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Like Half-Forgotten Dreams: Adam Curtis and the Fragments of History

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Like Half-Forgotten Dreams: Adam Curtis and the Fragments of History

What do Fidel Castro, Sigmund Freud and Rock Hudson have in common? Aside from their well-known beards, they’re all part of the interconnected fragments of history in the documentaries of Adam Curtis.

Curtis’s work is recognizable from the first frame: the titles in bold Helvetica or sometimes Arial, a stream of chopped-up news clips, found footage and promotional films, and Curtis’s measured narrator’s voice, sounding so much like a professor explaining with infinite patience things which are quite obvious to him. His programs, almost all produced for the BBC, are historical and political critiques with provocative theses. The Power of Nightmares states that both American neoconservatism and Islamic extremism owe their rise to the failures of utopian liberalism, while The Century of the Self argues that Freud’s legacy underpins modern consumerism and undermines modern democracy.

If the most visible American documentary ethos lies somewhere between the sober reverence of Ken Burns and the shiny agitprop of Michael Moore, Adam Curtis’s work, in contrast, feels fundamentally British: heavily analytical and laced with cynicism about those in power, no matter what government or ideology. It’s difficult to find popular analogues to his work; the closest might be politically conscious exposés like The Corporation or the films of Robert Greenwald. But those films are constructed as a form of activism; they want to reveal injustice in the world in an effort to fight it, and those narratives have genuine villains to lay blame upon.

Curtis’s films, on the other hand, are more detached. They’re concerned with people and events inasmuch as they are manifestations of ideas or systems that are bigger than all of us. He has disclaimed the label of documentaries for his work, preferring to think of them as something closer to journalistic essays. It’s big-picture history in which we see those in power fumbling in the dark and dealing with the results of their attempts to manage society. In an interview with Errol Morris, Curtis said that “History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they’re taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended.” In Curtis’s work, the ever-present feeling is certainty giving way to confusion; a common refrain in the narration or in interviews is someone in power who “knew something was seriously wrong.”

This feeling is reinforced by Curtis’s collage style in building his films. He uses very little original footage in his work, save for a new interview peppered here and there. Instead, the bulk of the program is constructed from bits and pieces of old news clips and films, mostly pulled from the massive BBC archives. Starting with his first major work, the six-part Pandora’s Box in 1992, this archival footage has served as the visual backdrop for Curtis as he unfurls his historical narrative for the audience. He cuts his footage in a way that would make a die-hard montage theorist proud—new meaning rises from the juxtaposition of images. He not only uses footage as a straightforward illustration of his points, but often plays with images to create ironic counterpoint and visual jokes.

In Pandora’s Box, Curtis intercuts upbeat footage from the cartoon Mr. Bug Goes to Town with discussion of a trial concerning the pesticide DDT, and in 1995’s The Living Dead he punctuates a segment about the C.I.A.’s failed Operation Acoustic Kitty (an attempt to surgically alter and program housecats to become living surveillance devices) with meowing cats and shots of dripping milk. One of the best uses of counterpoint comes at the end of 1999’s The Mayfair Set, an examination of the radical reshaping of postwar Britain’s economic and political landscape. Over the closing credits, Curtis plays a segment from his interview with corporate raider Jim Slater, one of the major subjects of the program. It’s a disarming little moment—almost an outtake—as the elderly cardigan-clad Slater gleefully discusses with mathematical precision the optimal strategy for the board game Monopoly.

Using montage in this manner requires walking a fine line; if you are too on-the-nose about it, the result is something that’s a parody of itself, like a bad VH1 Behind the Music episode. However, if the collage is too obtuse in its form and strained in its connections, you run the risk of creating visual noise that saps your argument of its power. Curtis navigates between the two extremes because using this collage style is necessary to engage with the ideas he’s trying to talk about. Film and television are concrete visual forms, and to successfully make a film about an idea you need to give it a form and a face. At least organizations such as the C.I.A. or the Soviet Politburo have characters with narrative weight; it’s a more difficult task to put a face on abstractions such as technocratic rationalism or consumerism.

Century of the Self uses footage of Sigmund Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays to illustrate the characters in Curtis’s narrative. But to give form to the ideas that Freud and Bernays created, you have to make a chain of connections. The way Curtis uses clips goes beyond illustrating an idea toward illustrating the expression of that idea: the clips are not just convenient historical markers to put us in a time and place, but are artifacts of the core idea that Curtis is discussing. In his visual essay style, we can trace a line from the scenes of mass industrial production designed to serve people’s desires, to the advertisements designed to appeal to them, to the focus groups designed to discover them, to the germs of psychological theory that drive all of it. Stripped of their original contexts and ideologies, connections between these clips are formed at a blistering pace with an identifiable rhythm. Curtis likes to repeat and reuse shots to generate patterns, not only over multiple sequences but also over multiple episodes or even in different series. Some clips he returns to time and again include a detonation of a swastika by the Allies in Nuremberg and a color TV broadcast of Nixon and Khrushchev one-upping each other. These serve not only as convenient historical shorthand, but are also loaded with meaning that can be directly plugged into his lines of argumentation.

This mélange of visual stimulation is matched by the soundtracks to his pieces, which approximate his chaotic web of history. Dissonant music cues and jarring effects punctuate sedate interview clips, and they’re all tied together by Curtis’s ever-present narration. In terms of sound design, Curtis has cited John Carpenter as a major influence and uses quite a few music cues from the director’s films; those are woven together with a host of other famous bits of score and historical pop songs. The complicated relationship Curtis’s programs have with copyright is perhaps one of the reasons that his work, while award-winning in Britain, has little visibility outside of it.

This has led to the Internet as the primary way that new viewers can find out about Curtis and see his programs. In an interview with The Register, Curtis said that he hoped an Internet audience that could easily pause, rewind, and re-watch programs would find complex and intricate programming more accessible. At the same time, he has made short films for other programs that are perfect for the length limits and attention span of YouTube.

And yet his most adventurous work has not been for the Internet. It Felt Like a Kiss was a theater production for the 2009 Manchester International Festival, and while it was designed as an immersive art installation, Curtis’s video portion of the event easily stands alone. Featuring music composed by Damon Albarn of Blur and The Gorillaz, the film pushes Curtis’s signature style to its extremes. It’s entirely devoid of narration, relying instead on alienating titles superimposed over the video. Even outside the collage context, Curtis’s choices in footage are interesting in their own right, with disturbing psychotherapy sessions, interviews with the Manson Family, and clips from an Iraqi miniseries about Saddam Hussein (notably edited by Terence Young, the director of From Russia with Love).

It’s also a bit darker and perhaps more nihilistic than Curtis’s other work. Without the humanizing touch lent by Curtis’s voice, we’re left alone in a chaotic void of glued-together fragments of history. It drives the point home that the world is frighteningly complex, but the problem isn’t that we can’t make sense of it; the tragedy is most people don’t even try. A common criticism of Curtis’s work is that in pointing out the flaws and failures of the ruling class’s attempts to change the world, he offers no solutions in their place. He shows how elites driven by ideology have misused power, but he declines to say how that power should rightfully be used. For the most part, those critics are right. And Curtis’s response? He said, “My job is not to try and change the world but describe it.”

Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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