The emperor of middlebrow has no clothes! Phew. It feels good to say it out loud. I speak as a recovering acolyte of documentary-maker Adam Curtis, and after seeing the usual waves of adulation ripple across the internet for the short film he made for Charlie Brooker's 2014 Wipe, I'm worried a lot of otherwise clear-thinking people might need some help speeding up their convalescence.
Curtis, the patrician-voiced idol of men with computers everywhere, seems to have fallen off with the vertiginous jolt of one of his own jump-cuts. His narration of the five minute 2014 Wipe film begins:
“So much of the news this year has been hopeless, depressing, and above all, confusing. And the response is 'oh dear'.”
As he outlines his thesis, the following phrases flash up on the screen in block capitals:
EBOLA / ISIS / AUSTERITY / UKRAINE / CHILD ABUSE / SYRIA / RIGGING FOREIGN EXCHANGE / PHONE HACKING / GROPING DISC JOCKEYS / EAT EVEN MORE VEGETABLES / OR DIE
The Big Bad in our “odd, non-linear world” is an apparently new evil of managed, orchestrated confusion; sophisticated smoke and mirrors from the main players on the political stage. The public's defeatist response to this bewilderment, Curtis argues, has “become a central part of a new system of political control”. This system of control consists of a few powerful and mendacious propagandists spinning webs of media confusion to overwhelm and subdue our puny brains – “the goal is to undermine people's perceptions of the world,” he explains, as punchdrunk ambient sounds play underneath, “so we never really know what is really happening”.
Now, which of those big 2014 news stories are confusing? A few of them, perhaps – the situation in Ukraine is certainly complex; its actors, their politics and their motives in different parts of the country are a little obscure – but this is hardly unusual for a country in such turmoil. The misdeeds of financiers are also pretty hard to fully understand (mostly because they're boring, let's face it), for the majority of us without a schooling in modern banking and its regulation – and sure, the besuited warriors of neoliberalism get away with what they get away with in part because their misdeeds are hard to understand. But look at the rest of that list. The revelations of celebrity child abuse in the 1970s are horrific, but what's confusing about the issue? What's confusing about the rise of ISIS, exactly? What's confusing about phone hacking? What's confusing about the scourge of ebola? What's confusing about the evolving science of nutrition?
More importantly, how are these organically-arising and almost entirely unconnected world events being spun – by a few sinister modern day Machiavellis, of whom only one is named--to bewilder and bedazzle ordinary people?
The short segment detailing how Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov used his training in avant-garde art to confound the public is very interesting – if he really has been backing parties opposed to President Putin. But is the notion of “bewildering theatre”, or “ceaseless shapeshifting”, from one of Putin's many advisors, really the reason he has held power for 15 years? It's not for the rather less exciting reason that Putin has been locking up and intimidating dissidents, journalists and rivals and changing laws to his advantage, like autocrats always do?
I'm not going to get into the montage style of his documentaries, though this is crucial to understanding how Curtis hoodwinks viewers into thinking he has all the answers. This note-perfect three-minute YouTube parody does everything that needs doing – if you haven't seen it, do watch it, it's as devastating a piece of deconstruction as when South Park picked apart Family Guy's 'joke' format. There is one more critique of his work that is incredibly eye-opening: Laurence Tennant's excellent piece on Curtis and his links to the politics of Frank Furedi and the Living Marxism network. Tennant gets at the nub of his appeal here:
“Curtis is only able to get away with this shit because his fanboys fancy themselves way too clever to read things on their surface; they have to be part of the exclusive in-group that always gets the deeper meaning, and Curtis flatters them and leads them on.”
He appeals, in fact, to exactly the same desires for hidden meaning as 9/11 truthers or other conspiracy theorists – look at the YouTube comments on his documentaries, they're full of exuberant exultations that he is the only one getting to the 'real truth'; the top comment on the 2014 Wipe film begins: “I was gobsmacked this got through the Beeb Self-Censoring machine”. Why haven't the Freemason-lizard-Zionists silenced him??? Astonishing. A decade ago, I was a huge fan too. I loved The Power of Nightmares and The Century of Self, and loved them in part for exactly this reason – at last, here is someone brave and smart enough to get to the 'real truth'. Eventually I found myself wailing 'oh now hang on!' after one blazé non-sequitur or bizarre generalisation too many. Curtis spends a lot of time talking about other people's ideologies; here is Lawrence Tennant's observation on the politics of the man himself:
"To read Curtis as a leftist, you have to assume he spends much of his time being ironic or provocative — like when he's singing the praises of Henry Kissinger or Enoch Powell, taking at face value that the neocons wanted to spread democracy, saying "today it is possible to argue that we have all become gay white negroes", or insisting that he's not a leftist. But even read as irony or provocation, there's something off about his films from a leftist perspective, like the way they eschew economic relations, deny the agency of the mass of ordinary people in deciding their own fate, and display zero interest in the welfare of capitalism's victims.”
This, to me, is the clincher on Curtis: he is fascinated by the intellectuals, and thoroughly bored by the masses. Ordinary people are without agency or distinction – in fact, they're just not there at all, except in the occasional mass crowd scene: storming the gates, or praying, or performing in a North Korean arirang, like the drones they are. Let's hope the Charlie Brooker short was just a bit lazy because he was busy with his soon-to-air new project: a 140 minute documentary for BBC iPlayer which focuses heavily on Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan,” he writes in this blog-trailer for the programme, “is the place that has repeatedly confronted politicians, as their power declines, with the terrible truth - that they cannot understand what is going on any longer. Let alone control it... I have tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan.”
This does not bode well – the catastrophe of Afghanistan's recent history requires many things, but I'm not sure a more emotional depiction of events is one of them. Perhaps Curtis might like to read this excellent 9,443 word essay in the LRB by James Meek explaining the history and complexities of the British role in the conflict, written by a journalist who spent time in Afghanistan with British troops, no less. Or, perhaps he'd like to just use the search function on the BBC internal archive and ask an assistant to clear the rights for Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works? Afghanistan suits Curtis because it gives him a chance to give two groups of people a kicking: politicians, for not being able to understand, and journalists, for not being able to explain (again, maybe he should read Meek?). His blog-trailer for the BBC documentary takes on a sententious, Furedi-esque 'everyone's wrong but me' aspect:
“And journalism - that used to tell a grand, unfurling narrative - now also just relays disjointed and often wildly contradictory fragments of information. Events come and go like waves of a fever. We - and the journalists - live in a state of continual delirium, constantly waiting for the next news event to loom out of the fog - and then disappear again, unexplained. And the formats - in news and documentaries - have become so rigid and repetitive that the audiences never really look at them.
In the face of this people retreat from journalism and politics. They turn away into their own worlds, and the stories they and their friends tell each other. I think this is wrong, sad, and bad for democracy - because it means the politicians become more and more unaccountable.”
Politicians are increasingly unaccountable, sure, the information age can be exhausting, sure, but this diatribe is baffling. Formats have become rigid and repetitive? In the era of web 2.0, tablets, crowd-sourcing, live-blogging, social media, Wikileaks and so on, his greatest concern about news journalism is that too much is staying the same? And this critique is not just baffling – it's pretty rich for Curtis to condemn anyone, least of all journalists, for distributing “disjointed information”: his entire career has become a series of grandiloquent homages to the art of non-sequitur.
Frankly, it's pretty rich for him to condemn journalists at all, given the way he practices the profession. He is concerned, he says, for 'people'. He constantly talks about 'people' as an abstract group. 'People retreat from politics', 'they turn away into their own worlds', he says. There is never any data to prove the heft of these generalisations, about the immeasurably complex and contradictory mass that is 'people', and there are precious few interviews (especially original interviews) used to illustrate his arguments. Allow yourself to dwell on this for a second: Curtis has the glorious bounty of the entire BBC archives at his fingertips, he ranges across continents and across decades in his subject matter, and which voice dominates all of his programmes? Just one. The omnipotent narrator...
Adam Curtis rose to fame by documenting small cliques of ideologues – most notably the American neoconservatives and Islamists featured in The Power of Nightmares – who sought to impose their all-encompassing doctrines onto a chaotic world. People who sought to simplify world events into one single narrative, and do so to their own benefit. Sound like anyone else you know?
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