Adam Curtis returns to the BBC on the 23 May with his new series, ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’. For anyone reading who doesn’t know who Adam Curtis or why a documentary maker is featuring on a theatre blog then the good ol’ folks at the BBC have put the whole of ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’ on the website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/it_felt_like_a_kiss/). This sublime montage work was created in collaboration with Punchdrunk as part of the Manchester Festival.
It Felt Like A Kiss marks a more explicitly artistic approach to serious documentary film making than Curtis has subsequently produced and ‘All Watched Over…’ appears to be a continuation of this approach (a short taster can be seen here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/may/06/adam-curtis-computers-documentary). In the clip Curtis seems to be continuing with his experimentations in montage and discordant sounds rather than delivering a straight narrative (in the style of Dispatches or Panorama). The ongoing use of film clips, archive news footage and interview in juxtaposition may be regarded as pretentious by some but this underestimates the scale of what Curtis is attempting.
Curtis’ documentaries are nothing short of a challenge to the mainstream, liberal democratic ideology that individuals in Anglo-American countries are brought up with. However he is rarely, if ever, explicitly political and the strength comes from an understanding that it is the application of academic and scientific theories advancing technocratic, rationalist and consumerist solutions that have skilfully subverted the political discourse away from the power of the individual to change thigns. Thus we had The Mayfair Set examining how market economics has transferred power from government to large corporations, whilst in The Century of the Self we see how the development of psychology fatally undermined the belief that humans can be free as individuals and the sublime Power of Nightmares looked the development of real-politic and how its ideas shape how governments interact with society.
The questions that Curtis poses about the power of the individual and the functioning of society go against almost every liberal principle and value that we have been taught to believe in. This is not a challenge to an ideology but a direct challenge to the very idea that we have the freedom to act and think the way we do, with the correlating, terrifying idea that if all Curtis says is true then there is very little that we can do to halt our slide to powerlessness.
Unsurprisingly it is natural to reject ideas that fundamentally question our core values and countering this rejection brings us, full circle, back to the question of technique. It seems that Curtis employs the collage process less as an affectation and more because it is the only feasible way to challenge the audience without the agenda being dismissed. The rapid fire imagery and unexpected connections disorientates the viewer and takes them out of their natural comfort zone. The point of this is to create a space where people’s natural bias towards their own preconceived ideas can be challenged, instituting a state of cognitive dissonance in the viewer that Curtis hopes will lead to questioning and eventual rejection of preconceptions.
‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.’ The title of the series alone suggests we are onto something a little outside of the mainstream; beautifully poetic , it is lifted from a collection by the American poet, Richard Brautigan; the title poem examining cybernetics and the elimination of human labour. This is in keeping with the narrative propelling the new series, which promises to look at the development of the idea that humans exist within a tightly knit networked society and will unfold a story that leads us from the rejection of hierarchal beliefs within hippy communes of the 1960’s to a society where newspapers crowdsource ideas and the existence of a separate political discourse to market-orientated liberal democracy discourse is all but unthinkable.
It is true to say that I have absolutely no idea how he will get there but I urge everyone to join him fo the ride.
For those who want to know more, I cannot recommend his blog highly enough. There is more intelligent comment on it than the rests of the internet combined: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/