Adam Curtis: Conspiracist of Long-Lost Facts
The BBC producer/director’s brilliant oeuvre is nothing less than astonishing.
BY MICHAEL ATKINSON
Some of the most radical and searching historical interrogations on film in the last few decades are being performed at the BBC, and chances are you’ve never seen them. The hair-raisingly provocative presence of producer/director Adam Curtis in the world’s most famous hyper-acculturated state media machine is nothing less than astonishing, particularly when you look at his work starting with 1992’s Pandora’s Box (and, since then, accumulating to about 24 solid hours of unnerving discourse). His new three-hour film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, is typical Curtis, and you may find it randomly appearing in arthouses for short theatrical runs this year, and you can find it streaming online. You will not, however, see it on American television.
Curtis makes three- and four-hour documentary mini-series about modern history evolving from the early 20th century to today. They wear a calm and glossy BBC veneer, as though they are a mere set of history lessons slouching leftwardly, all about How We Got Here. But if you wade into Curtis’s worldview, there’s more at stake than that. You could be convinced, given a big enough dose of these tax-funded projects, that the human world is so close to ending you can smell the sulphur amid the toxic plumes, electronic heat and war-zone smoke. Curtis is no doomsayer, just a dry-eyed documentarian, and his exclusive subjects are the force vectors behind recent history that end in disaster.
Curtis’ brand of deep politics follows the cascade of sociopolitical dominoes, beginning with ideology and culminating in flat-out catastrophe, be it 9/11 or the world economic meltdown or merely the Reagan-era state of rampaging, consumerist narcissism. Formally, Curtis manufactures his flowcharts with the simplest means available: archival footage, talking heads, calm but ominous narration, associative montage.
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