Adam Curtis: An Appraisal

‘Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain.’

Adam Curtis in Bitter Lake

When I was about sixteen years old, I was once with my father who was having a conversation with an old friend about the current events of the time. Already politically minded and loving all things Conservative and hating anything synonymous with Labour, my naïveté towards the matters being discussed was evident. As such, my father’s friend quietly recommended to him to tell me to look up ‘Adam Curtis’. I did so and came across the latest video by the man on YouTube called Oh Dearism II—a 5-minute-long documentary on the Ukraine crisis and its relevance to the global context. Despite its short length, it had a profound effect on me.

Adam Curtis is a bit of an anomaly in the media. A documentary filmmaker with nearly forty years of experience and four BAFTAs to his name, he has divided the many camps that have viewed his idiosyncratic work, especially through his long-time collaboration with the BBC. For many on the Right—especially those of the neoconservative movement—Curtis is nothing but a propagandist for the Left, with Douglas Murray’s 2005 book Neoconservatism: Why We Need It describing Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares as a ‘flippant and false show’ comparable to ‘the profitable demagoguery of Michael Moore’. This appears true when reading Tim Stanley’s recent interview with Curtis to discuss his latest documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, where Curtis tells Stanley that ‘he is a progressive, a man of the Left’. Yet, it is in this very same documentary that he criticises the critics of Brexit and Trump for failing to come up with a viable alternative, even with Biden now being the new US President. In another interview in 2012, Curtis clearly outlined his position as an adherent of Weberism and was critical of the ‘crude left-wing vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society’. Contrary to Moore—who admires Curtis—the latter has criticised the former’s work when it was compared to Curtis’s, stating that ‘Moore is a political agitprop film-maker. I am not—you’d be hard pushed to tell my politics from watching it’. Indeed, Curtis and his work are filled ambiguity and, at times, full of contradictions.

However, it is this consistent trait in Curtis’s documentaries—along with his obsession with ‘power’ and ‘the elite’—that makes his materials’ discourse so powerful and thought provoking. Unlike the several sections of society Curtis accuses of causing the West’s existential crisis, he does not attempt to proselytise. Due to the fact that Curtis himself is ‘a creature of [his] time’ due to not knowing which side he situates in—whether it be as a neoconservative for his criticisms of the rise of individualism in The Century of the Self, or having ‘a more libertarian tendency’—it give his viewers an opportunity to reflect on what really are their own political beliefs, if they have any. Curtis’s analysis of world events through the use of grainy archive footage—which incorporates a John Dos Passos-inspired ‘camera view’—and the ironic and hypnotic mixture of popular music and niche film scores proliferates this possibility when he discusses the cruxes of matters that don’t seem to connect with each other at a first glance. Curtis’s documentaries thus tend to reflect the intricacies of the modern world that confuse ourselves to the point where we begin to question what our actual ideologies and values are.

Inevitably, this has given cause for Curtis’s critics to accuse him of dabbling in conspiracy theories—especially against his 2016 Hypernormalisation, where he compares Alexei Yurchak’s theory of the same name on the Soviet Union’s late socialism’s ‘fakeness’ to the West’s own unease with its ambiguous and divided vision for its existence. In addition, this gives rise to parodies being made, some of which are admittedly very well done and amusing. But there always must be the distinction between conspiracy theories which make unproven claims under a narrative of objectivity to that of genuine enquiries which cause one to question whether our previous assumptions are wholly true and how they can be potentially misleading. In the case of what Curtis is proposing, it is the latter we should be doing—especially when he criticises conspiracy theories’ bizarre claims that withdraw the moderate majority back to the status quo for the sake of sanity, thus reinforcing these very same assumptions that we take for granted.

Curtis’s documentaries are therefore more of an art than a political message postulating what we should believe in, albeit—like most art forms—containing a political undertone of some sort. They are an expression of the past and present events that we have experienced yet what we do not fully understand. Like religion, we follow ideologies to help us make sense of them, even if they are a completely misguided. It shows how ideas—especially in the age of information and its rapid diffusion—have greater precedence on influencing the world beyond that of material forces alone. The contemporary crisis that faces us is not necessarily an economic one or a physical quagmire such as the coronavirus, but the disillusionment we have with the world that supposedly represents different peoples—these events only exacerbating this divide. Since first watching Curtis and continuing to do so, one believes the main solution to the world’s general problems is realising what is mendable and what is not with an open mind—even if this will still cause disagreements to inevitably arise.

Featured image credit: “Adam Curtis taking questions after the showing of Power of Nightmares” by Steve Rhodes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0