Jon Ronson in Conversation with Adam Curtis
We asked the two documentary makers—who've been friends for nearly 20 years—to have a chat, and then to share that chat with us.
This article first appeared on VICE UK
I've known Adam Curtis for nearly 20 years. We're friends. We see movies together, and once even went to Romania on a mini-break to attend an auction of Nicolae Ceausescu's belongings. But it would be wrong to characterize our friendship as frivolous. Most of the time when we're together I'm just intensely cross-questioning him about some new book idea I have.
Sometimes Adam will say something that seems baffling and wrong at the time, but makes perfect sense a few years later. I could give you lots of examples, but here's one: I'm about to publish a book—So You've Been Publicly Shamed—about how social media is evolving into a cold and conservative place, a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing, and when people step out of line in the smallest ways we destroy them. Adam was warning me about Twitter's propensity to turn this way six years ago, when it was still a Garden of Eden. Sometimes talking to Adam feels like finding the results of some horse race of the future, where the long-shot horse wins.
I suppose it's no surprise that Adam would notice this stuff about social media so early on. It's what his films are almost always about—power and social control. However, people don't only enjoy them for the subject matter, but for how they look, too—his wonderful, strange use of archive.
His new film, Bitter Lake, is his most experimental yet. And I think it's his best. It's still journalism: It's about our relationship with Afghanistan, and how we don't know what to do, and so we just repeat the mistakes of the past. But he's allowed his use of archive to blossom crazily. Fifty percent of the film has no commentary. Instead, he's created this dreamlike, fantastical collage from historical footage and raw, unedited news footage. Sometimes it's just a shot of a man walking down a road in some Afghan town, and you don't know why he's chosen it, and then something happens and you think, "Ah!" (Or, more often, "Oh God.") It might be something small and odd. Or it might be something huge and terrible.
Nightmarish things happen in Bitter Lake. There are shots of people dying. It's a film that could never be on TV. It's too disturbing. And it's too long as well—nearly two and a half hours. And so he's putting it straight onto BBC iPlayer. I think, with this film, he's invented a whole new way of telling a nonfiction story.
VICE asked the two of us to have an email conversation about his work. We started just before Christmas, and carried on until after the New Year.
Jon Ronson: I've known you nearly 20 years, but I have no idea how you spend your days. I have a mental picture of you in your own special archive room in some BBC building, day after day, hacking through arcane archive like Doctor Livingstone, trying to find some marriage of your ideas and someone else's pictures. Is that what it's like? Do you have a special room? If so, what does it look like? Does it have windows? Do you get annoyed if people disturb you?
Adam Curtis: I don't have a special room. Most of the archive I watch is stored down in a giant series of anonymous sheds in West London. A lot of it I can borrow and watch in giant BBC open plan offices. It is a bit odd, because as well as ordering up films directly related to what I'm researching, I also order all kinds of other stuff that I think might have images that I could use—guided by my instinct and imagination. So people walking past see me watching this endless strange collage of material. From a film about Mrs. Thatcher giving fashion tips on how to dress well in 1987, to a program about people who had visions during epileptic fits, to a documentary about Hells Angels taking a weekend mini-break on a canal barge in the British countryside in 1973. I do get people asking why I'm watching this odd mix. It can be difficult to explain because, to be honest, I don't really know myself sometimes. I've just let my mind drift.
What I look for in the archive are shots that I can use to create a mood that gives power and force to the story I'm telling. So much factual stuff on television and film is so insistently literal, like doomy Arvo Pärt music over pictures of bad things that have happened. And they think that's emotion. But those are cliches that actually make you feel strangely unemotional.
What I don't tell anyone about are the hidden levels in the BBC archive—the stuff that's there that isn't on the normal catalogues. The secret levels of images from, what, 70 years of continuous filming?
The trailer for Adam Curtis' new film 'Bitter Lake'
What do you mean by secret levels? You mean the stuff when people don't quite realize they're being filmed? There's a moment in Bitter Lake when a bomb goes off in the desert and the cameraman misses it. And he goes, "Fuck." And so he pans left and there's the explosion: a huge plume of smoke and sand going up to the sky. And he's so disappointed and annoyed to have missed it. Is this what you mean about the secret levels? Or do you mean something completely different?
