Adam Curtis

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Re: Adam Curtis

#51 Post by colinr0380 » Mon Feb 15, 2021 6:21 am

Can't Get You Out Of My Head Episode 1: Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain

There is something strangely comforting about seeing familiar pieces of stock footage from previous Adam Curtis series turning up here, almost knowingly used as a kind of shorthand hyperlink back to previous arguments that do not need to be re-stated again. The big moment of that in this first episode comes right at the end when we get the "OR... OR... OR... " fast-paced run through of potential candidates for the JFK assassination that was a central moment of bewildered loss of innocence in It Felt Like A Kiss. Here its more about everyone retreating into supporting their own preferred candidate to then as individuals build their own world out of going forward.

But the other piece of stock footage (also from It Felt Like a Kiss) occurs a little earlier, with the father playing a game of pretend-shooting his children on the neat lawn of an early 60s suburban dwelling, which contrasts against the dramatic gun wielding of patriotic revolutionaries on the stage of the newly re-written Chinese operas as the episode transitions into American capitalist version of utopia, which also uses weaponry in its power fantasies.

I am writing the following at work based on a quickly fading memory of the episode watched yesterday, so apologies if things have started to shift and melt into new forms in my mind in the following post! :

This is the scene-setting episode where we get introduced to a number of figures across the world and see them start to formulate their theories of how the world works: Jiang Qing going from an ambitious supporting actress in Chinese film (including the titular Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain in which she played second fiddle to Li Lili, whom she apparently despised) to leaving her husband going to join the Communists after her film career did not work out and becoming Mao's third wife, with an idea of re-shaping society; Michael de Freitas as a disillusioned new immigrant to Britain working for a corrupt property developer Peter Rachman (but who would rent his slum dwellings out to people that the white establishment would never otherwise have provided any space for, which Curtis suggests is because of Rachman's own past giving him an almost mercenarily amoral approach towards right and wrong) and eventually taking over the business but with ambitions of going further into re-shaping society and destroying the dominant culture; and in America Kerry Thornley, friend of a pre-fame Lee Harvey Oswald and the co-founder of Discordianism, who wanted to parody religion and conspiracy theories by seeding Illuminati conspiracy theories into Playboy Magazine and other publications, but only ended up writing a book that influenced Jim Garrison and creating another conspiracy theory that eventually re-shaped society.

The episode cycles between these three stories throwing in extra digressions into Britain's involvement in war atrocities, the beginnings of psychological investigation into the world inside an individual's head (and whether there is a world apart from the conscious one that can be appealed to, or preyed upon) and the culture of the UK at the time. Regarding the UK section the flaw I felt in this episode is that I do not entirely buy the way in which the country is simply portrayed as racially, ethnically, politically and culturally conservative, because it does not really mention the much bigger issue that has always crippled the UK: class and inherited status. Whilst there will always be discrimination in those terms, the bigger factor would not entirely be the colour of one's skin or religion but more being born into the correct social group and not trying to impudently move up or down within that system. Arguably the thing that Curtis misses in this set up is that beyond resources and power on the world stage the other reason for the British Empire was to disenfranchise the working class within Britain itself by exploiting workers from other countries instead, often offering illusory promises of a better future (which also worked the other way in sending off people from Britain overseas to seek their fortune elsewhere, because otherwise there was nothing for them at home).

You can see that happening in dramatised form in a passage in the novel Parade's End where one of the main characters briefly talks about never wanting an uppity Northerner for a butler or general manservant because being English they feel that they exist on a level playing field, which is why he would always choose a Scotsman, because they will always be more concerned about the issues of their homeland over English political issues. That is perhaps why when people migrated to the UK hopefully for a better life they were still met with such hostility because now the exploitation was not just 'over there' any more, and the working classes already disenfranchised from the systems of power, but knowing their place within the system (at least until the once self-sufficient communities were devastated with the mining closures), were suddenly faced with people willing to do the jobs that they were not if it gave them a chance of moving up in a newly aspirational world of the 1960s. Who themselves, now just being English, were facing their own disenfranchisement from exploitation (but with no new way of being open to them as a compensation) and disillusionment with the 'promised land', and would start to formulate new ways of thinking in response.

That is perhaps the reason for the footage of the skinhead gangs trashing the club at the end of the episode: a working class culture that was initially about sharing and assimilating across cultures would eventually become associated with partisan racism. Because if you can get the working classes fighting amongst themselves and blaming each other for their lot over petty issues such as race that prevents the creation of any united front against the class barriers that exist in the society that are the real problems for everyone. From this first episode at least I am not sure that Michael de Freitas really understood that, with his anger getting funnelled indiscriminately against all white people for their ways of thinking, rather than trying to understand how those ways of thinking were fostered by the rigidness of the class system that he so wanted to become a part of. He reached the glass ceiling and then proceeded to start smashing all the windows of the greenhouse in response.

I suppose intolerance breeds intolerance, as we also see in the Jiang Qing section, as her frustrated ambitions that had curdled to bitterness within return to dominate the country when she is given the opportunity to re-shape it, at first through its culture. Contrasting with Thornley (who sees the absurdity of making oneself a figurehead) and de Freitas (who is all about thwarted ambition) she is actually given the power to re-imagine society, yet with that she cannot escape her own prejudices and long held resentments from resurfacing. Consciously or unconsciously (though really it seems consciously!) she gathers like-minded people together for a cause and brooks no dissent, finding that people (for their own reasons: maybe ambition, maybe wanting to be a part of the group, maybe the actual message itself, maybe the fear of not being a part of the group) subscribe to the new movement in their masses, and the purges of undesirables begin, starting with those filmmakers who never recognised her talents and natural star status.

