructions. The purpose of this was to avoid fascination; to prevent the viewer suspending disbelief and engaging emotionally with the film as if it was real life.
There was a deeply moral imperative behind this: Europe had been destroyed during Godard’s childhood by political leaders who understood the power of images to manipulate human emotions. Images are dangerous, and moving images especially so. Therefore, Godard forbade the viewer from submitting to the emotional pull of the images before them, and established a more critical, reflexive relationship between viewer and image.
His approach epitomises a particular strain of modernism, which is about showing the scaffolding that holds up the artwork.
For example, Godard would constantly switch genres from film to film and parody the cliches of each genre. This is fairly standard practice now in Hollywood comedy but at the time it was groundbreaking. By highlighting the rules of genre by exaggerating them, Godard ensured that the audience were aware of the film’s artifice.
He also used voice-overs to disrupt the viewer’s experience. One film opens with Godard presenting us with “a plot, for those who still need one”, which reminds the audience that (a) a plot is a construction, and (b) a plot is actually something quite odd. In another film, a character cries “Lord, why have you forsaken me?” to which the voice of God(ard) replies from offscreen: “Because I don’t exist”. Godard reminds you constantly that you’re watching something guided by him; something artificial.
Shortly before he moved away from plotted stories altogether (at least for a while) he made a film called Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. It begins with a classic Brechtian distancing effect: he introduces the main actress by her real name, and then by the name of her character (it’s hard to forget that she’s playing a role after that). Later, Godard sounds like he’s having a theoretical crisis. Over some gorgeous images he provides the following voice-over:
“. . . Is it right that I use these words and these images? Are they the only ones? Aren’t there others? . . .
Am I speaking too loudly? Am I too far away or too close? . . .
By the image, everything is permitted. The best and the worst. . .
Objects exist, and if we take better care of them than of people, it’s because they exist that much more than people. . . .
It’s 4 :45 p. m. Should I speak of Juliette or of the leaves? Since it’s impossible, in any case, to say two things at once, let us say that both tremble gently at the end of an October afternoon.”
How brilliant is that last line? And how different is this voice-over from the usual Hollywood narrator? It’s not every day that you hear your director agonising over how he’s composed his images, and how they might have been different.
So, to summarise: Godard constantly foregrounded the artificiality of his films. The viewer was reminded constantly that they were watching something constructed and therefore not real life.
Before I move on, I’ll share with you perhaps the funniest example of all of Godard’s distancing effects. At the beginning of Tout Va Bien, which starred Jane Fonda during her radical phase, the opening credits are accompanied by the following dialogue:
Voice one: “I want to make a film”.
Voice two: “You’ll need money for that.”
This is followed by images of Godard signing a series of cheques to pay for lighting, cameras, extras etc. You can see the opening sequence here, albeit without English subtitles.
So, before the viewer can settle into a relationship with the images, she is reminded of the commercial, logistical and technological transactions that make them possible. Escapism is tricky after that.
Adam Curtis shares many of Godard’s ethical concerns, but he approaches them in a very different way, as I will now explain.
Adam Curtis: the power of daydreams
Adam Curtis has made films for the BBC since the 1980s, where his position today is essentially sui generis.
Curtis’s subject is power; how power circulates around our societies and how it is mediated through images. I’m very interested in the way he explores this subject in his films.
He seems to spend his days harvesting lost images from BBC archives (including some archives that the BBC were effectively unaware of, as explained in this brilliant Vice piece by Jon Ronson). But instead of using these images as mere content, as a history documentary might do, he does something unusual with them at the level of form. I’ll explain this after I’ve said something about his content.
Curtis is interested in ideas, and how they get taken up (or not) within the culture. He is a political theorist by training, and very skilled indeed at explaining political concepts and why they are relevant to our society.
What he does is this: he tells you the story of a man or woman who had an idea, and traces how that idea influenced other people thereafter. It’s quite simple, really.
