Monday, 15 March 2021

Adam Curtis's film is a BBC-branded 'showpiece' of posturing ideas and key evasions

Adam Curtis claims at the outset of his film Can't Get You Out Of My Head that:

"We are living through strange days. Across Britain, Europe and America, societies have become split and polarised, not just in politics but across the whole culture. There is anger at the inequality and at the ever growing corruption and a widespread distrust of the elites. But at the same time there is a paralysis, a sense that no one knows how to escape from this."

Curtis goes on to assert that there are no essential meanings to be found in conventional ideas, and if you try to look for them you will never find them.

Instead, we must look for "patterns" arising from seemingly coincidental events, thus allowing us some better notion of what may really be going on. 

In a BBC discussion of his film, Curtis repeats the claim that while there are 'many possible dystopian possibilities', there are 'no alternative progressive futures' to be seen.

A seemingly searching and bleak prognosis, capturing the apparent dark mood and widespread public disillusion. 

Yet beyond such hype, foreboding and 'sage' alerts, Curtis's film is really a patchwork of fanciful conjecture, selective evasion and patently false claims. 

He enunciates banal generalities as if they were the oracle of profundity: "These strange days did not just happen. We - and those in power - created them together."

While we should be attentive to the very real dynamics of social, political and economic change, there's nothing particularly strange about these days, or unusual about the way power treats the rest of humanity. There has always, in turn, been anger and resistance to such injustice, greed and inequality. And there most certainly are many realistic and viable alternatives to the systems of destruction, fear and anxiety we all live under. 

Jeremy Corbyn presented one such possibility. And even if not a revolutionary one, momentous and radical enough to scare an entire set of elite forces into emergency response. 

Even if we were to take all Curtis's tenuous assertions here at face value, why didn't he notice this potential future? 

And why didn't he see any similarity in how the forces of power moved to take down both Corbyn and Bernie Sanders?

Isn't there a vital 'pattern' to be identified and investigated here?

It's quite revealing that, in a proclaimed series about politics and what's been 'going on inside people's heads', when it comes to Britain, Blair gets discussed, Brexit gets discussed, Dominic Cummings even gets discussed, all reflecting major political moments and public feelings.  Yet there's not a single mention of Corbyn, most notably how in 2017 his agenda for change came so close to realisation. 

If Curtis is so curious about the 'politics of power and feelings', where's the exploration of what was happening at this crucial time? Why wasn't that alternative project considered worthy of inclusion? 

And where's the probing of how an entire public was bombarded by a vociferous establishment and media campaign, including by his own Labour party plotters, to smear and break Corbyn? 

Likewise in the US with Sanders, who faced the wrath of a whole corporate media, big business and the dark manoeuvrings of his own Democratic party. 

Why is Curtis missing this kind of 'pattern'?

Made man at the BBC

The answer, one suspects, lies in the type of establishment-approved films and 'investigations' the BBC is comfortable in commissioning. 

Isn't that another interesting 'pattern' to be picked apart here?

In the BBC interview, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo seem more ready to engage Curtis on the film's techniques and music rather than its sweeping claims and evasions. 

In a much more incisive review of the film, Christopher James Stone has this to say of such inversions:

"You could say that he uses this technique in order to smuggle radical ideas into the viewers’ heads, but I suspect it’s the other way around. He uses radical film techniques in order to smuggle entirely conventional ideas into the viewers’ head, while feigning a radical agenda."

And behind all this intriguing technique lies very little of actual substance. In effect, for Stone, it's:

"nonsensical argument displaying an essential nihilism. He has no explanation for why the world is as it is. He’s simply juxtaposing multiple storylines in a series of overlapping narratives that have no connection beyond the fact that Curtis has researched them."

This includes seriously evasive gaps in what really needs discussing.  Why, most notably, is there no contextual placing of neoliberalism in this film, from its Thatcherite/Reaganite seeds and omniscient rise to its now looming crisis of legitimacy?

In the BBC interview, Curtis also asserts that in this "age of the self", "what we feel inside us" is the "most important [and] truthful" thing, "rather than being told by old patrician people like the BBC what to think".

A seeming declaration here of Curtis's own 'modernity' and 'independent' thinking. 

Yet nowhere in his actual film do we find any serious examination of the BBC, past or present. And this includes key omissions on Britain as a leading imperialist player.

