Adam Curtis talks to Leah Borromeo

Tank _vol 7issue 2112

Adam Curtis is a documentary filmmaker and academic who is best known for his use of videomontage to relay sociopolitical analyses of the modern age. His films include The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares. His latest project is a three-part BBC internet series called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Leah Borromeo is a journalist and filmmaker who quite likes Curtis but, unlike him, would never have the balls to carry a bag that featured pictures of Westmoreland terriers.

Leah Borromeo How important is popular culture to your filmmaking?
Adam Curtis I don’t actually use popular culture, I use popular-culture techniques. I once did a story about how radical psychotherapy theories of the 1960s became the basis for modern consumer capitalism. It was part of my series The Century of the Self, about the relationship between ideas of psychology and ideas of marketing and politics. I took radical encounter groups and showed how those ideas morphed through the 1970s until they became what we call “values and lifestyles marketing”.

I discovered this group of Californian nuns who were encouraged to go through group therapy. They ended up challenging each other – challenging authority. The convent split and you ended up with a bunch of radical lesbian nuns who are still there. It made me laugh. It illustrates a funny, touching truth about the ridiculousness of it all. It shows the shift from collectivism to individualism. Then I found footage in the BBC archive of the nuns before the therapy and suddenly I had a story!

LB So you’re a storyteller?
AC There are lots of wonderful things on the internet, but the one thing that can never, ever die is, “I want to tell you a story.”

In All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, I have a go at internet utopias. Internet utopians think we can make our own stories up, or have multiple endings in which you make the choice. That’s naïve. What you see on Twitter and Facebook is the modern equivalent of what, under Stalin’s time, was socialist realism.

LB I’m not sure I understand – you mean instead of buxom fieldworkers and strapping steelworkers we now have lots of people communicating in 140-character thought bubbles?
AC Twitter is a happy little universe where everything is incredibly innocent and comes from within you. Well, no it doesn’t! What shapes your feelings are the structures of power around you. The tubes down which your feelings go are built by large businesses – these businesses shape how you see the world. It’s not manipulation, it’s just the way the world works. The way we see the world is as much shaped by the structures of power around us as the feelings we have within us. What shapes those feelings is reflected by the ideology of our time: that there is nothing more sacrosanct than our inner feelings. These days, the idea of immersing yourself in something grander than yourself is alien.

LB So there’s no chance of changing power structures?
AC The most intelligent way to tell a story is to show how individuals play – like the radical lesbian nuns. Then you pull back and show the circumstances in which people find themselves and show the architecture of power. You should look at Tolstoy, because he writes detailed scenes about individuals and their feelings but, in the next chapter, pulls back and shows how those feelings are contextualised in the bigger picture. He shows how the two play against each other. He shows a battle from a character’s perspective and then shows it as being part of the mass of history. I find that very exciting. You’re only really going to write good stories on the internet or invent new ways of storytelling if you pull back and do a Tolstoy. What we need is a little less Wes Anderson and his miniaturist style, a little more Tolstoy.

LB So what about the revolutions where we all join together thanks to the internet?
AC I went back and looked at the revolutions where the internet rose up as a voice: Georgia, then the Ukraine, then Kyrgyzstan. Those revolutions have absolutely failed. The people in those countries are actually less free than they were in 2003. In Ukraine, for example, [Viktor] Yanukovych is back in power and dismantling the structure of democracy. Well done the internet!

The problem with the internet is that they think that just organising something will lead to revolution. You don’t create revolutions like that, you create revolutions by organising for ideologies and beliefs that people fight for.

LB What are your politics?
AC I don’t have politics. I’m completely modern. I have none. 

LB So power obsesses you?
AC I grew up in an age where society got more complicated and power stopped flowing through Westminster politics, but moved instead through areas like science, psychology, consumerism. They all shape the way we think and feel about ourselves. All I’ve ever really wanted to do is pull back and show people how power flows through those things.

LB If you don’t have a political agenda, why do you do what you do?
AC Because I like telling stories. I like showing off that you can take boring, abstract things and make them larky and fun.

LB And you turned to videomontage because?
AC It’s fun. Trash. Pop. That’s all it is. It also means I don’t have to go and film things myself. It’s a good discipline because it’s all you’ve got. The way I work is that I know the area I’m working in and I know the stories I want to tell. I sit down with the material I’ve got and cut something I like and then think, “How can I use that?” And that product changes how I tell the story.

LB Do power structures keep you in a job?
AC Yeah. We live in an age where we’re encouraged to believe that the individual is the centre of the universe – “Where do you want to go to today?” is the great slogan of our time. You’re unaware of the powerful forces going on around you. I point that out to people. I don’t have an agenda, because I don’t think anyone has an agenda these days.

LB Really? Even the student protests in the UK and the marchers against cuts?
AC To be ruthless, what are they marching for? They’re marching to keep the world they’ve got there. It’s not a revolutionary idea about how to change the structure of power. What’s happening is a bureaucratic row about how you keep the diminished proceeds of a broken system better allocated. That has been the distinguishing feature of our politics since Tony Blair. It’s a managerial, bureaucratic politics that says, “This is the only system we have; there is no alternative. How do we manage it best?” The difference between the parties is their definition of best. It was a wonderful march, but it was a bureaucratic row.

LB Were you on it?
AC Yes.

LB Does individualism bother you?
AC Well, yes, it’s static. It sells the idea that “it’s just me”. You don’t change the world through “just me”. You can reorganise the world through “just me”, but not change it. We’re all librarians now, whether on Flickr, when you upload and tag your photos, or on Facebook. I find this narrowness depressing. Because I like ideas. I like ideas that inspire you and take you somewhere else.

LB We haven’t really had many “ideas” of late though, have we?
AC Good or bad, the last radical politicians you had were Thatcher and Reagan. What they did was tear down the middle-class elites who had grown up as a result of the state in post-war years. They allowed a powerfully aspirational class to break through. That class is perfectly happy now and they want everything to quiet down and be all right. Just like France in the 1830s. We had a big revolution, let’s settle down. Periods of conservatism are also periods of great hypocrisy. And out of great hypocrisy comes great art. I’m still waiting for the new Madame Bovary to come along.

LB You wouldn’t think of coming up with those ideas yourself?
AC That’s not a journalist’s job.

LB A hundred years from now, how will we be viewed?
AC Ayn Rand believed that there was nothing but the individual and reason. At the end of her life, a journalist asked if she was scared of death. She replied, “You don’t understand. I won’t die. The world will cease to exist.” What she meant by that was that the world is in your own head, your own creation. It will be said that this was an age that had no consolation beyond the death of its own people. We’re frightened of change because we fear our own death and that hampers political change. They will ask why these people are so frightened. §

  • Adam Curtis