Across his mature body of work he has explored the following ideas (and this is far from an exhaustive list):
- Jacobinism and the French Revolution (Inside Story: The Road to Terror)
- Gastev and social engineering; Glushkov and cybernetics; von Naumann and game theory; Milton Friedman and monetarism (Pandora’s Box)
- The violent influence of repressed memory on the political present; Ewen Cameron and mind control; Thatcher and nostalgia (The Living Dead)
- Nick Leeson, casino banking and financial deregulation (25 Million Pounds)
- The influence of Freud on public relations (Century of the Self)
- The influence of Sayyid Qutb on Islamism, and of Leo Strauss on neo-conservatism (The Power of Nightmares)
- R D Laing and antipsychiatry; James Buchanan’s public choice theory; Isaiah Berlin and Frantz Fanon on liberty (The Trap)
- Ayn Rand’s influence on Alan Greenspan and US fiscal policy; William Hamilton’s selfish gene theory (All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace)
- And his new film, Bitter Lake, seems to be about the inability of journalists to cut through the complexity of modern life. But we’ll need to wait until January 25th to see it.
If you’re interested, and you must be, most of his films are available online via a google search. And if you like them, there’s even more of his work available on his exceptional BBC blog.
(Digression: if the hints and previews of Bitter Lake are representative, it will resonate with this remarkable article posted this week by The Conversation. It is claimed that there was more news coverage of the Madeleine McCann story than of all environmental news out together in 2007. That’s striking, but maybe not surprising. More surprising is the claim that there was still more coverage of the Madeleine McCann story than of the environment in 2014!)
From the list above you can see that Curtis would be exploring a rich seam even if he simply made straight documentaries; I’d watch them, anyway. But the form of his films changes the content. For me, this is what makes him such a vital filmmaker.
While he tells the viewer a story in voice-over, we are confronted by the mosaic of images he has stitched together from the archives. It’s easy enough to itemise the ideas he explores in his films, as I tried to above, but it would take a very long time indeed to detail his images. He shows us public information films, found footage, archive news broadcasts, long-forgotten documentary clips, adverts; anything he can lay his hands on. Sometimes the images complement the voice-over fairly straight-forwardly: as you might imagine, his films about PR include clips from adverts that illustrate his argument. But often the images jar against the soundtrack. You either don’t know what you’re looking at, or you don’t know why it’s there. It’s disorientating and bewildering.
I should note at this juncture that many people distrust Curtis’s films. To explain why, let’s remember what Godard worried about: the potential of a director to manipulate the viewer with images. Godard was suspicious of films that tried to tell a story in sequence, and of authoritative voice-overs. Curtis seems at first glance to do all of these things. He seeks to persuade us of the correctness of his worldview by being the privileged voice in his films, and he tries to throw the viewer off guard with his unorthodox collisions of images.
This sounds pretty damning. But as you’ll have guessed, I think there’s more to it.
Postmodernism and pleasure
At the risk of provoking Limmy, I’m going to take a short detour into the idea of narrative. A very short detour.
The history of ideas is full of what are now known as ‘grand narratives’. A grand narrative is an attempt to explain the world. The great faiths are grand narratives, as are things like Marxism (which is based on an idea of historical progress through material struggle), liberalism (which is based on the idea of the human individual as a source of moral claims), and so on. It is integral to each of these grand narratives that they are a whole-world view.
After the horrors of the 20th century, where grand narratives such as National Socialism, Stalinism and military-industrial capitalism destroyed Europe and much of the rest of the world, there was a decline in faith in these grand-narratives. If these narratives are supposed to explain everything, people wondered, how have they led to this – to Auschwitz, the Gulag, napalm?
Another word for a grand narrative is a meta-narrative, and the age in which people believed in these narratives was the modern age. A French philosopher called Jean-Francois Lyotard caught the spirit of his times in 1979 by defining what he called the postmodern condition; that is, the age after modernity. His famous and simple definition was as follows: “incredulity towards meta-narratives”.
What Lyotard meant was that people no longer believed in these grand explanations of the world, because they had proven to be flawed. They couldn’t explain everything, but by trying to they led to disaster. Instead, postmodernism would be characterised by skepticism, and pragmatism, and localism: just because something works in one context doesn’t mean it will work everywhere.
In place of grand narratives, Lyotard and others have suggested we refocus on little-narratives: explanations of a bit of the world in a certain context. And even those little narratives should be held in a degree of skepticism.
Finally, postmodernism is also about pleasure. The heaviness of grand narratives – of Marxist struggle, or Christian grace – are replaced by a playful sense of irony. It’s often sniffed that people who believe in nothing will believe in anything. Postmodernity isn’t quite like that, but there is a sense that we can try ideas out for size without actually committing our souls to them forever. Everything is a bit lighter, more temporary and more frivolous. And more fun.