What I began to discover was all sorts of hidden material in the BBC archives. And it wasn't just forgotten films or misclassified stuff—although there's quite a lot of that. I also discovered different kinds of recorded realities.
So, for example, I stumbled on what are called the Comp Tapes. These are thousands of videotapes that, from the 1970s through to the 1990s, were used every day to record satellite feeds of material coming through for news. Often it's just a live feed, like one I found of a camera in a helicopter hovering over the LA hills in 1981 watching police search for—and find—a body of a woman who'd been murdered by the Hillside strangler. But because the feeds are over satellite they often break up into the most beautiful abstract colored shapes, and then the image clicks back in.
Then I found a man in the archives who spends his time recording the bits in between the programs when they are broadcast. He writes down in detail all the announcements and the trailers, plus all the bits where things go wrong. So far his log of this stuff has got to 7,500 pages. He's convinced that we don't really understand television. He says the idea that you can break television up into discrete programs is wrong. He believes television is really one long construction of a giant story out of fragments of recorded reality from all over the world that is constantly added to every day, and has been going on for 70 years.
But what really opened things up for me was the realization that there was an even further forgotten source of images. Not in London, but hidden all over the world. A BBC news cameraman called Phil Goodwin came to me and told me that the BBC offices in major cities have kept all their recorded footage in cupboards and store rooms. There are hundreds of tapes of what are called rushes—the original, unedited material from which news reports are created. And they were just lying there.
To prove this, Phil went to Kabul and spent weeks digitizing the rushes. He brought them back to London and no one wanted them. But I was very interested, so he gave them to me.
And I started to watch them. And it was amazing. Hundreds of thousands of hours of moments recorded. Ten or 20 seconds would have been taken out of some of the tapes for a news report. Other tapes would never have been touched. Forgotten. They would never ever have been seen by anyone. Like trees in a forest, falling—you know that thing. But together, what they recorded was an extraordinary world—something so completely different from the simple stories we are told both by TV journalists and politicians. That's where I started.
A few years ago I presented a documentary about a foiled school shooting in a Christmas theme town in Alaska. The kids there have to pretend to be elves for the tourists, and a bunch of them were arrested in the final stages of planning a school shooting. So I went there to find out whether all that Christmas had turned the kids crazy—like When Elves Go Bad.
Usually I direct my own documentaries, but this time Channel 4 paired me with a director. The reason why I bring it up now is that it didn't work out. When I went into the edit to watch the rough cut I saw that the director had kept in all the backstage stuff—the little banal chats I had with people before doing the interview. I felt really embarrassed to see my ungainly little offstage moments. And the edit became really tense. I was fighting to take them out and she was fighting to leave them in.
Bitter Lake has lots of moments where you've left in telling offstage snippets of conversations between the camera people and the directors. Of course, you aren't doing anything mean—you aren't naming and shaming your fellow BBC people or anything like that. None of them are identifiable in any way. And your motives couldn't be more serious. It's a totally different situation to my bad Alaska experience. But I was thinking: Because you're a BBC person too, did you ever feel like you were doing something your colleagues might not like?
Your Alaska thing is very funny—and I'm glad you're not in my film. But the people in the rushes I have used are doing something very different. They are really brave journalists and technical people going into an incredibly complex situation and trying to make sense of it. And, in a way, they are the heroes of my film.
I've taken care not to criticize or shame any of them. But, to be honest, it would be difficult, because what's sitting there in those thousands of hours of footage is an amazing achievement. It is a group of women and men going into the most difficult, frightening and strange situation, and recording it in incredibly intelligent and imaginative ways. Some of the camera-work is so brilliant. It has that modern eye that you find in some movies. The camera does what you yourself would do instinctively in the situation—and as it hunts and looks you get the most unexpected compositions.
