Friday 24 September 2010, 15:05

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

Here is a bit of an experiment.

I have always wanted to make a series of films which would be like an "emotional history" that conveys what it feels like to live through history as an experience rather than a grand story. It would be about the relationship between the tiny fragments and moments of personal experience, and the continual backdrop of big events.

My dream is to make it very long - taking, say forty hours to tell the story of 1970 to now. So I thought I would start building it online.

Here is the first half hour. All cut to music, noise, and people talking and dancing from the time. There is no narration, only a few explanatory captions.

But my idea is also to use it to chart one of the great conceptual shifts of our time. It is the story of how, with the rise of individualism, we all stopped defining ourselves by politics and being part of collective groups, and believing in collective ideas.

And instead we started to define ourselves by culture - both popular and high-brow - because music and style and art allowed us to give expression to our individual identities, rather than supressing them in the greater interest of the group.

This one focusses on a few months in 1970 - just before the general election of that year. I have cheated a couple of times with music, and with a few of the bits of film. But not much. It's a bit rough, work in progress. If you can - listen on headphones.

I won't put the parts up chronologically. Next, probably, 1992.

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    Comment number 1.

    Absolutely brilliant. A great idea for a project. Looking forward to the next 79.

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    Comment number 2.

    Nice one Adam, very interesting.

    I nearly spat my tea out laughing at the Band of Gold caption, brilliant.

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    Comment number 3.

    I forgot how beautiful women used to be.

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    Comment number 4.

    Very moving, and I really don't know what to say, other than I'm going to watch this several times to digest it all. I am very excited about this project.

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    Comment number 5.

    A friend and I were just discussing this very topic over a pizza yesterday. My friend was specifically mentioning a comment he had read where a reader on had mentioned that the ridiculous comparison being passed around now a days that Obama is similar to Hitler is not only ludicrous to suggest such a comparison but also because the people making such claims NEVER take into account the small things like the fact that peoples minds just did not conceive the same things we can conceive now due to changes in our surroundings and our culture.

    One of us no doubt (I can't remember who specifically) reminded the other one that this is exactly where Adam Curtis is coming from in all of his work. To see it used as the MAIN focus point in a series that will last 40 hours is just amazing! Thank you Adam Curtis. Again, we owe you one.

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    Comment number 6.

    This reminds me of a film Mrk Cousins and Irvine Welsh did for The New Ten Commandments - have you seen it?

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    Comment number 7.


    You know I must admit I felt exactly the same thing watching this, but wasn't sure about posting it.

    I'm reminded of a lyric that I love -

    "Moving with grace that men despise, and women have learned to lose".

    I'm not sure if that's misogynistic. Whatever way you look at it it's kind of a sad view I think.

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    Comment number 8.

    It's an original idea. I do feel though that for people like me, who are too young to remember these songs and tunes, the film is a collage of images lacking meaning and context. Younger people might find this unengaging. Personally I am fascinated by images of people suspended in an apparent void (the french would call that existentialism). To that extent the film highlights that void in the absence of an over-arching narrative, although this might be an unintended consequence of the lack of context?

    The previous documentary, "It Felt Like A Kiss", was also a collage of images and soundtracks, but strangely I though in that instance that I had my familiar reference points and that a narrative thread ran through the film. For that reason it felt like a very difference experience (a more collective rather than individual experience) than the latest film.

    As a side point, Music is only one of the ways individuals use as an identity flag, though film and audio can only handle music and moving images engagingly.)

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    Comment number 9.


    I object to your project Adam, its a waste of your time. Your time and attention are resources of immediate political relevance. I propose you tackle the following:

    1) WWII narratives. Why not dive right into the controversies - do an Oliver Stone - except that you have the brains to do it well, and probably more accurate.

    2) Ahistorical Modernity. Cold War narratives, vs. what this generation knows. Think of it in the following terms: today, the West speaks of something called the "Islamic world". Only 20 years ago, this was a term we rarely used. What today is called the Islamic world, was largely torn between Socialism and pro-American dictators. If you could explain this to the Present, you might contribtute a great deal. Westerners think that Muslims were basically always backwards, but they don't know about the secular socialist forces, that we eradicated at the root as a matter of foreign policy.

    3) Take the story about Leo Strauss further. Why not go in depth, and bring in Schmidt, and S. Drury, and Rene Braque? Also, many of us would like to know if Strauss was the only "theoretician of the elite" and "philosopher of myth" or if there were others, (there certainly were elitist schools) and how did they impact governance in the West. You might mention Huntington's famous "moderate democracy" ideas, etc.