I think Adam Curtis is a postmodern filmmaker. As such, I think the supposed problems of his style – the ways in which he seems to fail Godard’s tests – are actually deliberate, ironic and complex. Allow me to explain.
The ideas and stories Curtis tells us in his films are quintessentially modern; think of Freud, or game theory, or his films about scientific rationality. But I compiled that earlier list for a reason. His films don’t plough a distinctive furrow, like John Pilger’s, or Ken Loach’s. The ideas he discusses are heterodox, contradictory and at times completely obscure. The modernist approach, like Pilger’s, would be to advocate his worldview at the level of content – essentially, by making the same film over and over again. (That’s an entirely worthwhile goal, incidentally). But Curtis doesn’t do that. He makes films that are the opposite of each other.
That said, in most of his films there’s a background theme about how ideas come to be influential. And yet there he is every time, giving an authoritative voice-over, telling us what to think. Hasn’t he realised the moral dubiety of all of this?
Well, I think he has. For me, Curtis has been engaged over the last thirty years in the construction of a body of work that is coherent at the level of form and deliberately incoherent at the level of content.
In an age when people have lost faith in the capacity of big stories to provide salvation, or progress, or liberation, Curtis digs up those old stories and presents them to us in the dictatorial voice of the instructor. At the same time, he presents the viewer with a dizzying series of surprising, confusing and un-sourced images. The images are not rational or logical, which jars against the linear plausibility of his voice-over.
I think Curtis is engaged in a deep-level critique of the ways in which we receive and process information. While Godard sought to be self-reflexive and show you his guiding hand behind his images, Curtis goes a step further and trusts the viewer to recognise the disjunction between the logical voice-over and the berzerk images.
Crucially, watching a Curtis film is a deeply pleasurable experience. He is such an adept filmmaker he can mimic – and indeed supersede – the visual seductiveness of the advertising agency outputs he talks about so often. The surface beauty of his work makes his critics anxious: they argue that he would be another Leni Riefenstahl if he wasn’t one of the good guys, and that ultimately it makes no difference what side you’re on if you’re manipulating the viewers.
But for me this is central to his brilliance. He uses the visual language of our times as the raw material of his critique. Because this is the world we live in. We are assailed from all sides by images all the time, and visual literacy is a core contemporary skill. (A skill that we should support our students to develop more fully in my university department, it must be said).
So skilled is he as a maker of images, he can construct visually ravishing sequences the equal of any designer…but look at how he arranges them. They don’t make sense. His images collide confusingly, until they collapse into noise.
And this is the point: the images are not supposed to make sense. That’s actually what life is like. We are sold simple explanations of the world, such as Curtis describes in his voice-overs, but the reality of life is quite different. It’s just a constant flow of stuff.
So while Curtis is telling us about Freud, or John Nash, or whatever, the images that accompany his logical, privileged speaking voice are constantly destabilising his credibility. The irrationality of the images implies irrationality in the soundtrack. Everything is problematised. And by challenging the viewer to question the sense of the images we see in is films, Curtis throws into question the provenance and reliability of all of the other billions of images that work on us day after day.
Adam Curtis works alone to make films that often feature only him talking by way of a soundtrack. And yet paradoxically his work does not speak with one voice but rather speaks with many. His body of work does not add up to an integrated system. Instead, it is a polyphonic clash of competing ideas, visualised through dazzling, gorgeous images that do not relate logically to each other and which do not comfortably illustrate the arguments he unfolds. That’s the bravery of his creative position. He is defying us to take his word for whatever he is saying, while overwhelming us with the incomprehensible, random flux of mediated images. And it is in the form of his films – the disjuncture between sound and image – that his deep critique resides.
Curtis, like Jean-Luc Godard, is capable of creating images of sublime beauty. And like Godard, he transforms the intellectual history of the twentieth century into fascinating cinema content. But most of all, Curtis and Godard share a moral concern for the status and impact of images. And where Godard was the quintessential modernist director, Curtis weaves delightful postmodern fables that resonate with the irony, playfulness and complexity of our times.
And hey, if I’m wrong about all of this and he actually is an unreflective demagogue, fair play to him for persuading the BBC to fund his bizarre career.