Two self-directed films this week, and that is usually a bad sign. Every television auteur, even the best, needs someone at his shoulder saying, ‘Nah, mate, won’t work.’ The lack of an independent voice can be disastrous and lead to Billy Bunter levels of self-indulgence.
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (BBC2, Monday) was the latest Adam Curtis film, named after a poem by Richard Brautigan. This imagines — ironically, I suppose — a situation in which humans return to a state of nature, with all our needs cared for by computers.
It was a typical Curtis film, resembling one of those dreams you sort of remember because you’ve just woken up. One image follows another without there necessarily being any connection. Strips of film, some in black and white, some speeded up, some in slow motion, are lingered over or disappear in an instant. The background music is heavy and emotional, yet often has no connection with what’s on the screen. Any logical storyline has to be inferred by the viewer because the film has hurried on too fast, shouting ‘catch you later!’ over its shoulder.
We started with an old interview with Ayn Rand, the Russian-American philosopher who was never taken seriously by other philosophers but was extraordinarily successful in the States during the 1950s, particularly through her novel Atlas Shrugged, ancient paperbacks of which now moulder in thousands of motels and trailer homes.
Rand invented ‘objectivism’, which taught that rational self-interest was the only way society could succeed. She rejected religion, altruism and collectivism. She might be largely forgotten now (and ended her days alone, tending her stamp collection) but according to Curtis she inspired the inventors of Silicon Valley. Quite why is never explained, since apart from the big names — Jobs, Gates, etc. — it is hard to think of any industry which requires more collective thinking than IT. The Ayn Rand free spirit might come up with, say, the mouse, but it then takes hundreds of people to make it work.
But no matter, because in moments we were speeding to the world economic crisis. Ha! It turns out that Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, had been a follower of Ayn Rand. He presided over a period when people really did think computers would iron out the imperfections in the human mind. Hedge funds would work because your laptop would tell you which loans were sound and which weren’t. Except they didn’t.
Enter Bill Clinton, seen with Monica Lewinsky as she gazed up at him adoringly at great length, while Leonard Cohen for some reason sang ‘Suzanne’ who, you may remember, feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China. So Clinton neglects his presidential duties to cope with the stained-dress business, then, at hyperspeed, we are in the Far East where American banks are lending the locals way too much money, which they pull out as soon as things start looking like a pear that’s gone pear-shaped, so ruining several economies. Now the Chinese are getting their own back by selling Americans artificially cheap goods and buying trillions in American bonds, which means they now have the power of life and death over the US economy, like Michael Jackson dangling his baby out of a hotel window — an image that doesn’t appear in this film, but which I freely donate to Adam Curtis.
Just as when you wake up and tell your partner, ‘I had this really weird dream, and we were in a submarine, and the Queen was serving drinks behind the bar…’ and it disappears from memory even as you describe it, so you might say, ‘I watched this really weird TV show, and, well, apparently the world economic crisis was caused by Ayn Rand, or perhaps it was computers, and maybe Monica Lewinsky was in it, I’m not sure why…’ Like the judge addressed by F.E. Smith, I am better informed, but none the wiser.
The other big documentary was Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood (BBC2, Friday), a film on a topic selected by Paul Merton, directed by Paul Merton, written by Paul Merton and his wife, featuring an awful lot of Paul Merton. So I watched with some misgivings, not helped by the fact that this is a well-trodden road. But it worked extremely well, and was full of stuff I for one didn’t know. Did you realise that the first Hollywood was Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was near New York and had lots of cliffs for people to dangle from, hence ‘cliff-hangers’? Or that Edison hired thugs to smash up cinemas that didn’t pay him royalties, which is why film-makers headed to California? Or that Charlie Chaplin doesn’t seem remotely funny today? Me neither. Fascinating stuff.