All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

“I’m a journalist, a historian. I’m not some sort of trendy filmmaker.” Adam Curtis is keen to stress this in my interview with him, and afterward I realize why. Most interviews tend to focus on the dense weave of ideas in his documentaries, but he’s rarely asked to talk about the look and feel of his work. Take his most recent BBC series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (11), which covers, among many other things, Alan Greenspan’s links to Ayn Rand; what Silicon Valley owes to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism; and how, after the collapse of the Asian miracle economies in the late Nineties, the Chinese politburo “designed a system to manage America.” Plenty to chew over there, and that’s only in the first of three episodes. But to emphasize content over form is to avoid addressing what makes his films such compulsive viewing, as if the way he expresses his ideas wasn’t an integral part of his argument.

Curtis’s trademark style rests on the contrast between commentary and image. The tone in which he delivers his voiceovers is calm and measured, with the sort of reassuring modulations that could make the collapse of Western capitalism sound as benign as a forecast of fine weather. But beneath his melodious exposition, mad crash-edits of archival footage vie with ominous tracking shots through deserted institutional corridors, and wide-eyed animals (Curtis favors owls, mantises, and marmots) gaze at heads of states rationally planning the next policy calamity, while snatches of pop music and electronica add a further sonic counterpoint to the image avalanche. He describes himself as someone “who nicks larky ideas and techniques from art, pop music, and all the other things around and bolts them together with some quite basic and often quite boring historical research.” And since he started making documentaries for the BBC in the early Eighties, Curtis has finessed this voice-versus-image, tone-versus-texture clash into a signature style, now recognizable enough to spawn online parodies.

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom

It was The Power of Nightmares, his 2004 series about the rise of the post-9/11 politics of fear, that brought Curtis to widespread international attention, as well as making him something of a culture hero for those who thought the War on Terror was, to put it mildly, ill-advised. The year after the series was first broadcast I bumped into him at the British Library. “They hate me in BBC Current Affairs,” he told me. So, six years and two new series later, when we reconvene over tea at the BL, I ask why fellow journalists felt such hostility toward him. “I gave them a good kicking so they tried to give me a good kicking back. I think we love each other now,” he laughs. “The BBC did focus groups because The Power of Nightmares caused such a stir and people said, ‘No, he was just saying what we thought.’ Which is actually a bit humbling. It wasn’t a great piece of investigative journalism. I was just pushing at an open door in people’s minds. I think one of the most interesting things of our time is why journalists don’t do that any longer. Why they create their own little rooms of fear and apocalypse, which don’t actually relate to how people think and feel these days. I don’t know why journalists have lost touch.”

Curtis’s films divide opinion. There are those, like me, who believe that his unrepentant interest in ideas, as well as his exciting presentation of them, makes him a treasurable one-off. Others dismiss his arguments as overly associative and mutter darkly about “conspiracy theories.” The center-left weekly The New Statesman dubbed his documentaries “fauxbrow,” fulminating over how they “rely on image and music to state their case rather than rational argument.” Reviewing Curtis’s 2007 series The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, the right-wing monthly Prospect berated his “indiscriminate use of grainy documentary footage and suggestive music.” Leaving aside the shocking notion that a filmmaker should use image and sound to tell a story, the visual illiteracy underlying such criticisms has deep roots (Truffaut wasn’t entirely wrong when he noted a certain incompatibility between the words “British” and “cinema”) and taps into a residual Puritanism and a dominant middlebrow literary bias. This is particularly pronounced in the British documentary tradition, formatively divided between the austere factualism of John Grierson and the playful essays of Humphrey Jennings. Curtis has no hesitation about which side he comes down on, dismissing “old-style documentarians that refuse to have any commentary because they don’t want to ‘mediate,’ but it disguises the fact they’ve got nothing to say. Long shots over the bleak graves of Bosnia, with Arvo Pärt playing over them. It’s a dead end.”

One might even say he was born—in Kent, in 1955—into this divided tradition. His father, Martin Curtis, was Jennings’s cameraman and took his son to see such films as a boy. “I thought they were incredibly boring because they had no story,” he recalls. “The biggest influence was a novel my father gave me to read at the age of about 13, U.S.A. by John Dos Passos. At that age, it just got me. You can trace back everything I do to that novel because it’s all about the relationship between grand history and individual experience. And it’s a collage with quotes from newsreels, cinema, and newspapers—a collage of history. That’s where I get it all from.”

