Friday, 21 October 2011

Once More Unto the Breach

Despite being excoriated by various of his fans after last writing about Adam Curtis, I cannot resist returning to the subject. This is because I realised, when I went to his completely sold-out talk at the Frieze Art Fair last week, that he commands a large and unquestioning audience. This is a worry, for he needs to be questioned a great deal.

Curtis began his talk by stating that we all think that we live in a non-hierarchical world. He then explained that what he wanted to do was talk about the world outside us, beyond our own individual experience and that of our friends.

'Now we think we know more about our context than ever before', he continued, going on to suggest that that context is only giant scenery made by film makers, journalists and so forth. 'I want to talk about how that world is constructed and how you know if it's true,' he said, 'and what you do if you think you stumble on something you think is wrong - how you crack and break through and remake the scenery.' He said his work is an attempt to take stories that have been constructed in a certain way and pull them apart and say, 'Have you thought about telling the story in this way?'

'I am a journalist,', he told us next, 'I am interested in getting as close to truth as possible.' He described a thing called Jupiter which exists within the BBC and contains all the rushes from which footage is taken for news bulletins over a period of 14 days. He said he loves looking at the stuff that is in Jupiter, as it gives a strong sense of how partial and fragmentary the view we get of what is going on is.

Our news consists of mere fragments plucked from the onrush that comes in from the world, he told us, rather evocatively. To demonstrate what he meant, he screened about three and a half minutes of footage from a 36-minute film of Kim Philby's funeral, of which only 12 seconds was actually used in a news bulletin. 'Playing it long makes it real,' he observed when it had finished.

He then went on to describe some of the programmes he has made, beginning with Pandora's Box, from 1992, in which he said he told the story of how the idea that science could build a better world shifted in the 70s and 80s to a distrust of big science and its unforeseen  consequences. He said that in the early 70s on the BBC there were countless programmes that were attacks on scientists. He stated that government used science for political and social goals. He said the Thatcherists believed that monetarism was a science.

The reception Pandora's Box received - many people believed it was an attack on science, apparently - led Curtis back to thinking about the problem of breaking through the scenery, smashing the template in people's heads to get them to see new stories and arguments. Skipping forward to 2001, with this in mind, he said, he embarked on a project about consumerism, which, he said, had long interested him, because consumerism 'is intimately related to power, but also because I knew that consumerism is in all our minds - not only did we shop but we thought we knew about it, and it was a thing in all our minds. I wanted to find a way of telling it as a history that you pulled back and looked at in relationship to the way politics and the exercise of power have changed in the last 100 years.' The discovery of Edward Bernays, a relative of Freud and 'pioneer of PR', was his way of doing that, allowing him to take consumerism from 'being the thing it is and to put it into a new cradle'.

What that new cradle was, I never clearly understood, but the hand that rocked the cradle appeared to belong to a hippy, or, indeed hippies in general. 'I have a tendency to be really nasty about hippies', Curtis commented in answer to a question at the end of his talk, (this I suspect was an example of what he repeatedly referred to as his habit of being 'larky'), but his contention in his 2001 project was that, far from being  against capitalism, hippies became a central regenerating force of capitalism (and, therefore, presumably, consumerism).

 Footage involving something called the Human Potential Movement and Dr William Coulson and the sad story of a nunnery exposed to his theories, EST sessions and shots of Jerry Rubin as an EST disciple and of his friend, a non-EST disciple, who described the post-EST Rubin as 'socialism in one person' was screened next and after it Curtis asked why everything rebellious and anti-authoritarian is always taken up and used by marketing. His suggested response was that perhaps capitalism is actually about being rebellious and perhaps the phrase 'socialism in one person' perfectly encapsulates the nature of capitalism.

The Power of Nightmares series came next. Curtis explained that he decided to play with imagery and music and humour in this project, in order to try to break through the scenery and break the spell of fear and also so as to throw a brick through a window and get our attention. To illustrate what he meant, he showed us the opening sequence of the first programme. He then went on to detail his work with Punchdrunk Theatre and to show us a clip from an experimental film he made. Annoyingly, I didn't hear him mention All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace at all.

Curtis's concluding minutes were devoted to telling us that we live in an age in which democracy is defined by individual choice but that, since the start of the economic crisis, his impression is that people are becoming aware of the loneliness of individuality. People like stories, he said, 'they're like maps that guide you through the scenery.' Fox News, he claimed, understands this: it tells a story, 'Fox News is fun', he added provocatively. The Tea Party also knows how to tell a story, he went on, a story that goes back to a mythical US past, a fiction.

Curtis said that he believed that journalists need to tell stories about the real world that connect with the way we feel, because we live in a time where we are encouraged to emote. A new way of making journalism is therefore needed in which hardline political reporting that tells you things you don't know will be fused with the emotional force of a novel that you can't wait to return to. He moved on from this to stating that being alternative has become conformist. Nowadays to be different and surprising, he said, you need to show moral values and heroism (although he hastily reassured his audience that he wasn't advocating a return to Christianity, just in case he was about to lose any street cred). Returning to the problems of individualism, he pointed out that when you go with friends into a dark wood it is exciting but when you go alone it is scary. He mentioned in passing that what characterises a lot of television makers is deadpan irony and said that that is not what is required right now.

There was very warm applause at the end, and many questions were asked afterwards, but the questions were fawning rather than searching. No-one asked whether Curtis would like to have a debate about the various propositions he put forward as unarguable (one of the many habits of his that I object to is this one of stating as fact things that are not): 'We all think we live in a non-hierarchical world.' Do we?; 'Now we think we know more about our context than ever.' Is that true?; 'Consumerism is a thing in all our minds.' Is it?

No-one asked in what way exactly the Philby footage made anything more real. For me, it was just voyeuristic - the coffin was open so the dead Philby's face was very clearly visible, until his Russian widow decided to give him a two-minute kiss on the lips (I'm not sure which image I found more distasteful) - baffling and utterly uninformative. It was merely a jumble of pictures. We didn't know who the people we saw were, beyond the two main actors (if you can call Philby's corpse an actor). What was shown did absolutely nothing to resolve the central mystery of Philby's treachery.

No-one asked whether Curtis really, as he seems to imply in The Power of Nightmares, thinks that, had the neo-cons not, as he claims, set out to destroy Kissinger, Brezhnev and Nixon could have worked out a modus operandi that would be better for everyone than what we have today (actually, I did try, but my waving hand was ignored [clearly a conspiracy to stifle dissent, don't you think?])

No-one asked what the hell any of this - "consumerism 'is intimately related to power, but also because I knew that consumerism is in all our minds - not only did we shop but we thought we knew about it, and it was a thing in all our minds. I wanted to find a way of telling it as a history that you pulled back and looked at in relationship to the way politics and the exercise of power have changed in the last 100 years'" - actually meant in plain English.

Most importantly, no-one pinned Curtis down on what exactly he is on about with his advocacy of a new mode of emotionally resonant Fox-style news and no-one challenged him by asking whether it isn't perhaps rather the duty of reporters to ignore the baser desires for titillation and distraction of consumers, in favour of presenting the facts, unadulterated by tabloid style human interest bait.

All in all, Curtis's talk lacked coherence and clarity (rather like his documentaries, in my view). In fact it was so full of waffle that I am finding it hard to write about it succinctly (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it). His  arguments dissolve in my hands as I try to grapple with them, because, in place of research and facts and closely thought-out argument, what he mainly deals in is manipulation of images. He says he likes to get to the truth, but it seems to me that he prefers to dazzle with tumbling successions of distracting pictures, accompanied by what our Furby used to describe as 'loud sounds'.

The love Curtis expressed for that thing called Jupiter, combined with his idea that seeing more footage of an event will help us understand its reality, is at the heart of where I think he is wrong. Human judgment is at its weakest when dealing with images, which often, despite their vivid nature and apparent authenticity, omit important detail rather than providing a glimpse of the truth. Sadly though, in our increasingly visually obsessed age, this preoccupation with pictures guarantees Curtis an audience and adulation, whereas the dense, ordered, thoughtful work of really clever, learned, scholars who actually know what they're talking about is less exciting and therefore often overlooked.

What makes me worry that Curtis's influence might be not merely irritating but actually dangerous is that the single message that kept threading its way through his apparent ramblings was the suggestion that an abandonment of individualism and an embrace of some kind of new collective social order might be a pretty good thing. What I can't help wondering is whether, beneath his light, 'larky' exterior, Mr Curtis has an agenda. Was the decision to choose Philby's funeral footage to illustrate his views about brevity insignificant or is it possible Mr Curtis was actually paying a secret homage to the man?

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