Adam Curtis introduces All American

All American All American

Adam Curtis is a documentary film maker. He has made a wide range of political-historical documentaries for the BBC. These include Pandora's Box - Six Fables from the Age of Science, The Mayfair Set, The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares - the Rise of the Politics of Fear. Many of these films have told stories about the complex roots of American power - and the often unexpected effect it has had on the modern world over the past 100 years. In telling these stories Adam Curtis uses archive and noise and music in imaginative ways to try and look again at the roots of the modern world. He has also experimented with fusing political journalism about America with music and live theatre in the show It Felt Like a Kiss.

Introduction

Glorious Dreams from the Schizoid Empire

America rose to power not just because of industrial might, or armies or its genius for engineering and invention - but because it possessed our minds. In the years after the Second World War, America told a complicated story about itself to the world.

What gave the story such power was that it had two sides to it. One was a dream of complete personal freedom - an endless, open landscape, and songs and films that took you into that boundless world. A world into which British people escaped in their minds - a true liberation in a declining country still dominated by class and snobbery.

But the other story was dark and frightening. It said that America used its power to ruthlessly exploit the world while pretending that it was good. It was an alternative, hidden universe full of conspiracies, assassinations, drug-running, phone-tapping and paranoia. And the nameless people behind it were the men who were really in charge. Not democracy.

America's genius was to allow both stories to flourish - for whichever story you chose to believe immediately locked you into that world of dreams. It was the true confidence of power, because America allowed journalists and film makers complete freedom to fly in to the country and then go pretty much where they wanted - and tell one or other of the stories.

And that is just what the BBC did - from the late 1950s onwards. During that time the films it made swung back and forth between the optimistic dream and the pessimistic version. Over the last ten years the focus has tended towards the dark and pessimistic, except for the brief moment of President Obama's election. So BBC Four has decided to balance that with a season that celebrates America - along with a collection of programmes from the archives available to watch online.

But collectively the films also tell a story about Britain. About how liberal film documentary film makers in Britain turned to America, and its culture, for solace as their own political world moved away from them - towards the right. They used America to try and recapture some kind of grandeur for their own lost dreams.

The collection begins with a group of films made in the 1960s. They range from a wonderful Panorama that goes to California, in 1966, to predict what the world of 2000 will be like - to a Face To Face interview with Martin Luther King at the height of the civil rights movement, and a brilliant report by Alan Whicker about the Kentucky Derby - which the civil rights movement are planning to disrupt.

What all these films from the '60s capture in different ways is the incredible optimism for change. Only ten years later those dreams had turned to a pessimism and a suspicion of politics and power in Washington. America became a land of paranoia and corruption - epitomised in the figure of President Nixon.

But not all documentaries looked at America like that in the '70s. As politics went hurtling off towards the right in Britain as well, many documentary film makers in the BBC turned away from making films about politics and turned instead to make films about art and culture.

It is one of the great social shifts of the past 40 years that hasn't been fully recognised yet. As progressive politics failed in Britain, large chunks of the middle class gave up defining themselves through their political allegiances, and began instead to define their identity through which films, or bands, or type of art they liked. Central to this was a new belief - popular culture should be taken seriously. And the one place you could do that in an epic way was the country that had created mass popular culture. America. In the collection are a number of films that show how American popular culture was reworked by British documentary makers to give an epic foundation to this new aesthetic sensibility.

It ranges from a fantastic history of Woody Guthrie to rare performance footage from the seminal blues series The Devil's Music.

But the one that epitomises this most is a wonderful documentary about the Chelsea Hotel in New York made in 1981. It goes on a tour of the hotel's bohemian inhabitants - from the composer of Tubby the Tuba, playing his Turtle Ballet, to Andy Warhol and William Burroughs having dinner together. Warhol wears the headphones of his new Sony Walkman all the time. The film portrays the Chelsea as a kind of alternate universe, separate from the harsh '80s greed outside. Inside the hotel the world of bohemianism flourishes - and its belief in the absolute value of total self-expression.

It is tempting to look at the film as the record of a lost world of true bohemianism in New York. But that is to misunderstand it - for what the film captured in 1981 was an image of the future. We live today in a world where self-expression and our own individual desires have become the central motor for modern consumerism and politics. The give-away is in a brief moment when the hotel manager is talking about his role in running this little society. He says: "I gear my policy-making to fit the needs of the individual." It is the philosophy of all modern governments and their focus groups.

The world of the Chelsea hotel has triumphed. In a way we are all superstar bohemians today. And we all wear our headphones like Andy Warhol.

These films reworked American popular culture to make it epic. But by the end of the 1990s the dark uncertainties began to peek out again. You can see this in the documentary about Jackson Pollock, made in 1999. It shows how the art establishment made Pollock a hero because he represented the mythic dream of America - the rugged individualist.

But the problem was that Pollock wasn't like that at all. Underneath he was incredibly insecure, and tragic. He wasn't really an old-style American Hero. He was a new neurotic - the new kind of narcissistic individualism whose uncertainties would gnaw away at the confidence of American power from inside the society.

Amongst the more recent films is a Timewatch, made in July 2001, about the construction of the Empire State Building. It also tells how in 1945 an American Air Force plane flew into it. The B25 bomber was flown by Lt Col William F Smith, a hero from the war. Smith had been advised to land at La Guardia because of fog, but chose to continue to his destination in New Jersey. The air traffic controllers couldn't stop him because military pilots were allowed to do whatever they wanted. They had priority in the skies because America was still technically at war.

It is a story about the unexpected and dangerous side of American individualism - the myth that runs through so many of these films. It is the source of dreams of heroism, and also the dreams of self-expression inside the Chelsea Hotel. But that individualism is also the very thing that the Islamist terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre in September 2001 believed represented the greatest danger to the world.

After 2001 the films made about America changed. After the initial outpouring of sympathy, documentaries started to get dark again. Out of the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan a new received wisdom emerged that said that America's power was now declining and that power was shifting in the world.

But maybe this is just a part of the complex story that America tells - and still holds us in suspense. Maybe it's the moment when you think everything has gone wrong, and it's all over. Have we really woken up from the American Dream? Or is it one of those spooky moments when you think you are awake, but there's a lot more left to come. After all there is no other society in the world that tells as powerful and gripping story as America - and power isn't just about armies and commerce - it's also about crawling inside your head and seducing you with a story that keeps you wanting more.

Adam Curtis, November 2011

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A collection of programmes from the BBC archives exploring art, technology, politics and society in the United States of America. Available online to watch in full. All American

A collection of classic BBC programmes about US culture. Available to watch online.

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