The Power of Nightmares

Curtis had originally intended to devote an episode of The Power of Nightmares to Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as part of his account of what he calls “the wave of conservative reaction to the failure of the Left that happened from the late Seventies.” This is an abiding preoccupation in his films, and in the opening episode of All Watched Over he deploys Rand as its focal figure. “I think she’s an absolutely fascinating example of another of these weird manifestations of the resurgence of conservatism,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve fully worked out what its true dimensions are. I’m extremely dubious that it’s the return of the free market. It’s some weird technocracy.” Almost everything he’s made since The Century of the Self (02), which examined the interface between Freudianism and consumerism, has been exploring this historical phenomenon from different angles. “Don’t look at it as just a bunch of right-wingers,” he warns. “Look at what this system is. How power flows through it. What is consumerism? What are things like Islamism, looked at from a Western perspective? What are the ideas drawn from computers that seem to underpin this system? Where do they come from and what does that tell us about this system?” Then again, he adds, “To be brutal, Ayn Rand’s also a great story.”

Ah, the “s” word. Curtis uses it both as a hack’s shorthand for a newsworthy item, as well as for their accumulation as the proverbial “first draft of history,” and more knowingly in the familiar voiceover (“This is a story about…”) with which he frequently opens his films. So, when Curtis insists he’s a journalist and historian, he’s also asserting his role as storyteller. “Is it possible to make real life as story-like as novels are?” he wonders. “That’s what drives me. Most of what I nick doesn’t come from films. It comes from novels. I really love those 19th-century novels, like Zola, where you take a story and use it to tell something bigger, like I used the Freud family to take you through consumerism in The Century of the Self.” This is how Rand features in All Watched Over: as someone whose philosophy of extreme individualism was dismissed as dangerous in her lifetime, who gathered around her a coterie that christened itself (with the smug chuckle of the seminar room) “The Collective,” and whose ideas have since become highly influential. (At one point in All Watched Over, Curtis cites a Library of Congress survey claiming Atlas Shrugged

The treatment of Rand and her circle in All Watched Over marks a departure in his filmmaking, in that he’s become increasingly interested in those reasons of the heart “of which reason knows nothing,” as Pascal put it. So we learn of how the ultra-rationalist, anti-altruist Collective was sundered by the hothouse emotions loosed among them after Rand recruited one of her young acolytes, Nathaniel Branden, as her lover. Curtis speaks to Branden and what emerges is a nuanced portrait of Rand as a lonely intellectual autocrat. “The other reason I couldn’t put Rand in The Power of Nightmares was because I wasn’t courageous enough to do something I’ve long wanted to do, which is to make a film that is both causal and analytical but is also about emotion and character, and how these echo each other,” Curtis admits. “The ideology of our time says that what you feel is the most important thing. So I want to be able to create films that not only examine that analytically but also emotionally, because you’re dealing with people’s desires.”

It Felt Like a Kiss

Throughout our interview curtis repeatedly refers to All Watched Over as being far more “experimental” than his previous films, something he attributes to the experience of creating It Felt Like a Kiss in 2009. That 54-minute piece was made as part of a theatrical production for the Manchester International Festival and could be called “Curtis Unplugged”: an archival-and-musical mash-up that dispenses with voiceover entirely and chronicles “how America set out to remake the world 50 years ago.” It has quite a cast: “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the Chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.”

“I was trying to take the emotional stuff I’d done with It Felt Like a Kiss and see if I could integrate that with a more straightforward, analytical, causal piece of journalism,” he explains. “Personally, I think I got it right on the third film in All Watched Over, about the geneticist George Price and the Congo. It was really bonkers, but I think it worked. I’m terribly proud of that film. You’re making films that are still serious and clear but at the same time are trying to touch people emotionally. Some people get it. Others just find it baffling and think I should keep the two separate.”

A further development around this time was Curtis’s blog, The Medium and the Message, the impetus for which was the BBC encouraging him to delve deeply and often into its vast film archive. Since 2008 he has used the site to research new stories into which, as a sanctioned archive-ferreter, he incorporates choice extracts from old BBC programs. It’s a feast. A recent piece, entitled “Dream On,” covers Sixties British Pop art, the rise and fall of the New Left, and the Frankfurt School (to think that the BBC once aired in-depth interviews with philosophical heavyweights like Herbert Marcuse!). You can’t help hoping that Curtis will turn it into a film.

His fascination and facility with found footage has recently attracted the attention of what he calls “the art lot.” But he’s bemused by the recent interest shown by institutions such as Tate Modern and the Frieze Art Fair. “For some unknown reason they’ve decided they like me and I’m always incredibly rude to them,” he says. “They’re a fickle lot and they’ll probably go off me tomorrow.” The website has also given him a clear sense of who his audience is. “They’re fascinated about this funny area where politics, culture, and art all cross over and influence each other,” he says. “They’re not interested in kitsch irony but are playful, silly, and love pop music. It’s a really big audience and ranges over quite an age group. I got 1.6 million [viewers] for All Watched Over, which was amazing for the pretentious shit I do!” To think that the foremost audiovisual essayist-journalist-historianstoryteller- collagist in Britain today is a product of the state broadcaster is no less amazing. I can’t wait to see what he brings up from the vaults next.