Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Adam Curtis, the contrarian documentarian (part 1 of two)

Viewers of the Funhouse TV show already know about my enthusiasm for the documentaries of Adam Curtis; I've done six shows featuring discussions of, and clips from, his work. I've become even more interested in the last few weeks in his very unusual, almost uncategorizable (and at points nearly inexplicable) political stance, as well as the fact that he maintains a dismissive attitude about his literally overwhelming visuals and his technical-yet-playful approach to filmmaking. He's an incredibly talented filmmaker who doesn't want to be called a filmmaker, an essayist who prefers to be identified as a journalist, and a stylist who puts down style in his interviews.

First a little background for those who are unaware of his name and his work. I was introduced to Curtis via short segments he did for Charlie Brooker's brilliant series of “Wipe” programs (Newswipe, Screenwipe, and the annual editions).

Curtis is a documentarian who has full access to the archives of the BBC and uses that access to fashion brilliantly edited films that are comprised of rare archival footage he has discovered, along with talking-head interviews he conducts and a deadpan narration he delivers (which has now been melded with his very Godardian – that name, don't mention that name to him! – practice of using on-screen titles to move his “story” along).

I have noted on the Funhouse TV show that he is without question “the anti-Ken Burns.” Whereas Burns is a reverent, extremely staid documentarian who works entirely on the flat, level plane of history, Curtis fills his essays (and yes, his telefilms are essays) with editorial commentary in the form of unique edits, the use of jarringly eye-catching footage, and his trademark narration in which he begins each film with the phrase “This is a story about...” and then at some point announces that “it all went horribly wrong...” (Or “but it failed completely...” You get the drift.)

He takes an attitude towards his stories (he “plots” his documentaries, sometimes juggling several strands of historical events) that is both deadly serious and refreshingly playful. I value his work most for the way that it “connects the dots” between what otherwise would look like very disparate events and locations. He also is the foremost 21st-century chronicler of regimes, political movements, and social systems that failed.

Thus when I showed scenes from his work on the Funhouse I received much email from viewers saying they really enjoyed his films, but as my presentation of the documentaries moved on chronologically, the word “depressing” began to creep into the reactions – his lively and superb use of pop music brings matters “up,” but the actual subject matter, and his laser-sharp emphasis (one might say obsessive) on systems and programs that failed, brings the viewer “down.”

I was certain while watching his documentaries that he was drawing on the pioneering work done by artists whose styles he seems to cite frequently – from Marker (whose Grin Without a Cat is the decisive precedent, minus the pop music and rapid-fire editing, for what Curtis currently does) and Godard (with the theme from Le Mepris showing up in two Curtis docus, and his frequent use of onscreen titling, a method that JLG made famous) to Mark Rappaport (whose discussion of sexual subtexts from Rock Hudson's Home Movies is mirrored in Curtis's terrific It Felt Like a Kiss) and Kenneth Anger, whose use of pop-rock music hangs over the work of everyone who uses “music-video” editing (most especially when they use the r&b and pop of the Sixties and mythologize – or, in Curtis's case, de-mythologize – those who made the music).

While I was correct in my perceptions about the work, as the films bear out everything I say above, I wasn't quite prepared for the man himself to denigrate “the art lot” and say that he has no filmmaking influences (the last time I read a very talented director saying that, it was Spike Lee at the moment he became a prominent filmmaker – in later years Spike's hubris faded and he went on record citing many direct influences on his filmmaking). I mean, I knew that Curtis was a political contrarian, but I had no idea how deep his contrarian instincts run....
Before I get into the specifics of the ways in which Curtis apparently wishes to shut himself off from the world of cinema (while making works that clearly invite those comparisons), I should first discuss his recent show at the Park Avenue Armory, the overwhelming, wonderfully crafted “Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis.”

The show is an immersive experience that I did enjoy, with the exception of a “you can change the world” finale that came literally out of nowhere, following in the wake of more expertly visualized “stories” from Curtis about things – movements/people's lives/political dreams – failing in spectacular and often tragic ways. I will discuss a lecture he gave about the show below, but suffice it to say that he underscored in the lecture that the true message of the show was indeed that the average person could “change the world.” (For 85 minutes it wasn't, then it was.)

