#hagiograph: in praise of… adam curtis

it’s not that many people who could go from teaching politics at Oxford to writing and researching for a TV magazine show specialising in consumer complaints items and segments about singing animals or people who’ve memorised the phonebook, and come out the other side with reason to have their head held high. that is, however, exactly what Adam Curtis did. after the academic peaks and the That’s Life! troughs, he emerged as a brilliant documentary film maker.

working in TV he learned the skill and power of using montages of archive footage and this came to be the trait by which he is best known and by which his films are most easily recognised. following early work on a documentaries about post-war housing in Britain and America’s involvement the First World War, in 1992 Curtis made his first series Pandora’s Box.

Subtitled A Fable From The Age of Science, the six part series traced the spread of what Curtis sees as a deeply cynical and unhealthy scientism and technocratic rationalism, through topics as seemingly diverse as Soviet industrialisation, the discovery of DDT and British economic policy in the 1960s and 70s. Choosing to refer to the series as a fable, rather than several, Curtis demonstrated his commitment to and skill for drawing links between diverse areas and constructing powerful meta-narratives across episodic series as well as in stand-alone films. The thesis of Pandora’s Box is strong and well argued, but most of all it at no point patronises its audience by either skirting around the key ideas at play (however complex) or collapsing into over-didactism or incessant repetition, qualities which, for me, are Curtis’ hallmarks every bit as much as his choppy, voice-overed montages. Pandora’s Box won him the first of the three BAFTAs for Best Factual Series that he has been awarded to date.

Curtis followed this success with another series, the three part The Living Dead. First aired in March 1995, it is a moving and insightful examination of the political role of corporate and individual identity and the ideological power of memory. Emerging out of the horrors of WWII and shaped by the ultra-paranoia of the Cold War era, The Living Dead skilfully and seamlessly weaves together reflections on the personal and the political arenas. This is a theme that runs throughout Curtis’ work, that there is in reality no definite distinction between the individual and the social and that what we call ‘the political’ in essence covers the whole of human experience.

In 1996 and 1997 Curtis made two one-off films, 25 Million Pounds, a study of Nick Leeson and the collapse at Barings, and The Way of All Flesh, which recounts the incredible story of Henrietta Leanne Lacks, the woman whose cervical tumour turned out to contain ‘miracle’ cells that didn’t die and which became the HaLa cell line which was used to create the polio vaccine and has made (and is making) countless other research projects possible to this day. Both of these films won awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

1999 brought The Mayfair Set, a four-part series about how a group of ‘buccaneer capitalists’, all members of The Clermont Club, defined, under Thatcher, a new relationship between politics and business which shifted the power base and set the pattern that persists. It brought Curtis his second BAFTA for Best Factual Series and further consolidated the stylistic traits for which his films are now almost instantly recognisable.

Next Curtis made the film for which he is most well known and most widely lauded, 2002’s The Century of the Self. Examining the legacy of Sigmund Freud and the way in which the Twentieth Century systemically embraced the Freudian vision of personhood, it uses as its narrative thread the way in which Freud’s friends and family members shifted his insights into the fields of advertising and public relations and how, despite the unpopularity of his ideas in many quarters, Freud’s vision of the self became central to late 20th Century social and political discourse. Originally broadcast by BBC Four in four episodes, The Century of the Self went on to be shown as a feature film across the US, and besides bagging several significant documentary awards was named by Entertainment Weekly as the fourth best movie of 2005.

Curtis’ next series is, in my opinion, his most bold, challenging, impressive and prescient piece to date and has certainly proved his most controversial. The Power of Nightmares examined the role of mythology in contemporary culture and political discourse, positing links between the rise of radical Islam and radical Neo-Conservatism as two ideologies designed to unite what are perceived as fracturing national/cultural identities, fuelled by the use of grand propaganda and especially the manipulation of fear. Several of the series’ more challenging claims, such as that al-Qaeda, as an organisation, was essentially a creation of the American government, have been widely discussed and critiqued at the highest levels of journalism, cultural commentary and academic discourse. Curtis returned to and honed the archive montage style of Pandora’s Box, remarkably combining a challenging, artful sensibility with serious and probing political argument. To my mind The Power of Nightmares is a masterpiece of documentary film making and stands among the greatest pieces of television ever made.

In his 2007 series The Trap, Curtis revisited some of the themes of his earlier work, notably Pandora’s Box, and wove some old material along with new into an eloquent and persuasive thesis regarding the origins and nature of the anthropology that underpins late-modern capitalist and Neo-Liberalist concepts of the individual, the state and the economy. Examining the arguments of thinkers such as John Nash, R.D. Laing, Fredrik von Hayek, Frantz Fanon and Isaiah Berlin and the actions of ‘leaders’ like Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet, Blair and Putin, The Trap is a compelling and hyperopic film which stands a close second to The Power of Nightmares in my reckoning.

At present Curtis mostly engages in lower profile work within BBC Current Affairs, but occasionally still produces films such as the three short documentaries that he made for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and Newswipe and 2009’s It Felt Like A Kiss, a strange and beautiful multi-media montage piece produced in collaboration with Punchdrunk theatre company, Damon Albarn and Kronos Quartet, which draws on and expands Curtis’ montage and typographic aesthetic, but represents a departure from his usual straightforwardly narrative style and hard-hitting tone.

Curtis’ opponents, of which the right-wing broadsheets and Neo-Conservative think tanks are brimming, call him a propagandist, and conservative Americans in particular use him as one of the key pieces of evidence in the argument that the BBC is a hive of left-wing extremism, but for me he is far more than simply a producer of run-of-the-mill agitprop. His films may be often rhetorically provocative and tend towards a certain kind of didacticism, but they are always clearly and skilfully argued and engage with western culture’s most serious subjects and most important minds. Love him or hate him, Adam Curtis is a film maker to be taken seriously, and considering the shlock that fills the vast majority of TV slots, I for one am thoroughly glad we have him around.

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here are some links to the films discussed above:

Pandora’s Box

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3

The Living Dead
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3

25 Million Pounds

The Way of All Flesh

The Mayfair Set

* Episode 1 [pt 1] [pt2]
* Episode 2 [pt 1] [pt 2]
* Episode 3 [pt 1] [pt 2]
* Episode 4 [pt 1] [pt 2]

The Century of the Self

* Episode 1
* Episode 2
* Episode 3
* Episode 4

The Power of Nightmares

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3

The Trap

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3

It Felt Like A Kiss

Brooker film 1: TV News
Brooker film 2: Oh-Dearism
Brooker film 3: How All of Us Have Become Richard Nixon

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given that I have few qualms about this sort of thing anyway, and especially when it comes to programmes that have aired on terrestrial TV, if any of these links are broken or the quality is too poor for you to handle, then I can and do recommend a brief sniff around some of the more popular torrent deposits. my advice is to see these films however and as soon as you can.

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