Director Adam Curtis has dedicated much of his career to testing the limits of experiential forms of art and media, best exemplified by his 2010 documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, which examines 20th-century politics through an intellectual montage of pop-cultural moments and texts, often wildly mixing high and low to impressionistic effect. However, Curtis isn’t merely a collage filmmaker and his new documentary, Bitter Lake, is a profound testament to harnessing newly formulated ambitions beyond merely proffering archival footage employed in new contexts.
Effectively, Curtis attempts to locate an operative binary for late-20th-century grand narratives as they pertain to the Western mythologies undergirding international diplomacy. Curtis arrives at the conclusion that leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair constructed a simplistic narrative of good and evil to reconcile complex and unknowable forces beyond domestic lines (feels like there’s a word, or words, missing here), such that nations like Afghanistan became locations to be pummeled and eradicated, given that the rhetoric being offered rendered their peoples as sub-human. Curtis makes these points very clearly in a voiceover that guides the film’s larger themes, and though he prefers to put these points very succinctly, the 138 minutes of footage and material surrounding them achieve much finer articulations, approaching a revisionist history of Western decadence that positions imperial rule as synonymous with cultural dominance.
Curtis states early that Bitter Lake seeks to understand “why stories we share stopped making sense,” but he’s devoted less to attempting a reconstitution of these narratives than dismantling them to reveal further absurdities regarding nationalistic formations. These tactics start with a sampling of images from international conflicts, with one segment culminating in a blood-spattered lens, as the camera operator attempts to wipe it away, only to smear it further. Moments like this provide visual confirmation of Curtis’s argumentative mode, which isn’t attempting to “wipe clean” history, but messy it, complicate it.
That takes cheekier forms as well, most notably the music choices, which range from Kanye West to Nine Inch Nails. Even more unusual, however, are samples from other film scores, most notably music from John Carpenter’s score for The Fog and Cliff Martinez’s for Drive. In these choice, Curtis offers insight to his encoding, as if attempting to embed thematic resonances within the very samples being chosen, although neither of these music pieces communicate those aims explicitly. In other words, if one recalls Carpenter’s film as being about the return of myth or, more ominously, the return of the repressed of myth, then the music cue injects those very premises within Bitter Lake. Combine the baby-faced psychopath of Drive, presented here in the form of Reagan, and you have a very clear statement of damning thematic aims transmogrified into pop-cultural essences, chopped and screwed by Curtis’s bold juxtapositions.
More straightforward but nearly equally affecting, (T)ERROR displays a staggering propensity for carefully examining its unauthorized scenario without succumbing to either too insular or too general a set of assertions. Directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe provide access to Saeed, an employee of the F.B.I., whose counter-terrorism tactics include recruiting ex-cons like Saeed and paying them minimum-wage level sums in return for their efforts to infiltrate suspected, stateside al-Qaeda. For Saeed, that means holing up in a Pittsburgh home, stalking Facebook for suspicious activity from his assigned “person of interest,” and smoking joints to ease the tension. Cabral and Sutcliffe compellingly integrate themselves as off-screen presences, asking on-the-nose questions regarding Shariff’s allegiances, which prompts reflections on nearly 50 years of American radical movements, including the Black Panthers of the 1960s and Muslim allegiance groups in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, Cabral and Sutcliffe wisely keep most of the focus within Saeed’s home, as he expounds on his desires to become a bakery chef and laments how his criminal activities of the past have now forced him away from his children. The film lingers over close-ups of baked cakes and hot dogs with an understated urgency that not only recalls Saeed’s quotidian, civilian status, but also provides a substantial visual marker of the absurd overlap between domestic comforts and fears. Saeed is capable of maintaining an acceptable form of long-term desire related to the American dream, but for now, he’s engaged in a stone-faced act of federal-sanctioned deception, with little formal training or instruction, and, as one scene suggests, not even getting all of the money he’s promised for his services.
Saeed’s target, named Khalifah, is a Muslim living in the nearby apartments, whose initially positioned by Saeed as a “thug terrorist,” which the film supports through mugshots and surveillance footage. Yet, most shockingly, Cabral and Sutcliffe start interviewing Khalifah nearly halfway through the film, without informing Saeed of their decision to do so. In that gesture, (T)ERROR becomes as much about the willingness of the American psyche to allow itself to be probed and documented for the purposes of either fame or, more likely in the case of these men, achieving some semblance of being understood. Cabral and Sutcliffe complicate these terms even further by asserting Saeed’s sociopathic tendencies, since his job entails becoming close with a subject and then double-crossing him.
But in having the film make such a diagnosis about Saeed, the film implicitly makes an identical diagnosis about its filmmakers, who are effectively performing the same gesture. Khalifah becomes an empathetic figure given his ultimate arrest for what appears to be a photo of himself at a gun range, but (T)ERROR isn’t merely a call for social justice, even though that’s certainly on the film’s mind. Rather, it takes that point as almost an afterthought to interweaving a thriller-style show of cat and mouse, where the filmmakers figure as prominently into the conversation as their subjects. Reflexive gestures of this kind do no simply make known the film’s present-tense construction, but probe both filmmakers’ culpability in assisting the formation of deception within a social media-based milieu.
Forgoing the more complex procedural structure of (T)ERROR for a talking-heads essay film, Drone examines the titular robotic bombers as the “ultimate voyeurs” in American assaults on Pakistan and attempts to construct a damning case against United States foreign policy regarding civilian casualties. Director Tonje Hessen Schei disguises polemical call-to-activist-arms through syllogistic forms of logic, which hinge on maudlin rhetorical gestures that belittle the stronger evidence presented throughout. The most egregious of these errors comes through interviews with several of the drone pilots, who are asserted to be little more than expert video gamers sitting in a small room, pushing buttons from 10,000 miles away in order to detonate their targets. As one expert puts it: “These soldiers used to be Top Gun; now they’re Revenge of the Nerds.”
Such facile inclusions seek too narrow an understanding of the procedures, especially since Schei is interested in the drone pilots not for revealing their role in the process, but victimizing them through manipulative testimonies that finds one pilot recounting each of his kills, before concluding (and repeating) how numbing the process became. If such easy terms weren’t ruinous enough for the film’s arguments, a late shot of the same pilot, standing in Times Square and staring melancholically at an advertisement for the Air Force, surely is.
The film’s stronger moments hew more closely to examining the case file, which clearly demonstrates that the United States could be prosecuted for war crimes in their strikes against densely civilian populated areas, which Schei convincingly articulates through on-the-ground footage of Pakistan and the Islamabad Court. Nevertheless, Schei too reductively scapegoats President Obama as the aggressor, juxtaposing shots of dead civilians in Pakistan, with Obama claiming the drone strikes have been as concentrated and strategic as possible. In effect, Schei seeks a metaphorical assertion of the drones as a physical extension of the president’s will, which causes unnecessary casualties abroad and fosters PTSD at home. Thus, Drone is less interested in deepening the complexities and ethics of international drone warfare than tracing a readily identifiable line of causes, which serve primarily as compliments to Schei’s self-serving dramatic agenda.
True/False runs from March 5—8.