The Curious Intonation of Adam Curtis

In his recent film Bitter Lake about the recent history of Afghanistan, Adam Curtis tells us we all need stories “to help us make sense of the complexity of reality”.

Typical of Curtis’ work, certain themes emerge: Corruption and paranoia among the political elite. Colonial and imperial exploitation and the use of reductive ideologies to maintain hierarchies of power. An erroneous belief in the value of technological progress. The dangers of theoretical abstractions that threaten to reduce the complexity of human behaviour to a distorted caricature. The potential for individuals to pervert the course of history by use of their charisma and influence.

Curtis presents his arguments using characteristic montage sequences, often juxtaposing disparate images, such as humour and horror, to create effect. Overlaid is the curious intonation of Curtis as narrator, a magnificent illustration of how tone, pitch and the play of aesthetics can provoke reverberations far beyond the factual content of a documentary film.

Curtis’ narrative voice, filled with a weight of distrustfulness, sharpens the ominous tone without a flutter of doubt. The indication is made, the dye is cast, and being an audience of post-modern sensibility, the only thing for it is to agree that the men of power, and the machines they build, are all tricking us.

Curtis has developed a narrative style that deploys a pitch of scepticism that is so hungry it is hard not get gobbled up by it. Bitter Lake follows a recent series of films, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, shown on the BBC through May and June 2011, which gave us a 3-part dressing-down on how the digital utopias of computer-led, feedback-looping networks are in fact shaping the world with dystopian consequences.

Throughout all these films Curtis attempts to draw relationships between events of often very differing fields. The point of making these connections is to recognise that human affairs, not matter how disparate, constitute a continuum of interrelated forces and factors, despite our tendency to treat each subject separately. Curtis offers the important perspective that events do not occur inside discrete bubbles defined by traditions of subject or genre (political, scientific, cultural, etc.).

Few filmmakers draw on such a wide scope of narratives. The conjunction of alternative storylines into a grand chronicle is really the premise of Curtis’ style. In his own words: “So many films you see now are so rigid – I’m trying to make a documentary that feels like a novel. I think my ambition is to make a documentary that feels like fiction.”

This ambition describes the formal style of his films. Film is perceptual medium, and Curtis understands the possibility of this. His crafted montage sequences show off his adeptness at manipulating the relationship between visual and audio material, resulting in often startling, garish counterpoints. For instance, Curtis regularly presents apparently innocuous images with sinister atonal chord sequences overlaid to imply the presence of malign forces at work. From the spectator’s perspective, the storyline is thus always emerging through the creation of atmosphere and through the suggestion of untold truths. Curtis sometimes works in the opposite direction, employing the conjunction of images of disaster or savage tragedy with a soundtrack of light amusement. A montage sequence showing the human remains of victims of a massacre overdubbed with peppy dance-hall musak is a good example.

But what is the spectator supposed to make of a documentary filmmaker who so conspicuously manipulates his raw material? Viewers must make their own minds, but my sense is that he is not to be trusted as an authority. Perhaps it is through spoof that the scaffolding of Curtis’ technique can be best described – Ben Woodham’s The Loving Trap (below) makes the point perfectly well: