The Adam Curtis Documentary Machine

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If you’ve watched The Century of Self, The Power of Nightmares – or really, any series by Adam Curtis, (this could keep you busy for a while), then you’re aware of his formidable skills in crafting a compelling documentary. Fans have probably already seen his eagerly awaited most recent series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which claims that computers have failed to liberate us and instead have “distorted and simplified our view of the world around us”. Once again we find Curtis swinging his sword at the notion of power in the twentieth century, slashing his way through the deepest undergrowth of the BBC archives along the way.

As always, his arguments focus on the emergence of significant ideas in the past, from where he traces a path – to how they’ve impacted  the world today. And so, he explores the effects of Ayn Rand‘s ideas on American financial markets, looks into the selfish gene theory which holds that humans are machines controlled by genes, and examines how “the ‘ecosystem’ myth has been used for sinister means”. It’s fantastic as televisual essay, even if that essay repeats bits of his other essays, and occasionally feels like he may be stretching a point or ignoring others – so that his narrative threads can stay intact.

As ever, music features prominently (and if you like his style of music heavy editing, you try his even more musical co-production with theatre company PunchdrunkIt Felt Like A Kiss, featuring music composed by Damon Albarn from Blur.)

It also has an episode titled: “The Monkey In The Machine, and the Machine in the Monkey”.

But don’t trust me, try Adam’s blog at the BBC, which provides great background to his various research topics, or try these radio slabs of Jarvis Cocker interviewing Adam Curtis. As you might expect, Jarvis gives good interview. part 1part 2part 3 (via @emilezile). Bonus round Charlie Brooker show segment – How We All Became Richard Nixon ( aka paranoid and weird ).

And Then Comes The Parody


Above, The Loving Trap Of Pandora’s Nightmares, Written, edited and narrated by Ben Woodhams aka Psychonomy.

Narrates Ben, over the top of some creative commons licenced footage:

“This is a short film about a documentary film maker who made critically lauded films for the BBC, and about how, along the way, he proved that style always triumphs over substance. In 1992, a strange and brilliant That’s Life researcher with a Skinny Puppy CD embarked up on a career producing documentaries about how ideas can spark social movements. Adam Curtis believes that 200,000 guardian readers watching BBC2 can change the world. But this was a fantasy. In fact, he had created the televisual equivalent of a drunken late night wikipedia page with pretensions to narrative coherence.

Combining archive documentary material with interviews, Curtis filled the gaps by vomiting grainy library footage to the screen to a soundtrack Brian Eno and Nine Inch Nails. He had discovered, that it did not matter what footage he used, so long as he changed the shots so bewilderingly fast that the audience didn’t notice the chasm between argument and conclusion. This was especially effective when he simply cut the music mid-bar.”

Autobot Roulette:

2 Comments

  1. thanks to adam curtis, brian eno never had to work again.

  2. “This is a short film about a documentary film maker who made critically lauded films for the BBC, and about how, along the way, he proved that style always triumphs over substance. In 1992, a strange and brilliant That’s Life researcher with a Skinny Puppy CD embarked up on a career producing documentaries about how ideas can spark social movements. Adam Curtis believes that 200,000 guardian readers watching BBC2 can change the world. But this was a fantasy. In fact, he had created the televisual equivalent of a drunken late night wikipedia page with pretensions to narrative coherence.

    Combining archive documentary material with interviews, Curtis filled the gaps by vomiting grainy library footage to the screen to a soundtrack Brian Eno and Nine Inch Nails. He had discovered, that it did not matter what footage he used, so long as he changed the shots so bewilderingly fast that the audience didn’t notice the chasm between argument and conclusion. This was especially effective when he simply cut the music mid-bar.

    And as a result, Thabo Mbeki was swept to power in the next general election.
    Meanwhile in America, a strange and brilliant cameraman was shooting stock footage of Death Valley California. Curtis implied that this was somehow relevant to the labyrinthine argument he was constructing. His audience believed that it would be of crucial significance.

    But this was a fantasy; Curtis never returned to Death Valley, or the cameraman. He had discovered that this did not matter because five minutes later his audience had simply forgotten about them, but this did not matter because Curtis spoke with such an impeccable, authoritative BBC manner, that the audience took even gross generalisations and unsupported value judgements to be the absolute truth; they simply went along with it.

    And thanks to Adam Curtis, Brian Eno never had to work again.”

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