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Adam Curtis (#110 of 5)

True/False Film Fest 2015: Bitter Lake, (T)ERROR, & Drone

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True/False Film Fest 2015: <em>Bitter Lake</em>, <em>(T)ERROR</em>, & <em>Drone</em>
True/False Film Fest 2015: <em>Bitter Lake</em>, <em>(T)ERROR</em>, & <em>Drone</em>

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.

Film Comment Selects 2012: Transfer and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

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Film Comment Selects 2012: <em>Transfer</em> and <em>All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace</em>
Film Comment Selects 2012: <em>Transfer</em> and <em>All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace</em>

The basic premise of Transfer immediately intrigues: An elderly couple, Anna and Hermann Goldbeck (Ingrid Andree and Hans-Michael Rehberg), decides to try out an experimental operation that will allow them to extend their lives by mentally inhabiting the younger bodies of Apolain (B.J. Britt) and Sarah (Regine Nehy). As Anna is suffering from a terminal illness, both she and Hermann feel an especially urgent need to give this procedure a try. But Damir Lukacevic, the writer and director of this sci-fi drama, isn’t willing to rest on that premise alone to generate interest; he has bigger game in mind.

By making Apolain and Sarah African refugees who feel a desperate need to assent to this operation just so they can support their families back home, Lukacevic adds a level of social commentary to an already fairly heady mix. Anna and Hermann are wealthy white people who are so driven to extend their lives with each other that they, at least initially, don’t think much about the troubling moral implications underlying the mere idea of inhabiting someone else’s (younger, stronger) flesh. The fact that the two bodies they decide to inhabit are black suggests an attempt on Lukacevic’s part to address thorny issues of racism and post-colonial exploitation. Hermann, for instance, briefly voices discomfort at the idea of taking on these bodies (“Aren’t they too black?” he asks in an early scene); Apolain, in a later scene halfway through the film, expresses a palpable class resentment toward their “masters,” accusing them of using their bodies entirely for their own personal gain.

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
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.

True/False Film Fest 2010: Restrepo, Familia, and It Felt Like a Kiss

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True/False Film Fest 2010: <em>Restrepo</em>, <em>Familia</em>, and <em>It Felt Like a Kiss</em>
True/False Film Fest 2010: <em>Restrepo</em>, <em>Familia</em>, and <em>It Felt Like a Kiss</em>

[Click here to read the second dispatch.]

“Thanks to our incredible volunteers, who are getting drunker as the day goes on but still doing an incredible job.” That intro—I forget for which film—was right on both parts: the 600 strong volunteers of True/False surely make a lot of things possible, even if they were all drinking (one of the big venues has a full bar) to while away the tedium of passing out queue tickets. (Special points for inventiveness to the man who stayed in character as Captain Jack Sparrow. He had the swaying walk down and everything.)

But, arguably, the main thing that makes True/False so unspeakably awesome is that they do not care about premieres. At all. Without a doubt, the premiere culture is one of the worst aspects of any festival that can’t get any good ones but still wants their red carpet moment. It’s always some kind of damn mediocre ensemble drama starring Glenn Close or someone, and it always fades into oblivion, and it’s pernicious.

The True/False guys—by which I mean festival heads David Wilson and Paul Sturtz—clearly don’t care about any of this, which is fantastic. (What’s even better is that the Secret Screenings—an idiocy necessary to preserve the “premiere status” of terrific films—are really, really good. The one I saw has the potential to be one of the Films Of The Year. I hope more people pay attention when it’s officially “premiered” or whatever. You get the feeling even if they had premiere status, they wouldn’t abuse it.) What they’ve constructed is a micro-festival that offers a strong personal voice and an argument (roughly, form matters just as much as the polemic, and your righteousness alone will not save you). This is a micro-fest done right.

OK. Let’s wrap up these films.

Winding Through McWorld Michael Moore’s Sicko

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Winding Through McWorld: Michael Moore’s Sicko

The Weinstein Company

Winding Through McWorld: Michael Moore’s Sicko

“There’s an element in the thinking of some people: ’We don’t want people to be educated, healthy and confident, because they would get out of control.’ The top 1% of the world’s population own 80% of the world’s wealth. It’s incredible that people put up with it! But they’re poor, they’re demoralized and they’re frightened—and therefore they think perhaps the safest thing to do is take orders and hope for the best.”—Tony Benn, Former Member of British Parliament, in Sicko

Mr. Benn’s wise words get to the Tootsie Roll center of Michael Moore’s searching, hilarious, heartbroken American anthem, Sicko. Moore is out to reduce fear, restore morale and advocate for Americans to keep more of what little money they have in their pockets.

If this were the 1960’s, he’d have to die or be humiliated into hiding. Hoover’s F.B.I. would have found some way to make him disappear from the national scene—maybe step out of the way of some wacko assassin or send an underage hooker up to Moore’s hotel room. In 2007 McWorld, all it takes to neutralize Moore’s message is to remind everybody that he’s fat and disheveled. Or so it would seem after rocket attacks like Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to inspire widespread rebellion in the land.