The Wire

In Writing

An Interview With Adam Curtis

July 2011

The film maker and journalist talks to Nathan Budzinski about pop trash, posh documentaries and writing with archives.

"Trash pop. All I care about is trash pop... In the films, the inner DJ comes out. That is what it is, it's me nicking all the stuff I like." I'm sitting in the bustling foyer of the British Library in London, talking to the film maker Adam Curtis about his television series All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace which has just been broadcast on BBC2. It's less an interview than it is me listening in on his prodigious internal dialogue as it free associates across a plethora of different subjects. Throughout Curtis alternates between being chatty, gossipy, straightforward, blunt and elusive in rapid succession. But rather than being frustrating or unfocused, it's an entertaining routine to listen in on. Curtis explains the series's introductory sequence: "I started with the Pizzicatto 5 track ["Baby Love Child"] because I like that song and it sort of worked. And I don't know, it was just silly ... You want to tell people that you aren't taking it too seriously."

Titled after the poet Richard Brautigan's 1967 panegyric to the pastoral role that might be played by technology, All Watched Over loosely focuses around how computers became ubiquitous tools with far reaching ideological implications. The three episodes cover novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand's influence on the powerful economist Alan Greenspan, alongside Silicon Valley and computer utopianism, how cybernetics and systems theory impacted on ecology and environmentalism, and finally, relationships between genetics, the selfish gene theory and racism in the Congo. But even this is a harsh simplification of the mesh of associations that Curtis builds in the series. Not only is it difficult to summarise, it's hard to see how he can hold it together without being ponderous. "I'm serious about it but I'm also playing with you. I'm not a preachy, John Pilger-y I-believe-this-deeply. I'm saying we live in a very, very, very rigid, conservative time and am just asking have you thought about reconfiguring it and looking at it like this? And I do the same with music. Have you thought that I could put silly dancing music over Islamist terrorists? See what that feels like." I reply that it feels ridiculous. "Well then, you're not that frightened of it anymore. So it has a serious point."

Here, Curtis is jumping back to 2004's The Power Of Nightmares, arguably one of his best known, and most controversial series. It picked apart the post-9/11 'climate of fear' and what he saw as the myths of terror propagated by governments and mainstream media. Though I can't remember the 'silly dance music', there's a coda to the last episode in which Hal David and Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" is played over footage of street life in Kabul. It's an ironic comment on the simplistic media image of Afghans as potential terrorists. It's also endearingly off-kilter and ends the series on an optimistic note. If this is a good example of Curtis's playful approach to film making, then the introduction to The Power Of Nightmares epitomises his style: a collage of archival footage cut together with his clear and insistent voice narrating (as he does with all of his films). The two minute sequence is soundtracked with a mash up of John Carpenter's score for his Prince Of Darkness film and Brian Eno's "The Big Ship" from Another Green World. As the music slowly builds in intensity, Curtis's argument – that big governments have replaced an ideological vacuum with the fear of terrorism – forms itself.

It's moving stuff, and I ask what he thinks about the criticism that he manipulates people by seducing them into his narrative; cherry-picking a disparate collection of subjects, mixing them about and re-editing them into a fiction-like narrative? He seems exasperated. "Yeah, of course it is [manipulative] because what do you want me to do, make a boring programme? No, I want to make programmes that mesmerise you and provoke you, so you're going 'hmm I like that, hmm, no I don't think that!' I want you to get engaged. So of course I'm playing with you. But that's what a good film maker does. It's an emotional thing. I think I'm quite honest about it, because here you are, you're saying don't you do this, and I'm like, well yeah, I do! And half of it is just the fun of finding the right music. I used that [Eno] track because with that series I was more angry than I normally am. Normally I'm quite playful, and looking askance at things. With that, I was really angry because I thought a lot of my colleagues were misreporting something really badly. I'm not saying there wasn't a terrorist threat, I'm just saying they were distorting it. I knew that to do that, I had to bust through, and if you listen to that track, it builds in mood and kicks off, and it felt that it was a very good way to actually tackle something like that."

