“Give me a smart mark over a dumb one every time.”
— Frank Fontaine, Bioshock
Adam Curtis is a British documentary-maker whose movies about contemporary politics are the best work going in the fractious field of informative cinema. On October 16, he released his latest work, Hypernormalisation, but he’s been making flicks for decades.
Once you’ve seen a Curtis film, you’re ruined for most other British documentarians. The man sounds like Oxford, scores music like Fincher, and makes his films with all the distant, surgical aplomb of a well-educated bird of prey. His abiding theme are ideas, the elites who believe in them, and how they are enforced on the rest of the world—always with unexpected results.
I mentioned how he sounds. Curtis does voiceovers for his films, and his tone is uncannily similar to a British version of HAL 9000. The movies are composed almost entirely of footage from BBC stations around the world. That is, Curtis assembles his movies from all of the film that the British Broadcasting Corporation has recorded since its inception in on Nov. 2, 1936.
From everything: news footage, promotional film, in-house corporate video, forgotten commercials, obscure television shows, long-archived interviews, whatever he can get his hands on. Occasionally he adds in his own interviews on the subjects.
Then he layers over music. Curtis has a taste of near-genius. The soundtrack for Curtis films tend to be atmosphere feel—music like Brian Eno or Massive Attack, mainstream songs used for le ironic effect, or buzzworthy counterculture ballads from the years 1969-1999, leaning heavily on the eighties.
And that’s it. From these disparate grounds – official and obscure film clips, Curtis’ disinterested inflection, and impeccable soundtrack choice — come the peculiar, but compelling cinematic flowerings that have made Curtis famous in Britain and earned him a cult following here in America.
The man’s take on the world is tart, dry, and informed. Dispassionate, but not cold. Intellectual, but not detached. Hip to everything, but square in its soul. The appeal is not easy to explain outside of the film itself, mostly because they’re so unlike other documentaries.
To be sure, part of the appeal is Curtis’ tone, which echoes with the sure, dispassionate faith of a man who owns thousands of blazers, but not in any negative sense. Indeed, most Adam Curtis introductions begin like this:
“This is a story about [meaningful concept: justice, memory, fear]. In the past, politicians and thinkers believed [idea]. But this led to [unpleasant situation]. As a result, the elites started to believe [new idea], which had [expected result], but also had [unintended consequences], which led to [current neoliberal world order]. As a result, we now live in a world which [the ongoing, usually ironic effect of the new idea]. Tonight, we look at this state of affairs, and how we got here.” (Creepy music of longing plays in background)
Curtis’ motto might as well be that of Axel Oxenstierna, the Swedish diplomat: “”Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?” Below, I list five films of his that you ought to watch now, before you even breathe, sleep, or eat.
1. Inside Story Special: £830,000,000 – Nick Leeson and the Fall of the House of Barings (1996)
I begin with this one because it’s the simplest narrative, and stands the most on its own without any intercession from Curtis, pleasant as he is to be around. Twenty years ago, and twelve years before the collapse, this film tells the story of another massive larf that sank the famous British bank Barings, and sent the culprit, Leeson, to prison.
The story itself is simple, simple, and could be retold by an eight-year-old. It’s the tale of a creeper weirdo from Watford who rolled into an old-time snoozer of a bank, became a general manager of a futures market operation, was successful, blew everyone away, then made a series of terrible investments, and fled the scene.
Leeson was eventually caught, sent to prison, and, because nobody in finance ever pays for anything they ever do, became a CEO of Galway United, before becoming, like Jordan Belfort, a keynote speaker. Why not?
Leeson isn’t really the subject of the film. Really, it’s about the flawed nature of the financial world, particularly the clueless overlords of Barings, and how ready they were to be taken advantage of by charming, semi-competent boob. Leeson doesn’t come across as a calculating mastermind. He’s more like Charles Ponzi: a charming, well-meaning, unthinking financial agent who causes ruin where he goes by getting himself into awful messes through his own lack of foresight and honesty.
It sets up one of Curtis’ subtextual themes, that the elites who run the show are gigantic dupes and emotionally hustled as the rest of us. Leeson was a financial dunce but gifted at handling people. By contrast, the Barings people seem to have understood nothing, including how finance works.
It’s clear to all and sundry from scene one that our Mr. Leeson is an obvious, sneaky, open-source version of Gob Bluth without the magic. A dog could see it. A cat lady could see it. But Barings couldn’t, and when Leeson was wheeling and dealing massive amounts of money in the Singapore, he sank the bank and lost many fortunes. Fortunately, we got a Curtis film from it, so … even trade?
2. Every Day is Like Sunday (2011)
This shorter film from five years ago is Curtis’ take on the big, weird life of Cecil King, the British press magnate from the huge-cigar era of media financier, back when print journalism was a hugely profitable business. The man ran lots of British papers, among them the immensely popular Daily Mirror, which, contrary to its name, was not a reflective piece of glass at all, but a populist tabloid. King was a capitalist megabro in the first rank of influence, and one fine day he hatched a plan to overthrow the reigning Labour coalition.
This was during 1968’s days of dread, when Britain’s consensus between unions, government, companies, and the mainstream media was just beginning to disintegrate into a thousand little pieces. King and his fellow apocalypse-hunters in the right wing wanted the government to slash the deficit. Prime Minister Wilson said no. Truly, every day is like Sunday, if every Sunday meant a knife-fight with all the people you work with.
