Film: Adam Curtis
Still from Bitter Lake
The best storyteller has the power, according to British filmmaker Adam Curtis. In his new BBC documentary Bitter Lake (2015) he montages archival material from seven decades of failed Afghan politics and explains why the West has lost faith in its own narratives.
Bitter Lake tells the story of Afghanistan, America and Saudi Arabia over the past 70 years. It ties power, development, and the desire for oil to territorial catastrophe, the collapse of powerful ideologies and the rise of frightening “others”. Bitter Lake is a story of failure, both on the part of Soviet strategy and Western liberty.Curtis’s film shows how global mega-systems produced an acceleration of fundamentalism and confusion and how more fundamentalism in turn produced further collapse and confusion.Importantly Curtis also shows how attempts to fix these multiple collapses produced further entrenchment and chaos.
Adam Curtis sees structural history where he thinks others may only see clouds of confusion and incompetence. Within his work he makes repeated use of the word “we”. He begins Bitter Lake by deploying it to set the scene: “Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain.”
Theodor Adorno wrote: “To say ‘we’ and mean ‘I’ is one of the most recondite insults.” (Minima Moralia, 1951)
Nanni Moretti, like Curtis, narrates his films. For Moretti “we” is “us”.
Towards the end of my essay Why Work, I recounted the following scene.
Near the beginning of his 1993 film Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti is sitting in a cinema watching a bourgeois dinner party peopled by weary disillusioned couples. They are talking about where it all went wrong from a perspective of success and authority.
One dinner guest turns to another.
“You shouted awful, violent slogans. Now you’ve gotten ugly.”
Moretti has finally had enough and angrily addresses the cinema screen.
“Why all? Why this fixation with us ‘all’
being sold out and co-opted!”
“I shouted the right slogans, and I’m a splendid forty-year-old.”
“Even in a society more decent than this one, I will only feel in tune with a minority of people. I believe in people, but I just don’t believe in the majority of people. I will always be in tune with a minority of people.”
Moretti could be seen as increasingly melancholic and swamped by “feelings” for the minority and his mother – he is a particular product of the 1960s and the incredibly complex Italian 70s. His work is self-lacerating, critical, and reflects a sense of political impotence. Curtis, on the other hand, is not torn by guilt, implication, and self-regard – at least in the forceful narratives he relays. His latest film is a masterpiece of a particularly Anglo-Saxon rationalisation of history. While not strictly historically determinist, Curtis makes “us” all feel less confused via a rather post-Marcusian reading of events. Somehow Curtis’s clear and historically verifiable tales of meetings, mistakes and mapping of corruption point “us” towards a glimmer of Marcuse’s potential “New World of Happiness” – or at least explain why that vision was never possible in the first place. His stories are unencumbered by the reality that the advanced Left writhed in agony over questions of authorship and action. “We” are not the victims of a world of confusion and uncertainty – these are terms that were embedded in the Left’s struggle to come to terms with the failure of its applied models of a new society in tension with the potential of its theories.
Curtis is a post-Marcusian who is equally anti-Marxist, yet he is one of few filmmakers today who can offer an engaging analytical model of recent history without falling into ideological traps caused by overreaching application or theoretical inaction. His work is limited and crucial. It should be read alongside the agonised inner worlds described by Moretti and others.
Marcuse wrote: “The web of domination has become the web of Reason itself, and this society is fatally entangled in it.” (One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 1964) This statement is the key to Curtis’s methodology. He produces heavily researched films that are strong in narrative drive and simple storytelling. There are no grey areas – unless Curtis is describing the grey area of confusion that “we” have to face.
“One-dimensional thought is systematically promoted by the makers of politics and their purveyors of mass information. Their universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions of dictations.” (Marcuse, ibid.)
Curtis has consistently taken apart the one-dimensional thought that Marcuse warned about. And his access to the BBC archives means that he has endless quantities of documentary material to work from and construct his narratives. It is notable that Bitter Lake was produced without visiting the scenes of action or going back to verify the material. Curtis scours archives to show “us” that the material to critique our current conditions has already been recorded and carefully archived.
Bitter Lake tells a deeply upsetting story. Curtis deploys synthetic techniques that collage disjunction, yet the tale itself is logical and progresses smoothly. And in this he may be the most important documentary maker of our time. His method, voice, and clarity of communication render his story “obvious”. This is the success of Curtis as a filmmaker – the feeling that we knew it all along. The only problem is what to do about it, and what we do about all the people who knew about it and merely agonised over the means of escape.
LIAM GILLICK is an artist based in New York.