Perhaps it is just the expert way that Curtis depicts things failing, but I have yet to be convinced by this message, both in the Massive Attack show and in the final narration of some of his telefilms. In the live show, it followed a literal spree of stories in which something “went horribly wrong.” Curtis also takes care to criticize Left and Right politics, and thus the obvious question remains: what can be done to save society when the whole political spectrum is seen to be corrupt?

Aside from this structural/philosophical problem, the show did for me what Curtis's documentaries have done: it overwhelmed with vibrant images and sound, the latter coming from both old recordings and the live MA band, who were absolutely wonderful (as were vocalists Elizabeth Fraser, formerly of the Cocteau Twins, and Horace Andy).

The two “stories” upon which Curtis rested his narrative were the tragic lives of the British pop-artist Pauline Boty (profiled in the wonderful 1962 time capsule “Pop Goes the Easel” by Ken Russell, which Curtis showed scenes from – it was unfortunate that Curtis didn't follow up “Unkle” Ken's example and left out images of her striking collage art [see right], thus relegating her to tragic “dollybird goddess” status) and a Siberian folk singer who dated a leading punk rocker and wrote a beautifully evocative anthem of despair (yes, there are a *lot* of wildly depressing elements in Curtis's work – then again, please keep in mind that I watch Cassavetes for enjoyment).

Here is the whole Russell docu. It is lively, vibrant, and brilliantly imaginative. It also shows “Swinging London” before the town began to officially swing (which would probably be dated as '65-'66):

Curtis proceeded to overlay on top of those two stories a number of other narratives from the second half of the twentieth century that, as is always the case with his work, did much to explain the political mess we're currently in (“we” being the world, not just the U.S.). The result – if you discount the upbeat and none-too-convincing end – was a fascinating, deeply troubling piece that “reorganized” history and found Curtis again “connecting the dots” in a profound way.

Viewer-friend Whit noted to me that his main objection to the show was that the event was designed so that immense video screens surrounded us on nearly all sides, and then Curtis used the screens to simply display one image over and over, with few variances (often the side screens might have a closer, somewhat digitally blurry view of the main image). What I liked about the show, though, was that Curtis once again enthusiastically used cinematic techniques to tell his stories (I now know he would openly reject the phrase “cinematic,” but often the art is more articulate than the artist).

The other element that was intoxicating was the powerful mix of music, which had the power to counteract the sadness engendered by the stories being told. At the shows' end, the Massive Attack crew, including the guest singers, received no final applause or introduction, presumably because they were intended to just be one element in the multi-media “assault” (attack?). They were visible through one of the screens, and their faces were prominently displayed on the screens in the front of the room whenever a vocalist did a number.

Now onto the Curtis lecture that I attended, but first for “full disclosure” (much will be made about the notion of journalism below, so I don't hesitate to use that phrase): I did approach Curtis for an interview for the Funhouse TV show, but he informed me that he has a policy of not doing filmed interviews. A counter-offer of doing an audio-only interview went unanswered, but led me instead to some fascinating research on what he has said about his cinematic forebears in interviews. I offer information disclosed in the lecture and those other interviews below – again, in the spirit of journalism (or, as it could more properly be called both here and in Curtis's telefilms, “op-ed” writing).

As an interlude here, I turn you over to the single-best intro (if you have a bit of time on your hands) to Curtis's work, his 2002 documentary miniseries The Century of the Self:


Curtis's lecture took place on Sunday, September 29th at the Park Avenue Armory and was essentially a discussion of the “Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis” show with clips (including items from prior Curtis docus and odd items like private photos of Boty's daughter that weren't included in the show). The audience was a classic Manhattan smart-chatty group who decided to debate the finer points of Curtis's politics and not the show itself (or his documentaries).

And what are Curtis's politics exactly? Well, a quote that is highlighted in his Wikipedia entry finds him siding with the Libertarian view, but when he speaks at length, one finds him, for lack of a better word, deeply annoyed at the way things have gone in the U.S., U.K., and Europe.