The problem is how that material is then used, when it's processed through broadcast central. It is taken and fitted into increasingly rigid formats in TV that tend to remove the very thing that has been captured so well in the original rushes: the emotional truth of the situation. What it felt like to be there. And what you would think if you yourself were there.
It's part of a much bigger problem. I'm not just talking about news, but about all factual reporting on television. The way they tell stories about the world feels increasingly thin—and more and more detached from the way all of us think and feel. Journalism used to open up reality to tell us new stuff. But now it is helping to keep us all inside the bubble by playing back stuff we already know in slightly altered forms.
So I've taken all that unedited material from Afghanistan and tried to use it in a new way. My aim is both to show the complex reality that we didn't see in Afghanistan, but also to try and do it in a way that's more emotional and involving. Some of it is quite radical, but I think you have to try and do that if you want to puncture the bubble.
Our age is a highly emotional one. It's a time where what people feel as individuals is really important. I'm not saying that journalism should just become a wash of feeling and simply pander to that emotionalism. Journalism's job should always be to explain things to you. But in our age it should do that with real emotional power.
But it doesn't. It has become rigid and full of cliches, and in response people turn away and immerse themselves in the stories of themselves and their friends' lives. Which is exciting—and a new kind of world—but it leaves large parts of the public world completely unexamined, which means that people in power can do more and more what they like.
I don't agree with your last point. Yes, there are a lot of self-absorbed tweets out there. But social media is also very political. Look at the Black Lives Matter protests—organized and promoted on social media. Actually, I think the problem is that social media has become too political. This is partly what So You've Been Publicly Shamed is about. Some of our social justice campaigns have worked. But one result is that we've become so keen to right political wrongs we do it even when there aren't any wrongs to right. So somebody gets destroyed for telling a joke on Twitter that comes out badly. People are getting destroyed for bad wording. And their fate is so horrendous it's frightening all of us into behaving in a more conformist way.
I'm afraid I disagree with you that social media is a new kind of politics. It's a powerful new tool for helping to organize people—that is true. But what it really doesn't offer is a new kind of political way of changing the world. And, in fact, the belief that it does, and the failure of that, can lead to the most conservative situation.
Let's analyze what happened to the Arab Spring. Because that is often held up by the tech-utopians as the evidence for social media's revolutionary potential. In the Arab Spring all the liberal middle classes in places like Egypt came out to protest, summoned by social media. But then, once the revolution—or revolts—happened they had absolutely no idea of what to do. In the face of forces like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who had a powerful idea, the Twitter and Facebook networks were completely incapable of coming up with something new and powerful that could challenge the Brotherhood or the Salafists.
All they did was keep tweeting each other about how they all agreed that what was happening was terrible. And, in the process, they became trapped in an echo chamber that completely stopped them looking at the world from other people's points of view, and thus finding ways to effectively challenge the opposing point of view imaginatively. They got trapped in a system of feedback reinforcement.
Then the generals had a coup and all those liberals sighed a big sigh of relief and they tweeted each other that this was really a good thing.
You tell me anywhere in the Arab Spring where the ideas of those who used social media have risen up to become dominant. From Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen to Bahrain, those very groups who based their faith in social media have completely failed to have any substantial influence on power. Those doing well are ironically the traditionalists who have a powerful cultural conservative vision. Except, of course, Syria, where, as you know, the liberal middle classes are doing really well.
But I do really agree with you about Twitter domestically. Twitter—and other social media—passes lots of information around. But it tends to be the kind of information that people know that others in that particular network will like and approve of. So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information.
So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get into the system. They tend to get squeezed out.
I think the thing that proves my point dramatically are the waves of shaming that wash through social media—the thing you have spotted and describe so well in your book. It's what happens when someone says something, or does something, that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system. The other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilizing fragment and regain stability.
I don't think these waves are "political" in the liberal way the shamers proudly think. They are political in a completely different way, because they work to create a static, conservative world where nothing really changes.
What I find so fascinating in your book is the intensity of the reaction—the fury of the shaming. And I think this is possibly due to an underlying frustration among people in the network not being able to escape the static confines of their web.