The most interesting part of this first episode is the beginnings of psychological probing strand, which gets into the most damning territory of all in the MK Ultra experiments (which Curtis describes as being the 'real' conspiracy theory as compared to all the pop culture ones surrounding JFK), where people have their pasts wiped to make them blank, amoral (almost Peter Rachman-like, just seared clean by science rather than long term emotional trauma) characters than can then be 're-programmed' into properly functioning members of society, content for the roles in which they are to inhabit. But they find that whilst the stripping away is easy, adding things back is not. And so the test subjects are left adrift in a lack of context to ground them.

The episode ends with Curtis noting that both the revolutionaries (self-actualised or putative ones) and the MK Ultra psychologists both diagnose and try to treat only one half of the 'problem' of the human being in society - by changing either the human being or the society. When it is suggested that it is neither 'nature or nuture?' but both simultaneously. You cannot remove the context the human being lives in that is affecting their behaviour just as you cannot remove the individual reaction to that context that a specific human being has at a specific moment in time based on their life experiences to that point that itself also drives their responses.

Perhaps because of that complex interaction between the inner space and outer space specific revolutions or organisations are unable to capture and shape movements in any form less blunt than rhetoric and threats? But we briefly see lurking within the stock footage an ominous sign that may provide the one-stop solution to 'people management': computerisation.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Mon Feb 15, 2021 11:55 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Adam Curtis

#52 Post by JSC » Mon Feb 15, 2021 10:15 am

Perhaps unwisely, I blitzed through all six episodes over the weekend and my head was kind of reeling afterward.

Like all of Curtis' work, it is fascinating to see him pull the almost invisible threads of people, ideas, and movements
together into his main narrative. His visual motif of archival footage of people dancing to non-diegetic music is always
a standout for me. Sometimes I think he occasionally overstretches the logic of his arguments and a certain amount
of deja vu hangs over the proceedings.

i.e. the various hooks in his voice-over.

"What they discovered was astonishing...."
"But then, things became even stranger..."

However, it was definitely worth the wait (HyperNormalisation was already four years ago!)

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Re: Adam Curtis

#53 Post by ford » Mon Feb 15, 2021 11:40 am

Loved it. A brilliant but sympathetic deconstruction of New Left ideas about individualism and ethno-nationalism/identity.

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Re: Adam Curtis

#54 Post by thirtyframesasecond » Thu Feb 18, 2021 5:52 am

I watched these over a couple of days and have started rewatching (I'm on episode 4 second time around). I wish these were broadcast on BBC2 for a wider audience, but iPlayer may just give Curtis more freedom and allow him to develop ideas without the need to worry about time slots (though Bitter Lake and Hypernormalisation often meandered and some editing control could have helped!)

In some ways, this plays as a bit of Curtis's greatest hits. For two decades he's been wrestling with the idea of the role of the individual in society and how freedom may not be what we were promised. He reuses some of the same/similar interviews from before - the Ewen Cameron psychological experiments of wiping 'defective' memories, for example. But it never feels like it's going through the motions. I think this is probably more timely than ever since 'feelings' have been encouraged to take precedence over facts, rationality and common sense and the effects of this are not uniformly positive. His weaving between storylines in China, Russia, the US and UK can sometimes be a little convenient in the parallels he tries to draw (what connects Michael de Freitas and Jang Qing, for example?) but those individual stories themselves are so fascinating that this is fine. Curtis's techniques are familiar and well-honed; his brilliant v/o ('but this was just fantasy' - easy to play Curtis bingo, isn't it?), the use of archive footage, the superb use of music (he quite amusingly wraps the series up with Gang of Four). I find myself pausing often to go to Wikipedia whenever a new person is mentioned - who was Eduard Limonov, for example? The eight hours just blitzed by.

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Re: Adam Curtis

#55 Post by ford » Thu Feb 18, 2021 11:04 am

thirtyframesasecond wrote:
Thu Feb 18, 2021 5:52 am
who was Eduard Limonov, for example? The eight hours just blitzed by.
His early books, like Memoir of a Russian Punk, are excellent.

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Re: Adam Curtis

#56 Post by furbicide » Wed Feb 24, 2021 10:48 pm

Just finished it – it's excellent, but my only disappointment is that he didn't spend more time on the Trump era, which ended up feeling a bit rushed being packed into the last 20-30 minutes. But there's so much great material here.

This might be a super-obvious observation, but what hit me about Curtis while watching the documentary is that he's first and foremost a storyteller. Most documentaries are framed as stories (for better or for worse), but Curtis' works are like short-story collections – ones in which the short stories are often interwoven, or parallel one another in interesting ways. This visual griot/troubadour role accounts for both his strengths (i.e. it's one of the key things that makes his documentaries so compelling) and weaknesses (the oversimplifications and elisions he gets criticised for) as a documentarian. You might not necessarily believe every single thing he says, but it's hard to think of a better person to tell the story of the modern world (even if only because few others would have the audacity to try).

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