Some of the most radical and searching historical interrogations on film in the last few decades are being performed at the BBC, and chances are you’ve never seen them. The hair-raisingly provocative presence of producer/director Adam Curtis in the world’s most famous hyper-acculturated state media machine is nothing less than astonishing, particularly when you look at his work starting with 1992’s Pandora’s Box (and, since then, accumulating to about 24 solid hours of unnerving discourse). His new three-hour film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, is typical Curtis, and you may find it randomly appearing in arthouses for short theatrical runs this year, and you can find it streaming online. You will not, however, see it on American television.
Curtis makes three- and four-hour documentary mini-series about modern history evolving from the early 20th century to today. They wear a calm and glossy BBC veneer, as though they are a mere set of history lessons slouching leftwardly, all about How We Got Here. But if you wade into Curtis’s worldview, there’s more at stake than that. You could be convinced, given a big enough dose of these tax-funded projects, that the human world is so close to ending you can smell the sulphur amid the toxic plumes, electronic heat and war-zone smoke. Curtis is no doomsayer, just a dry-eyed documentarian, and his exclusive subjects are the force vectors behind recent history that end in disaster.
Curtis’ brand of deep politics follows the cascade of sociopolitical dominoes, beginning with ideology and culminating in flat-out catastrophe, be it 9⁄11 or the world economic meltdown or merely the Reagan-era state of rampaging, consumerist narcissism. Formally, Curtis manufactures his flowcharts with the simplest means available: archival footage, talking heads, calm but ominous narration, associative montage.
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is paradigmatic. The villain of this story is not technology per se, but ideologues, each of them in their own perverse way seduced by cybernetics and the idea that humankind and nature are equilibrium-seeking, self-organizing systems.
We travel from Ayn Rand and Buckminster Fuller to the Club of Rome, the genesis of the wholly Belgian-colonial-fabricated Tutsi-Hutu dichotomy that turned Rwanda into a killing field more than once, the late-century rollercoaster of economic feast and famine, and the work of theorist/geneticist George Price, who believed that humans were ultimately the slaves of their own genetic imperatives, and who demonstrated mathematically that both altruism and genocide were therefore rational acts, from “a gene’s eye view” of things. The Frankenstein monster constructed by the scientists and demagogues and politicians in All Watched Over is the last half-century or so of life on Earth, which in Curtis’ tally amounts to a scoresheet of unimaginable injustice, mountains of bodies and untold environmental ruin.
Of course, the motivating factor at work in every cybernetic imposition is top-down social control and economic power.
The fact that the gatekeepers of knowledge and information have pervasively and deliberately neglected the storylines and historical angles that Curtis limns is what drives his agenda. He’s a conspiracist of long-lost facts. For 20 years, Curtis has really told just one story, the story of the catastrophes brought about by the artificial and intellectualized imposition of power-mad order, laying bare the fallout created by everyone from Edward Bernays to Paul Wolfowitz. Power exerts pressure on the masses, at the behest of institutional gluttony or blind intellectual vanity or both, and shit comes out the other end. The power, meanwhile, persists.
Politically, Curtis does not aim his missiles at the Right per se, but upward, at the power elite, whose perpetual idiocy in trying to maximize profit and control leads ceaselessly to societal breakdown – a condition almost always beside the point for the elite in question, once they’ve stood to benefit.
In one sense, Curtis’ vision is purifyingly apolitical; his apocalyptic truth is scrupulously nonpartisan, concerned only with the secret history of the 1%, and their cataclysmic efforts to squeeze the rest of us for blood and money.