‘One night in Miami,’ Raymond Williams wrote in 1973, ‘still dazed from a week on an Atlantic liner, I began watching a film and at first had some difficulty adjusting to a much greater frequency of commercial “breaks”.’ Things didn’t get any easier for him. Trailers for two other movies began to appear as inserts; the one he’d started with, about a crime in San Francisco, was interrupted not only by advertisements for cereal and deodorant, but by a romance set in Paris and then the roar of a prehistoric monster laying waste to New York. ‘I can still not be sure,’ Williams reflected, ‘what I took from that whole flow’ – aside, presumably, from a sharp urge to lie down.
‘Flow’ was the term Williams introduced in his column for the Listener at the turn of the 1970s to describe the rhetoric peculiar to television, the ceaseless rush of unrelated fragments that presents itself when we ‘watch TV’. ‘Flow’ always contained a tension, suggesting the smooth progression of something essentially discontinuous. But it has come to seem more, not less, appropriate as the years have passed. The increased speed, fragmentation and disconnectedness associated with the rise of MTV in the early 1980s is now the norm, and we have no trouble assimilating it: the discontinuity is so complete that the fragments flow like sand through your fingers. This is especially true of genres that deal in information – news programmes, for example, present a fantastic density of stuff: screens within screens, rapid cutting between different types of image in real and artificial locations, graphics, rolling banners and red buttons – and those that deal in hardly any: the new breed of late-night phone-in quiz shows need a busy screen because there’s hardly anything going on.
Documentary, some of it at least, has remained comparatively serene. The basic elements – talking heads, voiceover, archive footage, rostrum shots of photographs – are still in place, and the habit is to unfurl them in a steady procession, allowing the viewer to focus on one thing at a time, not several at once. Generally speaking, the busier the film, the less it’s got to say; BBC2 and Channel 4 have been competing for years to grab the weekend evening ratings with ‘Top 100’ lists and nostalgia formats such as I Love the 1970s, which interrupt C-list celebrity interviews with barrages of archive clips. But there are exceptions. Adam Curtis, whose three-part documentary The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom has lately been shown on BBC2, keeps things busier than most, and there’s a great deal he wants to say.
Curtis’s reputation is built principally on the success of his three previous series. In The Mayfair Set (1999), he looked at the rise of buccaneer capitalists and the waning of political power in the Thatcher years. The Century of the Self (2002) traced the way in which, during the course of the 20th century, Freud’s notion of the unconscious was recruited for a consumerist model of society in which politics became a matter of tapping into people’s desires. Two years later, The Power of Nightmares explored the parallel rise of neoconservative ideas in the US and militant Islamism in the Middle East to suggest that our traditional conception of politics has been realigned: political leaders no longer promise to make us happy, but to protect us against dire threats which are fantasies of their own creation. A recurrent concern in these series is that ideas originally introduced in the service of freedom have been diverted to the ends of a still deeper oppression. The Trap is a direct engagement with that notion, arguing that our present conception of freedom is built on a narrow understanding of human nature – as selfish, isolated and suspicious – developed by game theorists as a way to understand the dynamics of the Cold War and adopted subsequently by economists and politicians who saw the market as the true vehicle of freedom.
These are unusually expansive, ambitious projects, but what is more remarkable about them is their style, which is dazzling. Curtis’s documentaries are personal essays, which he delivers in voiceover across montage sequences of video drawn from the archive – news footage, TV and film clips, bits and pieces of incidental film drawn from every conceivable source – and counterpoints with a musical soundtrack curated just as carefully as the images. Occasionally, the flow gives way to brief segments of interviews, conducted by Curtis – you can hear him asking questions and reacting to the answers – with academics and experts. The effect can be exhilarating, sometimes dizzying. Curtis seems to have remembered everything he has ever seen and filed it all under an infinite number of cross-referenced headings, so that any image, from anywhere at any time, can be recollected and stitched to any other; it is as if the medium itself were free associating.
In a typical sequence, about twenty minutes into the second part of The Trap, Curtis wants to show that ‘what happened at the end of the 20th century was something that had never been tried before. The idea of democracy was taken over by a simplified economic model of human beings. In the process, freedom was redefined to mean nothing more than the ability of human beings to get whatever they wanted.’ As he begins speaking, the theme music to the 1978 movie Halloween – a tense, repetitive piano motif which plucks at the nerves – strikes up over a shot of a woman’s eye in profile; light, perhaps from a computer screen, flickers across her face. That image gives way, quickly and successively, to a series of others: a young black woman smoking, smiling at the camera through a reinforced glass window; three teenage girls in a car, laughing, filmed through the windscreen; a whip-pan to the American flag, pierced by sunlight, drifting in the breeze; a DIY programme on a pixellated TV screen; a ride-along shot of a family in an oversized golf buggy; two different angles of a man alone in a lecture theatre; two more of traffic at night; a woman, suspicious of the camera, wearing a polka-dot dress and partly obscured by glassy reflections; a blurry shot of a long windowless corridor; a man wearing shades in a crowded street; a woman pursued down the cosmetics aisle of a supermarket; and, as Curtis comes to the end of his three short sentences, a woman seen jogging in the wing-mirror of a moving car.
