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On Adam Curtis

Brian Micklethwait of this blog has linked to a series of nice take-downs of the work of the “documentary” maker, Adam Curtis. I link to one rather nice video at that man’s expense. One of Curtis’ recent efforts was about Alan Greenspan and the dangers of giant computers or something. He’s a sort of posh conspiracy theorist for people who would otherwise scoff at the sort of guy who rants that Man never really landed on the Moon, Jews bombed the WTC, etc.

It is arguable that the whole phenomenon of the “documentary” as an impartial piece of good journalism has been more or less hammered in recent years. After all, we have had the various efforts of Michael Moore, which, like Curtis’s efforts, are not really designed to inform or ask difficult questions, but a form of propaganda, and a form that plays well to the smug complacency of fashionable opinion. But let’s be fair, even a programme which said things with which I agreed, such as this Channel 4 Martin Durkin one about explosive government debt, used techniques to pull on our heartstrings, although I thought in that programme, it did make an argument – an extremely good one. With the Curtis stuff, it is more like taking a sort of drug.

Maybe the whole idea of a non-biased documentary needs to be junked. Perhaps the honest truth is that these programmes don’t really lend themselves to a sort of “on the one hand and on the other” sort of fairness; in truth, a guiding narrative, with a punchline at the end, is what makes these things work. But then this is clearly advocacy journalism and a form that does not square with it being paid for by a state-privileged broadcast network such as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Then again, the whole idea of a broadcaster financed via a tax needs to be ditched, so that Curtis will have to make such rubbish without my having to pay for it. I wonder if Curtis wants to do one of his documentaries on the idea of governments using state broadcasters to shape opinion? No, I did not think so.

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6 comments to On Adam Curtis

  • John K

    There is no such thing as a documentary, in the sense of an open minded film maker deciding to research a subject, present differing views on the matter, and then reach a conclusion. In reality they always start with their agenda worked out, and select the experts and other talking heads they want to illustrate the conclusions they wish to reach. Certain talking heads will be set up as fall guys, and filmed untl they say whatever it is that the film maker wants them to say, at which point their purpose has been served. I wouldn’t mind if they were called “polemics” or something similar, it is the deceit that they represent an honest search for the truth which offends me.

  • I confess that I was unaware of the existence of a person named Adam Curtis prior to Brian’s post, and I have never knowingly watched one of his documentaries, and I never watch the BBC, apart from Dr Who and the occasional sporting event. However, I was instantly familiar with what was being parodied, so I fear he has forced his way into the Zietggeist to a rather frightening degree.

    It’s a hilarious parody, too.

  • In fairness, I thought that his documentary “The Power of Nightmares” was a reasonable interpretation of the rise of the Neocon’s.

    It’s not so much about fact, but rather ‘truth’ and as with the ‘truth’ of different religeon’s each view must take from it what they will.

    I agree that they are not really documentaries and probably propaganda is a better term for them, but more representative of the internal paranoia of Mr. Curtis than the Government of the day.

    All-in-all, his productions are interesting and challenging, but need to be taken with a couple of shovelfulls of salt.

  • Paul Marks

    M. Moore is a liar. This has been clearly shown (for example in his Jack Cashill’s “Hoodwinked”) – Moore is not someone who is just ignorant of the facts and spreads his own misunderstandings, he deliberatly says things he KNOWS not to be true.

    I do not know enough about Adam Curtis to be able to say that about him. For all I know he may really believe that Islamism was the invention of naughty American neocons, and that the boom-bust is not caused by the Central Banks (such as the Federal Reserve) backing massive monetary expansion……and……

    Mr Curtis may just be a very ignorant man who mixes his ignorance (his lack of knowledge of…. well just about everything) with a vast arrogance (the false belief that he knows stuff about various matters).

    However, “the bottom line” remains the same – the work of Mr Curtis is worthless. Indeed it has a negative worth – as it misinforms people about important matters.

    And yet the British taxpayer (sorry “license fee payer”) is forced to pay for him.

  • Just a quick note, Curtis did do a documentary about “governments using state broadcasters to shape opinion”: Century of Self.

    You can watch all four episodes here: http://www.freedocumentaries.org/int.php?filmID=140

    I must admit, I found it pretty good. Much better than his latest propaganda.

    As I mentioned elsewhere, after watching one of his programs the nation swallows it whole and goes back to sleep. Nothing to see here; Adam Curtis explained it all to me.

  • Tedd

    Maybe the whole idea of a non-biased documentary needs to be junked.

    It depends what you mean by that. As viewers, we should definitely be (true) skeptics of all such productions, always on the lookout for signs of bias, sloppy research, or even outright dishonesty. In a warped sense, Michael Moore and others of his ilk have done the world a favour by discrediting the idea of the objective documentary. The old, unconscious assumption of a correlation between production values and credibility has been shown to be foolish.

    But the documentary maker should still hold to the ideal of the objective documentary. We all know that the ideal can never be achieved by a mortal being. But holding to the ideal at least creates a motive for trying. The independence that current film-making technology has created, combined with postmodern ideas and the advertising-driven culture, has led a lot of documentary makers to conclude that it’s okay — maybe even good — to merely convey your own point of view as effectively as possible. That, and the gullibility of audiences, spurred by their willingness to believe self-flattering imagery, is what’s killing the documentary.