Though popular in its own way, 'pop trash' isn't the first thing that comes to mind when describing Another Green World. And when Curtis goes on to talk about Burial, early Shostakotvich, Philip Jeck or Tod Dockstader (who he names as a hero) in the same breath, I get the feeling that (alongside having a broad understanding of what 'pop trash' is) he's continually trying ideas on for size, re-framing and modifying them, embracing them, changing them or dispensing with them. This omnivorous appetite for subjects, ideas and material demands a high degree of associative skills. It also necessitates flexibility and creativity when it's time to fit it all together coherently. "I have what's called a pattern brain. I pattern music together and I pattern ideas together, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. What I'm intrigued by more and more is that increasingly we live in an emotional time, and people pattern in a much more emotional way than they used to... And the collage with music, they're much more open to that."

Curtis started his TV career in the early 80s and, broadly speaking, has made films that look at the relationship between politics and the exercise of power, and how through them ideas like genetics, game theory and crowd psychology have been used and abused. More often than not, Curtis shows how these systems result in failure and tragedy. Though it sounds like sobering material, Curtis's approach is far from a talking head with "a little bit of music way in the distance, telling you what's what", or the worthiness of what he calls "posh documentaries for a particular class". It was with 1992's Pandora's Box – a series focusing on science and its relationship with politics and power – that his films started to reach a wider audience. Rather than the standard science TV animations and reenactments, it is made up of footage from news flashes, car adverts, sci-fi films and self-shot interviews, all underlaid with harshly cut noises and 'pop trash'. It's an approach that is consistent throughout all his films. In subsequent series like The Living Dead, Century Of The Self and The Trap, Curtis tapped into archives of films and sound, taking the fragments of important and tragic events and re-splicing them to form a kind of slapstick or screwball video essay. It's a formula that can dust off tired narratives, freeing them from fossilised histories and making them into something intellectually and emotionally engaging and fun to watch.

His work is unique on TV and so I wonder about his influences? Guy Debord's Society Of The Spectacle or Chris Marker's films spring to (my) mind. But Curtis is elusive. He says that Marker is an admirer of his and that they've met through a mutual friend, but doesn't admit to having watched his films. He thinks Debord is too intimidating and obscurantist. Curtis brings up Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who spent much of his career theorising and critiquing power: "People say, oh you must have read Foucault, and I say, well yeah, I tried it and what he's saying is so mind-crushingly banal, you could say it in one page. I hate all this because what all those things [do] they literally put people off, they frighten people because they are deliberately obscure. And I don't like that. I think you can take anything, however complicated and make it simple and approachable, and emotional as well as intellectual."

He glosses over the fact that his father, Martin Curtis, worked with the influential British documentarist, Humphrey Jennings: "Well, we musn't fetishise it. Yes, he was his cameraman, that's it really. And he [Curtis's father] took me to see a lot of pretentious avant garde films when I was a child." I ask if he remembers any of them. "I think they were Jean-Luc Godard films, but I don't remember. Basically I thought they were a bit boring [laughs]. I just remember them having a lot of energy." Rather than film makers – "I really didn't have any film heroes – and I still don't" – Curtis says that John Dos Passos's experimental popular novel USA was a major influence. "It had a number of levels: one is the story of several characters, another is made up of almost documentary pieces about powerful people and why they're important, another is just fragmentary images cut from newspaper headlines and news reels of the time. And there's even another level called "The Camera Eye" which is, literally, just experience, just fragments of experience portrayed. I read it when I was about 12, 13 and was completely inspired by it. I never sought out to make a film like that. It's just that when I got to do this sort of thing, I remembered all that and just started cutting film like that."

