Looking Beneath the Waves
Adam Curtis is Britain’s greatest documentary filmmaker. He’s also one of the best artists the country has produced in recent times. While a lot of contemporary artists who became famous exhibiting in galleries wallowed in irony and commerce, Curtis has developed the most unique of niches, making polemical, subtle films that question the status quo from within the British Broadcasting Corporation. He would probably rather be talked of as a journalist than an artist, though.
Curtis, 57, makes socio-political films, often focusing on how the ideologies of one group or individual can end up shaping geopolitics, economics, and the way we end up perceiving reality. Pandora’s Box (1992) revealed how Soviet Union managers believed they could transform society into a rational machine; The Mayfair Set (1999) told the story of a small group of capitalists redefining the nature of Britain’s power, turning us into arms dealers and union smashers; The Century of the Self (2002) examined how Freudian theories were used by PRs, advertisers, and spin doctors to invade the collective unconscious; and The Power of Nightmares (2004) looked at how the American neocons and a small group called al-Qaeda capitalized on public terror at the start of the century.
According to popular myth, Curtis lives in the basement archives of the BBC, obsessively going through old footage to find new clips that will fit his emotive, cinematic decoupage and sit under his clear, professorial voiceover. I first contacted him over a year ago and, knowing he was a fan of VICE, I asked him if he would meet me to talk about the last decade of television news. We met in a pub in east London, drank some Beck’s, and he talked about things that went far beyond television news. He has a remarkable grasp of social, philosophical, and political history. He also has a mobile phone covered in diamanté.
Curtis sees news today as inherently flawed and incapable of explaining the world that we live in. To him, our lives are governed by finance, computers, and management theory, and television news has become submerged within the jargon of those worlds. This has, disastrously, left news trapped within the terminology of those who control the planet: the banks, the economists, and their allied operatives—the politicians and PR men. In a way, news has become a place ruled by technocratic “experts” rather than people, and this has rendered it incapable of explaining anything. What Curtis has been trying to do with his work is shift the discourse back in the direction of the grand, romantic narrative, which can capture the essence of what it is like to exist today. What follows is a fragment of a long conversation.
VICE: So, as you see it, there is a basic failure in the way news has been reporting on the modern planet. Is there something inherently difficult about this?
Adam Curtis: Well, yes, what I’m talking about is three things: finance, computers, and management theory. They shape people’s lives these days, yet they are absolutely unstoryfiable—you cannot turn them into a story. No one’s really found a way to describe this odd world we live in. I mean, I live in Holborn and every day I go to the BBC I see these waves of people going into offices and I know they’re going to spend their time in front of their computers being told, “If you like this then you’ll like that,” and being managed by all these systems. No one’s really found a way of describing that world to those people. And that’s what journalism should be doing. It really should.
Can you give me an example of how it’s failed?
There was this enormous financial crisis in 2008, which I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of. I don’t understand it. I don’t believe I’ve been told what has really happened because all I’ve heard are stories full of jargon about “collateralized obligations.” So I just feel lost. I’m lost in a world built from the jargon and terminology of the system of thinking that actually gave us the crisis in the first place, which is economics.
And this has neutered the abilities of journalists to explain the world to us?
Yes. I think it’s a real phenomenon of our time. The way power works has shifted into areas that journalism hasn’t found a way of explaining. It hasn’t found a way of pulling back and showing it to you in ways that haven’t been captured by the mindset of the people who are inside that thing. We did it with politics very well from the 1960s onwards. Starting with the New Journalism of the early 60s, which you would call immersionist journalism, people got in and found ways of describing what was going on in politics in a way that the politicians couldn’t capture.
How do you mean?
Well, you could pull back as if in a helicopter and look at them and go, “Look, they’re like that.” People sort of did the same with science, so you can pull back and still see it in a social context. But now it’s almost like we’re inside the machine and we can’t pull out and see it. I think news is really stuck.
When did this all start happening?
The early 90s. I’m quite interested in researching this at the moment. It’s partly due to the rise of 24-hour news in the 80s and it’s partly down to one married couple, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. Jane Fonda is responsible for the VHS revolution through her workout videos and Ted Turner invented 24-hour news [with CNN]. Turner’s big idea was that he would get rid of those posh BBC reporters, who spent two weeks putting together pieces on what’s happening in Cyprus or wherever. He would get rid of that because it was boring and he was absolutely right. He exchanged it for this sense of immediacy, that stuff just happens. And that’s the thing of our time, stuff happens—it just does. No one has a sense of what’s coming these days, no one has a sense of the future. Turner openly said that what he wanted to shift news away from is the idea of packaged analysis and move it towards a sense of immediate experience. CNN did this very well at the beginning, then the Cold War came to an end and it all got a bit complicated.
You’ve talked before about how the end of the Cold War destroyed news narratives to such a point that everything got confused.
All the institutions that grew up within the Cold War, like the spies and the security agencies and the politicians, they suddenly didn’t know what was going on. So you get a simplification of the world, which comes from this lack of comprehension. You get these two-dimensional villains like Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi, these dark forces. And the journalists begin to describe the world as being full of rogue states, sadistic dictators, drug smugglers, pedophiles, and human traffickers. You get this simplified but frightening world where all these shadowy figures just make things happen. That takes you through the 90s and then what happens is September 11, which seems to prove that all of that is absolutely true, and that there really are dark forces out there. And that’s why the VICE generation are apocalyptic and frightened. They have a vision of a dark, shadowy world which they can’t quite explain.
So how does the way the news is reported reflect my generation?
Well, the great wonder of our time is also a disease of our time: the desire to experience things for ourselves. It’s just the thing at the moment, what we don’t want is to be told stuff. We don’t like elites any longer because we’re all like each other. We want to know it ourselves, we want to feel it. It’s partly due to the rise of individualism. But what we get to is what I call the “duchess paradox,” where everyone is now a duchess in society. The real problem with that is that if you’re all duchesses then what’s the point of being a duchess? Everyone’s a celebrity now. Everyone wants to be a celebrity, they want to be treated like celebrities. They want to go to spas, they want to get married in big, posh houses. People will pay for VIP tickets to concerts. It’s extraordinary. Everyone is desperately searching for where it’s at. The point is there is nowhere it’s at—“it” simply just doesn’t exist. It’s the great tragedy for that generation: they just want to experience something.
To get back to news, though, the immediacy of modern news...
Well, in many ways it’s great. It’s liberating because it is actually trying to give you an immediate experience, and not filter it through pompous men who wander around the world in really rather stupid suits. But the trouble with this is that you’ve got your nose pressed up against it, so when a bang goes off, you’re scared.
You’re right, news is very intense. I spend most of my life worrying about what I see on the news.
The point about television news these days is that it’s the end result of people like Ted Turner; the desire for immediate experience, and the lack of confidence among liberal middle-class television producers who don’t actually know what’s going on—this all adds to it. It creates news that comes like waves in a fever.
It’s like the terror alert system that the government has in order to keep us on our toes.
Well, yeah. At the moment you have the Eurozone crisis—that’s always a good standby. But every three months the news is: apocalypse tomorrow. There’s bird flu, economics, a swine flu wave, Libya was a wave... what’s going on at the moment?
Nothing but Jimmy Savile.
Absolutely. Nasty little man, nasty story. So you get these waves and then it just goes. I suspect that most of the reporters don’t have any perspective—I don’t. I mean, nobody knows what’s really going on. So it’s partly our fault as well, but in that fevered atmosphere anything can be magnified suddenly and can become very frightening. The danger is that in those circumstances a powerful figure can come along and simply manage that fear in a really good way.
That’s what happened with Blair and Bush after 9/11, and what you talked about in The Power of Nightmares.
What we failed to do in television news was to put those attacks in some sort of measured context, and that’s all I was trying to do. I wanted to say: terrorism is genuinely a danger but it’s not apocalyptic, it’s not a threat to your civilization.
It’s left my generation growing up in a supremely paranoid world.
What also feeds into it is the fact that the baby boomers—he aging generation of the first big individualists—are now beginning to understand they’re going to die. If you’re going to die and all you believe in is that you’re the center of the world, then you can’t conceive of yourself dying. So what you do is you project your own death on to the planet and you say, “I won’t die, it’s the world that will cease to exist.” I think a lot of the exaggerated apocalyptic fears are about this generation projecting their own intimations of mortality on to the planet. For example, climate change is a serious problem, but it’s turned into this great apocalyptic thing.
Do you get the impression that the journalists of today are ill-equipped to deal with this world?
Yes, to go back to the journalists who are reporting on things at the moment: the financial crisis—do you really understand what that crisis was about? No, because what they do is they talk in the language of the very thing that gave us the crisis. They talk in the language of economics. Now, no economist, none of them, saw that crisis coming, just like how neither MI6 nor any of the intelligence agencies saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming. Night after night, Robert Peston and various other allied operatives within the techno-economic reporting fraternity come on to our screen and use the terminology of a failed pseudo-science—economics—to explain it. And we don’t understand it and we feel that it’s not the whole story.
So, if speaking in the language of the “experts” doesn’t work, what is the future of news? How do we move on?
We’re going to become incredibly romantic in the way we report the world. I mean, I really do think this. It’s almost like we’re going to turn it into this Shakespearean thing. Shakespeare’s writing was about love, deception, lust for power, lust for each other, and all of these things still go on. We, people, do terrible things—or good things or bad things—and I can see news being turned into a dramatic thing in ten or 15 years. I do it with music in my films. I try and create the mood that will allow me to say something and make people listen to it.
A news that inspires something other than fear and cynicism.
Maybe this feverish atmosphere we’re in is part of the transition to a genuinely new kind of society, from which a new kind of politics might emerge. I’m quite optimistic about it. But it’s new and television news has been unable to describe it—it hasn’t found the language to describe it yet. Nor have I. I’ve had stabs at it.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @terriblesoup
Illustrations by Marta Parszeniew