You’ll forgive me, I hope, for coming back so soon to the subject of Adam Curtis, the first part of whose All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace was so ably dissected by Simon Hoggart last week.
You’ll forgive me, I hope, for coming back so soon to the subject of Adam Curtis, the first part of whose All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace was so ably dissected by Simon Hoggart last week. Only, no less a personage than Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times has estimated Curtis as ‘TV’s greatest documentary maker’ and the BBC obviously agrees. So, really, two Speccie TV reviews in a fortnight is surely the barest minimum this genius deserves.
Is he, though? Is Curtis really a genius? Well, I’ll tell you right away what he’s good at — so good that I can’t immediately think of anyone who does it better — and that’s mixing and editing. His documentaries aren’t so much documentaries as works of art: the sort of postmodern works of art that you might find being represented by Jay Jopling or winning the Turner Prize.
I don’t mean that in a snarky way. The second part of AWOBMOLG really was an absolute pleasure to experience. It had a cool, apt post-rock/industrial/dubstep soundtrack. And the archive film footage he’d unearthed was just stupendous: Stalinist hippies pretending to be liberated and non-judgmental at a Seventies experimental commune; Fifties naturalists in their long trousers and long-sleeved shirts discovering ecology; a truly bizarre experiment in which a man with a tape recorder followed a deer round the Kansas grasslands, reporting on what it ate and how many mouthfuls; sinister technocrats at the first international environmental conference at Stockholm in 1972 plotting the creation of the New World Order.
And it’s all so lovingly stitched together with an attention to detail you might almost call anally retentive that it makes most other documentaries look pedestrian. He’ll have, say, a biologist talking about something he did with trees in the 1950s, and, instead of just contenting himself with running the footage of the talking head, he’ll cut away briefly to the most tremendous, apposite, grainy, atmospheric Fifties archive film of trees you ever saw in your entire life. This gives Curtis’s films the most extraordinarily rich textures. And, as Hoggart rightly noted, the cumulative effect is like having a very strange dream.
Curtis, in other words, is a stylist. He’s the factual TV equivalent, indeed, of another figure given endless licence by the BBC to do whatever the hell he likes because he’s so great — Stephen Poliakoff.
But the problem with Curtis — as it is, to a degree, with Poliakoff — is that he is too clever by half. Maybe he’s trying to make amends for having cut his teeth on That’s Life — the programme in which Esther Rantzen and Cyril Fletcher entertained Middle England with tales of dogs that could say ‘sausages’ and photographs of misshapen carrots that looked a bit like penises, with a bit of crusading consumer-rights stuff on the side. Maybe, when he read Human Sciences at Oxford, his intellectual flights were given too much encouragement by a tutor who really should have squashed them. I don’t know. What I do know is that the content of his documentaries often steers dangerously close to something beginning with ‘w’ and ending with ‘ank’.
So, after The Power of Nightmares — in which he ludicrously, dangerously and, yes, wankily suggested that the global Islamist terrorist threat was essentially the creation of Jewish US neocons — he is now back to warn us that the whole world is in thrall to some terrible Matrix-like computer-machine-system thing which we are powerless to control.
What’s sad here is the utter waste of superb material. In part two, for what I think may have been the first time ever on TV, Curtis succeeded in exposing how most current global environmental policy is based on a massive lie: the ‘ecosystem’ is a fiction; the idea that nature tends towards a stable state, which we, as humans, should encourage by abandoning our quest for endless economic growth and pursuing ‘sustainability’ instead, is based on the flimsiest of junk science.
All this, Curtis demonstrated most effectively with reference to Jay Forrester (Hobsbawm-ishly unrepentant in interview), the MIT computer programmer whose dubious models formed the basis of the doomsday predictions made by the shadowy Club of Rome (and, by extension, those ‘projections’ used by the IPCC); and, before Forrester, to the various dodgy ecologists who dreamed up the whole concept of the biosphere, not through empirical observation, but merely by theorising that the natural world works just like a machine. (Which, it doesn’t; not at all.)
But then, having done all this superb homework, having found just the right people to talk to and exactly the right footage to use, with the perfect soundtrack, Curtis has insisted on blowing it by using the material to support his grand overarching theory about computers, somehow incorporating Ayn Rand because, hey, right-wing people like her, so she must be part of the problem.
So what you get, in the end, is the equivalent of, say, an undergraduate essay on The Tempest showing the surest grasp of Shakespeare’s language and the strongest sense of period and the most brilliantly apt quotes, only to discover at the end that what the play’s really about is the creative struggles of Banksy to make meaningful art in an ironic, post-Emin universe. And really it’s not, it’s about something else entirely.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 4, 2011