For example, in episode 5, Curtis lists a number of coups and destabilisations run by the CIA, notably in the Middle East, but makes no reference to Britain’s co-involvement. 

Yet, as historian Mark Curtis shows, citing declassified documents, the 1953 coup in Iran was actually instigated by MI6 and resourced by Britain, with the BBC itself giving the signal for it to commence. None of this is mentioned in the film.

One can but imagine such BBC space given over to Mark Curtis, a real, rigorous historian of Britain’s coup activities and dark global crimes, rather than the specious claims, selective omissions and disjointed history stories of his namesake. 

In a supposed series about power and thought control, nowhere - aside from a snippet comment on its defensive coverage of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China - is the BBC probed as a leading purveyor of establishment and imperialist propaganda.  

Likewise, given how vital a part the BBC played in the distorting, smearing and removal of Corbyn, it's remarkable that Curtis has not a single word to say about its role in this dark chapter.

As these glaring omissions show, Curtis doesn't need to be told what to think or what to produce. He needs no such top-down instruction in how to avoid awkward thoughts or content likely to discomfort this key part of the establishment, patrician or otherwise. 

That’s all understood. You might even call it a pattern of conformity. And that's because Adam Curtis already is, longstanding, "a creature of the Beeb".

Indeed, Curtis's films can be seen as a kind of BBC 'brand', which they, and he, affect to sell as a precisely non-patrician product, painting Curtis and the BBC itself as 'modern, edgy, idea-provoking risk-takers'.

Such pretentious promotion and safe avoidance tells us more about real 'patterns' of power, containment of ideas and thought control than anything in Curtis's own contrived film. 

And Curtis's diligent deferral to these boundaries is why the BBC's patronage of him and his films is most likely to continue.


Jackie said...

Excellent. Thank you for sharing your critical thinking skill.

Unknown said...

Typical BBC non 'free-thinking' wrapped in psychedelic garb. I believe you describe it very accurately and point out missing elephants.

Anonymous said...

Interesting critique! Although I disagree with the implication that it’s a bad thing that Curtis does not seek to answer every question he asks. One reason I appreciate his films, is that unlike someone like Michael Moore, Curtis is happy to ask big questions without pushing his own answers on the audience

Liam Carroll said...

Well said.I've watched about 7 hours of his films and I am frequently struck by his anti-politics; revolutionaries are always portrayed as misguided fantasists (Barder Meinhoff, Black Panthers, CCP et al) whilst Ghandi, MLK, and Nelson Mandela are conspicuous by their absence. Black emancipation is instead represented by the odious Michael Dufraitis and misguided middle-class hippies. Whenever the post war UK economy is featured its always portrayed as a disaster with ignorant Labour chancellors failing to understand the critical role of international finance. As Davdid Edgerton and others have shown however, this was the age of national self-sufficiency, the growth in working class wages and the establishment of the welfare state. His exaggerated assertions about what is occurring in people's heads (Mao, Hafaz al-Assad, Gaddaffi) are normally deployed to ridicule foreigners whislt his apparent exposes of the Mayfair set and their schemes to further British foreign policy goals actually show them being more shrewd and capable than their peers (or defeatist Labour leaders). There is some rare footage and evidence about CIA infiltration and British supported war crimes in Biafra, but they generally pale in comparison to the wicked actions of contemporary foreign leaders (such as the Ayatollah Khomeini having the idea of sending bus loads of youths to walk through minefields in the Iran-Iraq war - no mention of US/UK facilitation of Hussein's gas attacks in the same conflcit though). Very BBC; superficially liberal and anti-establishment but really anti-progressive and nostalgic for the Empire.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Liam. Some good comment there. Yes, it’s notable the way Curtis conjures a kind of ‘dark nostalgia’ when discussing Britain’s old spies, establishment and empire, in contrast to the much ‘darker deeds’ of foreign foes, many of whom that same British establishment have actually supported - collusions which, of course, Curtis never identifies.

Anonymous said...

Because he is an effin Pubik School Boy

The whole series could be summed up in two Marxist quotes taking 45 seconds..

1. The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.
Karl Marx

2. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Antonio Gramsci

Pascal said...

Adam Curtis throws a few truths in to then misdirect, and then tries to steer you towards his implicit, FALSE conclusions.
Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony, the process within capitalist societies by which the ruling classes create particular norms, values, and stigmas, amounting to a culture in which their continued dominance is considered beneficial.
I would amend his concept to 'the ruling class in ALL societies'.