The entire sequence takes 26 seconds. There’s too much to take in. Or, you don’t know what you’ve taken in, and how deep the impression has been. Curtis’s forceful phrases find some resonance in the images, their connotations of isolation, consumer desire, aspiration, and the intercalation of these with ambiguous conjurings of America, of secrecy and threat, all against a backdrop of an anxiety-inducing horror movie soundtrack. Maybe it’s just witty. Certainly, it’s hard to see that it’s much more than an in-joke when Curtis accompanies his description of the rise of public-choice theory in the 1970s with a track from New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies called ‘Age of Consent’. But when, in The Power of Nightmares, he gives an account of the rise of the neo-conservatives in the US during the same period and illustrates it with a cascade of images of the Washington Monument, missiles launching, children watching TV, stills from Soviet propaganda films and bomb doors opening, it looks much more like the sort of thing used to brainwash Warren Beatty in The Parallax View.
It isn’t fashionable to take these issues seriously. Television is the postmodern medium, and Curtis’s films are perfect intellectual entertainment for an audience knowing enough to get the references, but too knowing to be taken in by his tricks. Those who believe that the media play an insidious role in the production and reproduction of ideology will be less sanguine. And Curtis is one of them; the look of his documentaries wouldn’t matter so much if he weren’t. An insistence on the material importance of ideology, on the way that ideas can pervade and shape the future of a society, is the foundation of his work, and he uses the full arsenal of audio-visual techniques to persuade us that his own Big Ideas are true. His films come off like Eisenstein with a voiceover, and though Curtis may not share the belief, held by some Soviet directors of the 1920s, that viewers’ reactions can be precisely manipulated by fine-tuning the duration, content and juxtaposition of images, he certainly aims to seduce. I find myself more worried by his documentaries when I go along with them than when I don’t.
I don’t go along with The Trap. The Power of Nightmares stuck with political philosophy to examine how the ideas of Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb diffused into their respective cultures: Curtis’s new film hurries from one discipline to the next, hoping to make them mirrors of one another. The game-theoretical assumptions of mathematicians at the RAND corporation are shown – Curtis likes to say that he’s ‘shown’ something to be the case, when often he’s just told us it is – to join up with the models of economists, the experiments of psychiatrists and anthropologists, the selfish-gene theories of biologists and the free-market ideologies of neoliberal politicians. His thesis that the second half of the 20th century saw a realignment of our notion of freedom along the axis of self-interest is plausible, but it can’t be demonstrated by hopping between the sciences as if they’d spontaneously converged. Had Curtis focused on any one of the ideas he has in play – a series on the selfish gene, perhaps, exploring its broader cultural manifestations in evolutionary psychology and biological determinism – he might have made something coherent and genuinely illuminating. As it is, he stretches his canvas too widely, exposing his argument as little more than a confection of heightened rhetoric and archive pleasures.
In aiming for so grand a narrative, Curtis unwittingly reveals the limits of flow as a means for the careful exploration of ideas. There is a nice moment in the final part of The Trap when he cuts to a clip from the 1964 series Conversations for Tomorrow, in which J.B. Priestley sits smoking a cigar and reaching for the port while Isaiah Berlin and A.J. Ayer discuss concepts of liberty. Curtis stays with Berlin for an unusually long time, perhaps as relieved as we are to have a talking head worth listening to, especially one so idiosyncratic, caught at a time when television still made room for such voices. It is a reminder that documentary shouldn’t dispense with the provisionality of first-person testimony and the resistance it offers to the deceptive self-evidence of the archive, and that the best examples – Norma Percy’s The Death of Yugoslavia, say – are almost wholly reliant on it. It’s a question of trust: on the part of the audience, that the documentaries they watch are made in good faith; on the part of broadcasters, that audiences will stay the course without having to be courted with gimmicks. The current fashion in documentary making is for dramatic reconstruction: last year’s otherwise excellent BBC2 production Suez: A Very British Crisis was marred only by grotesque dumb-shows of Eden and Macmillan mugging at each other across the cabinet table. At a time when the BBC is finding trust in short supply, it would do well to leave that sort of thing to Peter Morgan and the makers of The Deal.