“History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they’re taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended”
Adam Curtis is a film-maker preoccupied with the concept of control. Throughout a thirty year career, the British filmmaker has focused intently on the powers that be. Exploring the immense authority that these figures hold over our day to day lives, and the processes that they exploit, in order to manipulate opinion, consolidate power and deflect attention. The Power of Nightmares, a 2004 three part series that aired on the BBC, remains perhaps Curtis’ most revered work. A feverish investigation into the methodology employed by western governments when discussing terrorism, and the environment of irrational feat that this action generates. Within the film, Curtis theorises that the groups and individuals with views to harm western society are merely a fabricated threat; one crafted so that governments may rule unopposed, tightening their grip around society through promises of protection from random attacks and indiscriminate violence.
TPON saw Curtis expanding his scope and articulating an attack against larger structures and institutes than he had ever challenged before, and, as a result, detractors would begin to thoroughly search his films for cracks and flaws in order to nullify and smother his vocal onslaught. In the time since its release, Curtis has been labelled a conspiracy theorist, a crackpot, and a radical by viewers and victims of his documentaries alike. However, now with 30 years of material to scrutinise, and to the delight of governments around the world, a prominent criticism of his work has emerged. Encapsulated in The Power of Nightmares is Curtis’ most effective and persuasive argument regarding his favourite themes, but simultaneously it stands as one of the strongest examples of his very own system of control – the reappearing formula, structure and stylistic signature that defines his body of work.
To understand this line of criticism, you must first understand the way in which Curtis presents his ideas through the medium, as, over time, a unique and idiosyncratic means of depiction has appeared in Curtis’ films – a style which I will below split into three distinctive elements.
VISUAL: A machine gun approach to editing, with constant and rapid cuts between disparate images and pieces of film, both related and unrelated to the subject. There is often very little original imagery included in these documentaries, with much of the visual side of Curtis’ work gathered from the extensive BBC archives and stitched together in a manner that, when separated from Curtis’ scholarly narration, makes very little sense. The visual element of his art thrives and operates largely within the realm of juxtaposition, creating symbolic links and representations through the intentional, oppositional nature of the images. The films are essentially visual collages, kinetic streams of imagery which flow and pulsate with a predetermined rhythm.
MUSIC: Again an element in Curtis’ work that functions so effectively due to its juxtaposition with other elements. The music, much in the same way as the imagery, will often lack a coherent association to the context, but subsequently creates meaning through this. For example, the song over the opening credits of Curtis’ 2011 film All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace, a film concerning the impending doom that our living in a technocracy will undoubtedly bring about, is the light-hearted, upbeat, ‘Baby Love Child’ by Japanese band Pizzicato 5. This instance is likely used to communicate the idea that, despite the probable danger, our worries are subdued by those in power that profit through a continuing technocracy.
NARRATION: Curtis’ articulate script, combined with an enounced, authoritative and educated voice, generates an environment of synthetic reliability and incubates the trust of the viewer through insistence and confidence. This is potentially the most dangerous of the three key aspects within Curtis’ work, casting the ever present idea over his films that we may be placing our faith in the faceless voice simply because of the esteemed accent and assertive tone.
Separately, these elements can be found commonly throughout documentary history, each being used to mould the opinion of the viewer and persuading as well as informing them. However, when Curtis combines these three techniques it creates a stream of information which ebbs and flows through his films, the current of which is exceptionally easy to become caught in. Curtis’ films have a prominent rhythm and pace, partly due to the masterful use of music and partly due to the editing, but this is where his system is at its most effective – step outside the current and you will most likely lose the thread of thought and struggle to reacclimatise to the frantic pace that Curtis sets. In a sense, the style is almost hypnotic, a mesmerising collage of image and sound that entices the viewer into a state of comatose spectatorship, so that Curtis can guide you unknowingly around holes in his logic or fallacies in his arguments.
In one of Curtis’s most recent productions, a short segment shown as part of Charlie Brooker’s ‘2014 Wipe’, he explains the system of control that has emerged in Russian politics during Vladimir Putin’s reign as president. He explains that control is achieved through the creation of “a constant state of destabilised perception in order to manage and control” and recycles Peter Pomerantsev’s observation that the method is “a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable”
This could easily be applied to Curtis’ own work, and especially to the previously mentioned All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, or the ‘Story of the rise of the machines’. Within AWObMoLG we observe the intricacies of Curtis’ system operating at maximum capacity, the mesmeric strings of free associative imagery, oblique music and scholarly narration all intertwining to tell the story of the 20th century’s relationship with computing, but simultaneously working to gradually destabilise the perception of the audience, sheparding them along the desired paths of thought that Curtis establishes and encourages.
These films are undeniably the work of an extremely skilled filmmaker, but over time the distinctive style has allowed for accusations of hypocrisy. The notion that Curtis indulges in the same methods of control and plays of power that his targets do is a common attack levelled at him, however this serves to raise an incredibly complex and perplexing question. Does Curtis knowingly employ these strategies in order to highlight the attempts at manipulation by the institutes he strikes out against? Is Curtis’ style actually the transference of the processes he discusses into a cinematic formula, with the intention of alerting the viewer to the techniques that are regularly used against them in reality?
I submit this to be true, that Curtis is simply showing us, in visual form, what his subjects communicate through media, news and their carefully planned strategies to gain influence. Though the style of these films is destabilising, it is not utilised to trick us into believing something that is untrue, rather it is employed to hold a mirror up to the figures of power and explain to us, in a medium we are familiar with, that these are the methods and processes that are used in our control. Curtis may be a hypocrite to some, but we cannot deny that, with every film, he explicitly demonstrates how susceptible we are to the designs of those in power.
- Kristofer Thomas