    4) Consider historical stories that you touched upon in discussing Berneys. SOmeone like Basil Zaharoff, remains a mystery, and yet, by ignoring Bernaye's time, we are ignoring a curious period similar to our own. Plenty of illusions.

    5) Conspiracy theories. Why not touch on their very real origin from within intelligence agencies, and various factionalism within society?

    These are mere suggestions, to counter a potential decision of what many would consider a massive waste of your time.

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    Comment number 10.


    I find your tone arrogant.

    a) I don't think it is your place to dish out injunctions to an artist

    b) most of the themes you suggest are your own niche interests and in any case most have been covered to death (on wwII - see The Living Dead)

    c) I do think the proposed project would potentially stand as a one-off monument breaking new ground

    So let's leave it to those who do the work to decide what they want to do.

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    Comment number 11.

    Usually in archive footage our eyes often focus on the main persons within view. Sometimes the people on the fringe of view show some interesting behaviour. Those participating within the narrative in the foreground, while those outside are relegated as observers are in the background. The cameraman is also one of the observers.

    As observers, we are all essentially masochistic self-doubters, confined to observe others as our own form of self-control or lose of self. We are essentially the conformists by passively accepting the world without actively changing it. But as soon as we lose our status as observer we gain the horror of self-consciousness.

    In those examples of people cathartically screaming out their inner angst and unbinding their own self-control, we find that they're surrounded by observers. Both the screamer and observers (and us) gain catharsis in the act. So long as as there is something to observe, nothing changes. Unless what we are observing is truly horrific, and then our self-control breaks down.

    This is why totalitarian regimes successfully control the masses: by providing them with a narrative and making them observers, without showing them the true horrors of reality; they essentially remain self-less. In any need for occassional catharsis is always through group activities such as dancing, music, rallies or as an audience where lose of control does not lead to self-consciousness.

    Leaders, tyrants, celebrities, are all narcissistic, and thrive off the audience so as to project their self outwards and control them. Therefore narcissists successfully avoid self-consciousness.

    We all enter the safety of the sado-masochistic relationship. Even when brushing their hair in the mirror, the narcisstic happily avoids self-consciousness.

    One sweet moment at 24:00 where the young girl is invited to become the foreground, and to avoid being the centre of attention she immediately distracts from herself, pointing at the cameras that are of no interest at all, and the same applies to the young man soon after.

    Oh dear, we truly are a bunch of masochists caught up in distractions avoiding reality, unable to love ourselves only images of ourselves reflected in others or turn our self-cruelty outwards onto cruelty to others.

    The little boy at 29:50, does not need a narrative and is only conscious of his immediate surroundings. Neither passive observer nor active narcissist.


    Our lives are filled with people who tell us what to do and what not to do. Artists sometimes require the need to search for new narratives and perspectives and this is why Adam's new project is entirely worthwhile. Even if no new narratives are created, he is creating artistic images and sound which we all appreciate.

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    Comment number 12.

    what is that clip at the end where the boy is buying the sweets and walking down the street?

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    Comment number 13.

    This looks like an intriguing project to me, Adam, and clearly, it is a long-cherished ambition of yours to realise it.

    I was reminded, purely circumstantially, of the work of a historical novelist whom I have always admired, Peter Vansittart, poorly known to the majority of British readers, but who always wrote with a tremendous sense of the minutiae of every moment of history which he dealt with - not solely concering himself with surface politics and metanarratives, but interested in all aspects of a time including the folk stories which it told, the domestic practices of those who lived within it, the sense of humour that it generated, the dream narratives and mystical visions, and so on. He crafted some of the most superb historical anthologies I know of (and I am a keen reader of anthologies) on such periods as WWI, telling a story of his own simply through the ingathering of a mass of disparate textual voices, and leaving the reader to construct their own interpretation of the peculiar elements and aspects he had unearthed, and which, somehow, seemed to speak of significant perspectives from/on the time. I was actually thinking just recently that it was a pity Vansittart devoted his attention purely to what many would consider archaic subjects (the French Revolution, the fin de siecle era in the c.19th etc.), and no-one had produced a comparably bold anthology of disparate texts for the post WWII era, bringing us face to face with all the dreams, conceptions, biases and myths of our own time. This series seems like it may promise something along similar lines - and it seems wholly appropriate that, chronicling a period dominated by the power of visual and aural dissemination to inform perspective, the work is, in essence, an 'anthology' using film, rather than text. I am absolutely certain that your eye for the stimulating, surprising or unintentionally apt image will conjure marvels along the way.

