All Watched Over by Adam Curtis

The problem, it seems, is that Adam Curtis is too good at his job. His films weave together disparate and surprising historical material – coincidences, parallels, buried histories that finally rise at crucial points – to articulate complex, skewed theses in a manner as ‘accessible’ as any Blairite advocate of transparent TV could wish for. No TV documentarian presents ideas so abstract in such a lucid and gripping way (scratch that – they don’t present them at all). But the very persuasiveness of his documentaries is beginning to seem like their Achilles heel. After twenty years, we begin to suspect that this authoritative delivery – brilliant, witty visual collage and the plummy, fussy tone to be expected of a former Oxford history lecturer – putting questionable conclusions in ways that precisely suppress their questionability. His latest series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which just finished its 3-part run on BBC 2, is as intellectually and formally daring – and as thrilling – as TV gets. It’s exactly this that makes its flaws all the more galling.

Curtis’ argument, put very roughly, is that the rise, from the end of the 60s onwards, of computers, structuring and controlling every level of collective and individual life – from the calculated targets that surround the delivery of public services to the internet – have erased the idea that shaped the 20th century: that the world can be positively changed. Instead, Curtis contends, the image we now possess is one of self-regulating, immutable systems, which shadows us everywhere – from the portrait of the capitalist free market, to that of the global ecosystem, to that of the ‘global village’ of cyberspace, in which all of us are solipsistic, impotent.

None of these arguments is especially new but, as with his method of filmic collage, of creative archive-pillaging, it’s a question of the connections and juxtapositions he draws, the way he forces material and ideas to talk to each other. It’s a technique that achieves sublimity in the third episode, moving between geneticist George Price’s descent into madness, Dian Fossey’s research on the great apes, and the outbreak of the civil war still consuming central Africa. One can detect here the influence of his work on It Felt Like a Kiss (his film for Punchdrunk Theatre’s 2009 show of the same name), a virtuoso piece that introduced a more audacious, innovative visual logic to his work; but, where that film’s free-floating segues between ideas were at times breathtaking, the wild swings of subject matter of the first episode of All Watched Over just seem eccentric, wayward. From the Californian ideology to Ayn Rand’s sex-life to the Lewinsky scandal to 9/11: it looks like the random jottings of a conspiracy theorist; he discusses extensively the problems with the notion of the internet, or the economy, as a ‘network society’ that became fashionable in the 90s, but mysteriously leaves the Cybernetics 101 stuff to the second episode, leaving us with the ridiculous impression that all cyberneticians were Randian Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, as opposed to the hacktivists and cyberpunks who really populated the early internet.

It does improve: his account, at the end of the first episode, of the character of neo-liberal capitalism during the Clinton and Bush years – particularly the way the market’s self-image as a computer-managed, self-correcting system underpinned the financial crisis – is brilliant; the second weaves his usual magic – revelling in the jostle of different film textures, incongruous soundtracks and wry jokes; the final episode – especially its climax (like an action director he usually leaves the excitement to the last twenty minutes) – raises the medium to a factual poetry.

As history, it’s twisted, fragmented – a quality wrongly read by most critics as incoherence or wilful deception – and all the more valuable for that, a gesture to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Walter Benjamin). There are devastating moments that seem to crystallise entire volumes of thought about our dreadful historical situation. The piercing originality of thought inextricable from formal innovation comes within sight: the series’ verdict on neo-liberalism and evolutionary psychology (our thinly-disguised version of 19th-century social Darwinism) is crushing and timely; but it slips away again. Leftist critics have rightly questioned (on the blogs that Curtis so haughtily despises) his account of non-hierarchical forms of organisation (such as the utopian communes built at the end of the 60s); his conclusion that they are simply based on a deformed model of nature-as-machine-network, and give us “no ideas of what comes next” conveniently ignores the entire tradition of popular self-organisation that stretches back beyond the French Revolution.

This is no small point. The most important political fact of our time is the re-emergence of this anti-hierarchical popular radicalism – thought quashed in the 1970s – in the anti-cuts struggle, the resurgent labour conflict in America, and the Arab revolutions. He does acknowledge this history in the form of the eco-protesters outside the UN conference on The Limits to Growth; but he is unable to accept that the popular radicalism of today – embodied in groups like UK Uncut, whom Curtis has publicly attacked – is its inheritor. For Curtis, as his other series have shown, the only salvation lies in a paternalist-statist social democracy which provides his Reithian authority (unlimited access to the BBC archive doesn’t come from nowhere y’know), and of which – with a Labour party now explicitly committed to kicking the poor – he is now the sole representative. Hence, perhaps, the chilling fatalism of the series’ conclusion: that the possibility of changing the world has been irrevocably lost, and the strongest hope of our time – a resurgent non-hierarchical popular self-organisation – is also a dead end. At this point, one suspects that the series’ flaws are not so much accidents as parapraxes, neurotic symptoms of what Curtis has had to occlude to make his thesis, in all its hopelessness, work.

The brilliance of Curtis’ achievement – consistently producing smart, iconoclastic, formally seductive, high-profile films in a mediascape almost defined by lack of imagination and critical vision – is such that any objection seems churlish; but at the same time, we resent being made to feel like churls for identifying problems that are there, and shouldn’t be. Being, in every other way, too good, is no excuse.


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