‘Adam Curtis believed that 200,000 Guardian readers watching BBC2 could change the world. But this was a fantasy. In fact, he had created the televisual equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge with pretentions to narrative coherence...’
You really must watch Ben Woodhams’s brilliant 2011 Adam Curtis-pastiche mini-documentary The Loving Trap, which you’ll find on YouTube. It’s so devastatingly cruel, funny and accurate that when I first saw it I speculated that Curtis would never be able to work again.
But this was fantasy. Of course, I knew that Curtis would be back, not least because to be parodied in this way is not an insult but a sure sign that you’ve seriously made it.
‘Combining archive documentary material with interviews, Curtis filled in the gaps by vomiting grainy library footage onto the screen to a soundtrack of Brian Eno and Nine Inch Nails.’ Yes, I’m sure Curtis — who, I suspect, takes himself quite seriously — must have winced at this dissection of his technique. But how many other documentary-makers get indulged by the BBC these days with 166 minutes of airtime to say whatever the hell they like?
His latest meisterwerk, HyperNormalisation (BBC iPlayer), begins in split screen in 1975 in two cities, New York and Damascus, with two events that supposedly explain the otherwise incomprehensible world we live in today. One was the city of New York effectively going bankrupt, causing bankers to supplant politicians as controllers of the world and ordinary people to jettison politics for Jane Fonda fitness videos; the other was Syrian President Hafez al-Assad nurturing a bold plan to unite the Arab world, only to be thwarted by the Machiavellian, divisive scheming of Henry Kissinger, leading inexorably to the invention of suicide bombing, Isis, the chaos in modern Syria and, somehow, Brexit.
Your instinct at this point might be to go, ‘That’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?’ — and you’re probably right. What Curtis likes to do is construct a grand, overarching theory of everything whose inconsistencies, flaws and gaping holes he seduces you into ignoring with the confidence of his gently insistent voiceover, his fantastically well-sourced and pleasingly edited found film footage, and his ace ambient and dubstep soundtracks.
Whether you love it or you hate it — I do both — it makes for gloriously compulsive, maddening, fascinating viewing. And when he forgets that his day job is to be the thinking pseud’s David Icke — Russell Brand is a massive fan — Curtis sometimes makes the most amazingly insightful connections which give you genuine pause.
His thesis on Colonel Gaddafi, I thought, was especially persuasive. Gaddafi, he argued, was repeatedly exploited by the US as the scapegoat for its problems with the Middle East — not because Libya ever represented a serious threat, but rather because the Americans felt more comfortable dealing with a largely harmless cartoon villain than they did with the real menace: Syria.
This would explain Reagan’s theatrical 1986 bombing raid on Tripoli; and also, of course, the bizarre aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing when, mysteriously, the finger of blame shifted from Syria to Libya, less because the evidence showed this than because America willed it to be so. Hence, too, the even weirder incident when Tony Blair interrupted the BBC news with a live announcement that his new friend Gaddafi had renounced all his weapons of mass destruction, and was henceforward to be treated as a global third-way visionary. (At least until it suited the West to scapegoat Gaddafi yet again, blow up his convoy with a drone, and allow him to be raped, brutalised and killed by a lynch mob in the traditional Libyan way.)
Is it any wonder we’ve ceased trusting our governments? From this perfectly reasonable proposition, however, Curtis segues to the rather more ambitious notion that pretty much everything we know is a lie: our politicians make everything up, so to escape their lies we’ve retreated into our solipsistic safe spaces on the internet, where we entertain ourselves watching cats dressed in shark outfits spinning round the kitchen floor on Roomba robot vacuum cleaners.
When Curtis is good, he’s very, very good. I still cherish his insights into the invention of the environmental movement in his marvellous All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. And he’s never, ever boring. But like a restless sixth-former who’s just too clever for his own good (bet he was really annoying at Sevenoaks), he has to go and ruin everything by pushing his theories that little bit too far into the realms of conspiracy-theory silliness.
Plus, his political insights — on the rare occasions he deigns not to conceal them behind layers and layers of ambiguity — turn out to be pretty trite and tiresome. His illustration of Brexit: reaction shots of people staring aghast in the horror movie Carrie. Yes, that’s just what Brexit was like, Adam. Like a prom queen being doused with buckets of pigs’ blood. Clever, probing, insightful you!