Sunday, November 23, 2008

Adam Curtis - The Living Dead

I had a request this month to post more of the films by Adam Curtis. I have already posted The Trap, The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares...some of the more recent work by this important film maker. Because each of his documentaries have at least three episodes, I will only post one at a time of his remaining film collection. But, I hear you ask, who is Adam Curtis and why is he so important?

Adam Curtis (born 1955) is a British television documentary maker who has during the course of his television career worked as a writer, producer, director and narrator. He currently works for BBC Current Affairs. He is noted for making programmes which express a clear (and sometimes controversial) opinion about their subject, and for narrating the programmes himself.

After attending Sevenoaks School (a member of the 'art room' that produced influential musicians, Tom Greenhalgh, Kevin Lycett and Mark White of The Mekons along with Andy Gill and Jon King of the Gang of Four) Curtis studied for a BA in Human Sciences (which included courses in genetics, psychology, politics, geography and elementary statistics) at Oxford University. Curtis subsequently taught politics there but left for a career in television. He got a job on the show That's Life! where he learned to find humour in serious subjects. He went on to make documentaries on more serious subjects but retained his playful tone.

Curtis's intensive use of archive footage is a distinctive touch of his. An Observer profile said:

Curtis has a remarkable feel for the serendipity of such moments, and an obsessive skill in locating them. 'That kind of footage shows just how dull I can be,' he admits, a little glumly. 'The BBC has an archive of all these tapes where they have just dumped all the news items they have ever shown. One tape for every three months. So what you get is this odd collage, an accidental treasure trove. You sit in a darkened room, watch all these little news moments, and look for connections.'

The Observer adds "if there has been a theme in Curtis's work since, it has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragi-comic consequences of those attempts." Curtis received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2005.

In 2006 he was given the Alan Clarke Award for Outstanding Contribution to Television at the British Academy Television Awards. Curtis was reputed to be on the editorial 'steering committee' of the weekly email gossip newsletter Popbitch but the editor of the newsletter clarified that in fact he was simply a friend of the magazine.

The Living Dead

The first of the remaining three Adam Curtis documentaries that I will be posting on this site is titled The Living Dead (subtitled Three Films About the Power of the Past) and it was the second major Curtis documentary series.

Part One - On the Desperate Edge of Now
This episode examined how the various national memories of the Second World War were effectively rewritten and manipulated in the Cold War period. For Germany, this began at the Nuremberg Trials, where attempts were made to prevent the Nazis in the dock—principally Hermann Göring—from offering any rational argument for what they had done. Subsequently, however, bringing lower-ranking Nazis to justice was effectively forgotten about in the interests of maintaining West Germany as an ally in the Cold War.

For the Allied countries, faced with a new enemy in the Soviet Union, there was a need to portray WW2 as a crusade of pure good against pure evil, even if this meant denying the memories of the Allied soldiers who had actually done the fighting, and knew it to have been far more complex. A number of American veterans, told how years later they found themselves plagued with the previously-suppressed memories of the brutal things they had seen and done. The title comes from a veteran's description of what the uncertainty of survival in combat is like.

Part Two - You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough
In this episode, the history of brainwashing and mind control was examined. The angle pursued by Curtis was the way in which psychiatry pursued tabula rasa theories of the mind, initially in order to set people free from traumatic memories and then later as a potential instrument of social control. The work of Ewen Cameron was surveyed, with particular reference to Cold War theories of communist brainwashing and the search for hypnoprogammed assassins.

The programme's thesis was that the search for control over the past via medical intervention had had to be abandoned and that in modern times control over the past is more effectively exercised by the manipulation of history. Some film from this episode, an interview with one of Cameron's victims, was later re-used by Curtis in his The Century of the Self. The title of this episode comes from a paranoid schizophrenic seen in archive film in the programme, who believed her neighbours were using her as a source of amusement by denying her any privacy, like a pet goldfish.

Part Three - The Attic
In this episode, the Imperial aspirations of Margaret Thatcher were examined. The way in which Mrs Thatcher used public relations in an attempt to emulate Winston Churchill in harking back to Britain's "glorious past" to fulfil a political or national end.

The title is a reference to the attic flat at the top of 10 Downing Street, which was created during Thatcher's period refurbishment of the house, which did away with the Prime Minister's previous living quarters on lower floors. Scenes from The Innocents (film) the adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James are intercut with Thatcher's reign.

More documentaries like this...

Super Rich: The Greed Game

Mark Thomas on Coca Cola

The Trial of Henry Kissinger

Want more of Adam Curtis?


Rob said...

Thanks alot! That was what I was thinkin about with my request. Cheers mate! Keep up the good work!

Morganized said...

love me some adam curtis! thanks for posting this.