He has maintained in his documentaries that the social reforms put in place by liberals have all “failed” to change society for the better. Interestingly, though, he still takes the classically dreamy view – commonly associated with the Left – that the people can rise up and “take hold” of society, bringing about change through letting their voice be heard. This inconsistency in his political view hadn't bothered me when watching his documentaries, as I have become used to, and enjoy, his focus on systems-that-failed.

I also have always felt that it is not the artist's place to provide us with concrete solutions – if they shed light on problems in their work that is more than enough “clay” for us to work with. Costa-Gavras (someone I'm almost certain Curtis would distance himself from) made the point just this last week on an episode of Democracy Now – he maintained that filmmakers don't provide answers, they just ask questions.

But then there is the issue of whether Curtis is an artist. I would argue (I guess even with him) that he is, since he has chosen to put his journalism in the form of highly stylized telefilms that are loaded with cinematic editing techniques. Curtis himself said twice in the lecture (and I have since read it several more times) that he considers himself a journalist and not a filmmaker.

His work illustrates that he does indeed do an incredible amount of research on the “stories” he tells, but one is again confronted by the “package” he places them in. In his blog on the BBC site he writes extremely thought-provoking essays on political, social, and historical topics. He also provides scenes from rare BBC documentaries, or posts them in their entirety – his blog is definitely worth reading, and watching.

His documentaries, on the other hand, are sensory experiences that might indeed be “overlaid” on a basis of historical research, but one could hardly call a fantasia like It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), “journalism.” Reportage, no; essay and/or fun history lesson, yes.

In his telefilms his knack for editing runs wild – the talking-head interviews he conducts himself may be in the spirit of Errol Morris (he has even borrowed Morris' technique of including his final question in most of the segments he uses), but his penchant for musical montages and other “grace notes” remove his work from the journalistic sphere. Here, btw, is the only footage that I could find on the Net of Curtis on-camera, him hosting an interview with Errol Morris for the BAFTA folks:

To return to the lecture: I noted above that the audience in attendance was a classic Manhattan group of would-be intellectuals who, during a Q&A, raise their hands to state an observation rather than ask a question. If they do ask a question, they then expect to have a conversation with the speaker. They will also dote on certain things at the expense of others – in this case, they disputed the political contents of what Curtis had said, rather than in any way questioning him about his profession (perhaps none of them had seen the Armory show, and few if any had seen his telefilms).

I asked a question that was solely about his filmmaking, the simplest one of all – about influences. I recorded my question and his answer, losing only one (inaudible) part:

Q: “Are you influenced by people like Godard and Chris Marker in terms of your essay films, or even Kenneth Anger in terms of putting together music videos? Who would you consider your major filmmaking influences?”
A: “None of the above. [laughter]… I'm a journalist and I have a great belief in being simple and clear. I believe that you can take the most complicated ideas and make anyone understand them.”

At that point, Curtis acknowledged that “I think Jean-Luc Godard is quite fun,” saying he has liked his editing in the past (a dismissive gesture was made at this point, as if he were discussing a “guilty pleasure” he had to admit having sat through). He acknowledged he has probably used Godard's edits at times.

Back to the tape (when his voice was again discernible): “I'm actually influenced by writers and people who write about ideas. Editing is sort of like... I have real problems with the way a lot of avant-garde art is appropriated and used as a way to block people. I'm perfectly happy to go and steal an idea off an avant-garde artist and use it to make a television program that gets out to ordinary everyday people like myself.

“I never use the word ideology or existentialism, or the sort of terms they use. I believe in clarity. I believe that a lot of art isn't about clarity, it's about obfuscation. That's just me being populist, I'm sorry.”

And back it went to the broad-based political questions, from an audience of NYC liberals who were surprised that Curtis was so curtly dismissive of liberal and Left politics and social movements.

To close off this part, I refer you to a gent who has put up the entirety of Curtis's very important 2004 documentary miniseries The Power of Nightmares on Vimeo. You can find the whole thing here, along with the 9/11 "truther" docu Loose Change. Curtis has put down "conspiracy theorists" in the past (most notably on his blog), so I doubt he'd be happy the two docus were put together. You can't choose your audience....

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