Curtis is straightforward, almost to the point of being simplistic, about his collage technique: "I sit on top of the biggest archive in the world, the BBC film library, and I just write with images from it." He describes his films as simply being "high end bolted to low end, that's all I've ever done. That's my trick and that's all I'm ever interested in." But rather than just collections of images, sounds and ideas, Curtis is creating complicated webs of associations and meanings from these archival fragments. Sometimes though, he can lose control of these fragments. Possibly torn between TV's remit of entertainment-at-all-costs and a rigorous intellectual engagement with his subject no matter how complicated, his stories become frenetic and unravel. Public reaction to his recent series was polarised, especially the final episode where he mixed together several stories: Colonialism, racism, the selfish gene theory and Congo's trade in raw materials for computers. Watching it was exhilarating but left me wondering what, if anything apart from a stream of interesting facts, had emerged? "The third film I made was really experimental and I thought I'd gone bonkers as I was literally putting two stories together, which did join up at the front and then joined up at the end. But I was trying to say there was an emotional relationship between the two. That, as our faith in being able to change the world predictably has declined – the end of that liberal dream – an emotional view of ourselves as fundamentally stuck creatures driven by things inside us, has risen up. I'm not positing a direct causal relationship, I'm saying that the two things are happening simultaneously and I have a good end point and start point where they literally are together. So I'm trying to actually do an emotionally coherent film as much as an intellectually coherent film because I actually think that increasingly a lot of people think like that. They're ready for that."

Curtis refutes any suggestion that he is an artist, instead insisting that he is wholly a journalist. He says the recent films were trying to link people's everyday experience to wider social and political events: "I sort of think I got it right in the last film, sort of. Because what [I did] is use music to evoke the feelings, the emotions and put it against or with, big things out there. I haven't got it quite yet. But I know that journalism has been so boring at the moment because it's either about 'you, you, you, you', what songs you like, what you feel today, where do you want to go to today, all that. Or it's big, grand narratives but done in a very dry and boring way. The trick, in the future, will be to put them together... To be blunt, music's probably the link."

I ask if he's reacting against a widespread stultification of culture. Curtis responds: "I'm part of the problem… I go back into the past, rework it and come back and go 'have you thought about thinking about it like this?'… I'm not actually recording the now and making it seem like a new thing, no one does that, have you noticed this? No one does. And no one does music that makes one feel like the now." Curtis moves on to Hauntology: "It's quite a good phrase really, we are haunted by the past at the moment. And I think it's because we haven't got any ideas about how to move on. Or it could be that it's the down side of a market democracy… It might be that if you actually try and create a society that is driven by market ideas (in other words, what you or I want is then given to us) then you tend to get a very static society because you're actually consciously against innovation that isn't an innovation that's responding to what someone already wants. The idea of innovating towards something that no one might want is just gone ... [The] thing about our time is that there's a great lack of people ambitious enough to say, 'I want to create another way of looking at things'. Everyone wants to reinforce what's there... all genres now want to reinforce themselves within music, they'll nick a bit from here and nick a bit from there but they're not actually giving you another view of the world, they're giving you a reinforcing view of the world. I think I'm slightly different, not grandly different, in that I'm trying to reconfigure, for a mass audience, how you see the world."

Even though he's being tongue in cheek, I follow Curtis when he says that he's part of the problem, that all he does is represent old things in novel ways, not really creating anything new per se. I ask if he thinks his films are formally conservative and he agrees. But this is no surprise coming from someone who sees himself as a journalist, not an artist. He's not interested in subverting or obliterating narrative structure. Quite the opposite, he wants to tell good stories. But more than just haunting archives, there's an acute urgency to his films that points towards how one looks at archives, how one manipulates their contents and shapes their meaning rather than being swallowed up in their dusty and atmospheric stories.

Curtis says he is trying to reconfigure the way one sees the world, but for a mass audience. I think there is art in this story and it lies in the audience. In the creativity of looking, listening, feeling and translating that experience into comprehension, how one sees the world. So who does he think this mass audience are? "Basically people like me. It's clever, suburban kids, both genders, who are interested in looking at the world in a different way. They probably read The Wire. It's not the London Review Of Books lot. [They're] highly educated, but under-confident, because we live in such a rigid age… So as well as trying to say, 'Have you looked at the world this way through this story and these facts?' I'm also trying to say to people, 'Have you thought that you can actually reconfigure the world?' You just can. You can turn it round and play with it and do all sorts of things."