Curtis sets up the King story as an explicit parallel to our contemporary Rupert Murdoch’s slow wane in power and influence. That’s appropriate, for it was King’s diminishment as a leading light of the English establishment that allowed new blood, like the unspeakable Murdoch, to rise and break apart the old, “gentlemanly” world of the British press. Through this lens, Curtis shows us how the press and the political establishment lean on one another, and, in other fresh news, have you heard water is incredibly wet?
3. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace: Love and Power (2011)
Here it is, the big one. I should point out that some of these films are actually cycles of films, so this film is actually three separate films of one hour each. You should watch all three, but one hundred and eight minutes is hard to recommend off the cuff, so, chock-full of the milk of human kindness, I’ll point you towards the best of the entire trilogy: the first film in the series, Love and Power.
Curtis’ goal in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace is to explore the nature of technology and technological solutions. Ever had the sneaking feeling that computers will not solve all your problems? Curtis claims our worldview is built around a system of dubious propositions that we should have junked a long time ago, but we haven’t, because they’re so totally ingrained in the background of our world that we can’t escape them. Thinking like computers, and building our society around computer principles, like networks, do us no favors. It’s a fantasy.
Curtis argues Rand and the rest of the free marketeers sold us a story about human nature that was based on markets and selfishness, but this myth was shown to be based on little evidence, and was eventually completely undone by reality: both through the nature of Rand’s own life, and the delusions of financiers. This is one of Curtis’ great talents, the ability to link together a whole mess of related ideas into a total, sweeping view. The sequel, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, is also worth a watch.
4. Pandora’s Box: The Engineers’ Plot (1992)
In Pandora’s Box, Curtis takes on the problems of fetishizing rationalism in our political culture.
“Fetishizing rationalism in our political culture.” What does that mean, translated into English? I’ll take a stab at it: you know that one chum of yours who doesn’t seem to get emotional shading, who insists on pedantic arguments that arbitrarily turn on obscure logical points, and in the end, seem to have nothing to do with solving the world’s real problems?
Okay, imagine that person but transplanted into politics, who insists everything must bend to their system. For this kind of thinker, if the trains don’t run on time, then it’s not a problem with the trains, but with the people waiting for the trains. That’s the fetish of rationality in politics, which was never about reason at all, but about weird schools of thought that claimed reason’s mantle: political orders that claimed they were scientific and therefore beyond reproach. Yet these belief-patterns couldn’t adjust to changing conditions in the real world.
Adapting to altering circumstances is an ability which actually rational people are supremely good at: when evidence changes, the rational person changes their position. People who fake being rational—objectivists, fifties Marxists, teen libertarians, Reddit, most economists—do not deal with dislocation well. For them “rationality” is not a tool to get at the truth, but a locus of power, and being jarred from that perch is threatening.
Pandora’s Box deals with all the people, regimes, and institutions that wouldn’t or couldn’t change. And the best of all of these stories is this film, about the earnest, baffled technocrats who governed the Soviet Union. Curtis explains that, once we look past the opinions of the American and Russian commands, the Soviet Union can be correctly seen as primarily a cadre of indoctrinated engineers imposed on a repressive military empire.
The Bolshevik vision of the revolutionary worker’s state was of a rational, doctrinaire paradise: a backwards barn-raising giant would become an industrial superstate. That was the dream, at any rate. As Lenin put it: “Communism is Power of the Soviets plus electrification of the whole country.” Actual planned economies that work in the real world demand a constant series of grassroots feedback loops and the free passage of ideas. But this was lacking in the Soviet order.
The massive factory town of Magnitogorsk was built to ape the steel-making Valhalla of Gary, Indiana. Right down to the streets. The power that ran the Soviet state was not Brezhnev or Khrushchev but Gosplan, the central planning bureaucracy. As the decades rolled on, the system was unable to adjust to changing times and ate itself. The film, made during the Communist collapse, shows a society dedicated to the false dream of rationality, resulting in, to quote Curtis’ words, “a bizarre, bewildering existence for millions of Soviet people.”
5. Oh, Dearism (2009)
This seven minute long piece of grumbly cinematic poetry is a nice summation and easy entry into the Curtis canon. It has all the wowser angles: Serious Curtis Voice, Serious Curtis Ambient Music, and Curtis Penetrating Insights. If these sound like titles for a trilogy of concept albums, congratulations, you’ve hacked the code. You win nothing.
In Oh, Dearism, Curtis’ wide-angle lens is applied to one of his favorite topics, the media. Aside from his usual overarching theme about the breathtaking wonks of staggering failness who muck up our political and decision-making processes, Curtis is a fan of actual explanation in media. That is, media which actually gives the watcher an insight into the world. In this work, Curtis points out that so much of what passes for political talk is handwringing about how the world is getting worse and calamity invades on every horizon.
But there is no organized understanding in most news products. There is little detail about why what happens actually happens; and the media, hungry for clicks and moment-by-moment glory, does little to explain root causes and deep issues. Think of going to the doctor’s and instead of diagnosis and cure, the medico simply says, “Whoa, lotta stuff going on here. Tough break, bro.” That’s how political information works in our culture, Curtis tells us. “Scattered terrible things” are the order of the day, and all anyone can say is “Oh, dear,” leaving the public, and the politicians they elect, powerless to alter or change the game in the least.
And there you have it! Five movies, or films, all of which are sneakily available on pretty much every single video website online, including ones that begin with a “You” and end with “Tube.” I encourage you strongly—as strongly as I can through the non-yelling medium of print—to see these for yourself. Start with the shortest and work your way up to all-weekend binges, like you do with any other addictive substance. Then load up Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, pour yourself a patrician-level tea, intone detached historical analysis over grainy footage of a Soviet birthday party, and repeat to yourself: “But that was a fantasy.” You’ll feel better already.