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.