I have this perverse theory that, in about ten years, sections of the internet will have become like the American inner cities of the 1980s. Like a John Carpenter film—where, among the ruins, there are fierce warrior gangs, all with their own complex codes and rules—and all shouting at each other. And everyone else will have fled to the suburbs of the internet, where you can move on and change the world. I think those suburbs are going to be the exciting, dynamic future of the internet. But to build them I think it will be necessary to leave the warrior trolls behind. And to move beyond the tech-utopianism that simply says that passing information around a network is a new form of democracy. That is naive, because it ignores the realities of power.
Why do you believe journalism changed? You say it used to be about "opening up reality to tell us new stuff. But now it is helping to keep us all inside the bubble by playing back stuff we already know in slightly altered forms." Why the change?
The thing that fascinates me about modern journalism is that people started turning away from it before the rise of the internet. Or, at least, in my experience that's what happened. Which has made me a bit distrustful of all that "blame the internet" rhetoric about the death of newspapers.
I think there was a much deeper reason. It's that journalists began to find the changes that were happening in the world very difficult to describe in ways that grabbed their readers' imagination.
It's intimately related to what has happened to politics, because journalism and politics are so inextricably linked. I describe in the film how, as politicians were faced with growing chaos and complexity from the 1980s onwards, they handed power to other institutions. Above all to finance, but also to computer and managerial systems.
But the politicians still wanted to change the world—and retain their status. So in response they reinvented other parts of the world they thought they could control into incredibly simplistic fables of good versus evil. I think Tony Blair is the clearest example of this—a man who handed power in domestic policy making over to focus groups, and then decided to go and invade Iraq.
And I think this process led journalism to face the same problem. They discovered that the new motors of power—finance and the technical systems that run it, algorithms that try and read the past to manage the future, managerial systems based on risk and "measured outcomes"—are not just obscure and boring. They are almost impossible to turn into gripping narratives. I mean, I find them a nightmare to make films about, because there is nothing visual, just people in modern offices doing keystrokes on computers.
Right. I write about this in The Psychopath Test. In 2006 I tried to write a book about the credit industry, but I abandoned the idea three months later for that same reason. It made me realize that if you have the ambition to become a Bond-style arch villain, the first thing you should do is learn to be boring. Don't act like Blofeld—monocled and ostentatious. We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring.
So large parts of journalism did exactly what Tony Blair did. On the one hand they went down the focus group road, which is what is now called consumer-journalism. On the other, they simplified the world into a black-and-white picture of terrible dangers that threaten their readers. Frightening warlords and people-traffickers, pedophiles prowling the internet, terrorist masterminds in caves, and killer foods.
And they largely ignored the really important shifts in power that were happening—so they went unexamined. And even when something like the crash happened in 2008, it was portrayed as a bunch of evil bankers. And much larger questions are ignored, like, "What has happened to the very idea of money?" Has it mutated into a strange virus that is taking over all institutions and private parts of people's lives, so everything becomes monetized?
And now I think journalism has retreated into the past to find its baddies. And to be honest, I'm extremely guilty of this myself—constantly going back into the past and reworking it in new ways. It's because none of us seem to be able to imagine other futures, alternatives to the complex muddle we have at the moment.
So, at present, we get a continuous, ferocious vaudeville of aged DJs and light entertainers exposed for their past crimes.
I'm not saying that is wrong; it is right for any kind of sexual abuse to be punished. But at the same time, all the other, modern, crimes that are being exposed—in finance, in the intelligence agencies, by which I mean torture, and in the new companies to which so much of the state is being outsourced—go largely unpunished. Plus, we the audience seems not to care about those modern crimes—and instead turn our heads to see what entertainer might be hauled up for our delight this week.
And we are trapped by that endless vaudeville.
When that happens you know that something rather odd has occurred to journalism—and, interestingly, to the law as well.
Adam Curtis's new film Bitter Lake will be available on BBC iPlayer from 9 PM on Sunday, January 25.
Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Picador), is released on March 12.
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