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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.