Adam Curtis got bored of teaching politics at Oxford and went into making some of the most remarkable historical/sociopolitical documentaries I’ve ever seen. A BBC man through and through, he is an archive goblin, combing BBC warehouses to construct totally unique and convincing narratives of subtle but world-altering 20th century power shifts in diverse fields such as global and domestic politics, science and technology, management, marketing…
I just picked up on an interview he made with a US-based site, possibly part of an effort to break into the USA. It’s no surprise he feels the urge to get there – with the US featuring in a number of his documentaries, such as The Power of Nightmares, about the parallel and mutualistic development of neo-conservatism and Islamist extremist groups; or The Century of Self, charting the influence of psychology on advertising in the 20th century) – the impact could be large. For investigative journalists and documentary makers alike (where’s the line drawn?), what more are you looking for in life?
In it, he comes across as thoughtful, intelligent, grumpy, but also confident – to the point of narcissism. It’s a fascinating insight into the work of a strong but underexposed force in TV. Here are some interesting takeaways for the time-pressed amongst you:
On the underlying interest driving his work:
I was convinced that power in my society, the power in our societies, moves not just through politics, it goes through science, it goes through public relations, it goes through psychology, it goes through everything and that we should be telling stories about this. And no one was.
[..] the thing that fuels these programs is not a sympathy for a particular side or another, it’s just a general grumpiness about the way reality is being portrayed. And then on top of that, I’m trying to ask, well, why are they obsessed with portraying this fantasy? So there are two levels in my films. There is a factual story and then, on top of that, I try and say, hang on, why has this happened?
I’ve always been fascinated by 19th century novelists because they are very cinematic. They take a panorama of a society and they have characters moving through it and they tell the story of the characters, but they also tell you something about society at the same time.
On documentaries vs. journalism on TV and US vs. UK TV
I don’t think I make documentaries. I’m going to go on about this. I’m a journalist. I’m a modern journalist. I use pictures imaginatively to argue a piece of journalism essay-making. Documentaries are for people who make achingly plangent films with no commentary about graves in Bosnia. There’s a wonderful place for those in television and in cinema but I do something else. I tell people about the world and I use my voice and I tell them what I think and I show pictures that I like.
I don’t know how it would work here, but at the BBC, I argued that, although these films are critical, you wouldn’t know quite what my politics were. And actually, I keep my politics perfectly out of this. This is a very interesting area and I think that TV in my country is beginning to adapt to this. I don’t know whether your television is; I think it’s much more timid. It’s really a simple question. Why can’t television stations have Op-Ed pages? It’s as simple as that. Why not? It’s not like it’s a polemic – I’m writing a critical piece.
I am fascinated by the structure of television, because television is episodic. You can have ten episodes or twelve, or you can have 25 episodes; you can criss and cross and make things work in a structure which, in a one-off film, you can’t necessarily do.
I just think television is a really original medium which people haven’t yet fully exploited and discovered. I mean, we were talking earlier on about how so much really good drama, from our British point of view, is being done on American television now. It’s really inventive. Some of the cutting and the structure. The structure of a series like The Wire, even 24 – whatever you think about the ludicrousness of the plot, it uses many of the avant-garde techniques of the filmmakers of the 60s.
On the insufficiency of “big idea” journalism on TV:
Marlow: Do you ever feel that it’s not actually the politics that American stations disagree with, but the fact that you actually tackle big ideas, and we’re not well-known for dealing with big ideas?
Curtis: I think there is a fear of doing ideas on television. And to be honest, if you look at the mind of a television executive, it is quite well-founded. I know the archives at the BBC. Programs about ideas are so boring because what you tend to have is, you have a well-known personality. They do lots of shots of them striding around usually different parts of the world and then they do illustrative bits in between and they’re really dull. What I do is find stories that I then use to illustrate the ideas.
The scary part – bemoaning absences of elitist confidence. Doesn’t that advocate dogmatism? Isn’t that a prerequisite for fascism? What does he think of Obama I wonder?
Many of the people who make television programs have run out of ideas. They haven’t got anything more to say. So what they do is they entertain the masses by making reality TV. It’s as much their fault as it is the fault of the masses. They’ve run out of confidence. They haven’t got the faintest idea of what to do. They don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong any longer. It’s partly what my programs are all about; it’s the failure of the elite to really have confidence any longer. That’s true in television as it is in politics and journalism.
And he makes no bones about being part of that elite:
Marlow: And you use yourself as a benchmark?
Curtis: I think I’m quite normal. I think what I would like, other people would like. People like stories, it’s just a given fact. However much some filmmakers try to get away from it, storytelling, even in it’s most dislocated form, is what drives movies.
[discussing works that intertwine initially disparate storylines, and social commentary] Personally, I think that people like me are pushing television towards what great novels were like in the 19th century.
He puts across a narcissism in this interview that I’ve rarely encountered before, though thankfully it’s a lot less apparent in his work. What’s more, his talent, points of view and the stories he tells are so unique that he gets away with it – proving his point, in a way.
Again, the link to the interview in full: https://www.greencine.com/central/node/430?page=0,0