    Naturally, to say that any artefact of this nature will lack subjectivity is foolish - and I am sure that, as a whole, the work would revisit many of your own, personal areas of interest - ranging from the manipulation of psychiatric practice to inculcate 'norms' within populations to the curious sense of 'unreality' that living under Cold War brinkmanship appears to have bequeathed to the 21st century world. Presumably, a different director engaged upon such an all-encompassing project would make different selections of material to represent the 'emotional essence' of the years in question - yet, equally surely, the artistry of the piece would lie precisely within that artful selection of materials.

    I am not sure that we can judge the value of the work from a small, experimental sample - for it seems certain that the effect of the whole must be cumulative, giving a sense of development over time. I think it will prove an audacious and remarkable project if it can be brought to full fruition. Whether such an intuitively felt work can also be used to craft a coherent final message is another question - but it will undeniably demonstrate some masterful 'anthologising'.

    At the same time (and though I agree that avishalom's comments come across as hectoring and arrogant), I do see where the concern is coming from. For those who have always primarily viewed your work as a contribution to current political discourse, it may seem as if this lengthy engagement with material that is concerned with developments of 20-30 years past is of no 'contemporary' relevance. I will leave that dispute to the politically inclined. As a historian above all, I have always valued the fact that you are as interested in studying where we are *now* in terms of what we did and thought *then* - and this project seems to me a valuable further contribution to that discourse.

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    Comment number 14.

    Adam Curtis wrote:

    "I have always wanted to make a series of films which would be like an "emotional history" that conveys what it feels like to live through history as an experience rather than a grand story. It would be about the relationship between the tiny fragments and moments of personal experience, and the continual backdrop of big events."

    Sounds like the perfect definition of a 'soap opera', but without the 'professional' acting.

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    Comment number 15.

    Dear Mr Curtis

    I had tears in my eyes with laughter from 14:33, with the reporter being flooded by curious Egyptians. The reporter stiffly struggles to keep to his text, his right hand in his pocket, probably balled in a fist. Fantastic.

    A few points I'd like to make: this project will probably turn out to be an artistically and especially a historically significant undertaking, so I really hope you'll finish it. Though I do wonder if people are able to make sense of it in say sixty years time, without explanations for just about everything ('So was Hugh Heffner married happily ever after or not?' :-)).

    It would be somehow interesting to hear cover versions of songs you use throughout the project. For instance, I know David Bowie's 'the man who sold the world' primarily from Nirvana's cover --because I'm from the Nirvana generation so to say. Everything points to something else or almost the same in the past --which is nicely summarized in the phenomenon of the cover version.

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    Comment number 16.

    This is great film, thank you!

    I have a Dorling-Kindersley encyclopedia of the 20th century presented as a scrap book of short newspaper articles and I find part of the fun is in thinking about the stories you haven't included (Biafra [Roland the Thompson Gunner!], the Beatles breaking up, the Kent State shootings, the first Jumbo jet landing at Heathrow)and wondering whether they could fit within your narrative frame - and perhaps why they haven't been picked.

    Presenting [a] history as an immersive [aesthetic?] experience - at least in this form - I think wonderfully original. It strikes me that you not only have a wonderful archive to draw on but a means of selecting it, altering it and presenting it that hasn't been possible in the past.

    I wish you the best with the project and can't wait to see the next instalment.

    (And quietly I'll hope that one day you might trace a similar story about the interrelationship of culture and technology which allows the style of the film itself to become, even more, part of the critique.)

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    Comment number 17.

    Mr Curtis,

    Please consider adding the cover version of "Wild Horses" by The Sundays, in your 1992 anthology. It's so hauntingly beautiful and emotional.

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    Comment number 18.

    Greetings. I enjoyed what you made. I look forward to seeing more of these in series. While not as arrogant as avishalom - I would *never* presume to tell you what to make or do - I would ask that you look at what such a series means and what it might bring as a form of precontextualisation. You are a few years older than I am, but not much. I was 11 / 12 in 1970. I remember 1968 very well. When Bobby Kennedy and MLK jr were assassinated, I remember my mother that summer moving the laundry onto a table for folding and she was crying - she said "The world has gone mad - all the good people are being murdered." And I remember the tenor of her political sentiments hardening - not along party lines, but more along lines of decency and fairness.

    1970 was also Altamont - the nadir of the Woodstock nation. The hippies of 65 had left the Haight / Ashbury years ago, and the neighbourhood was being taken over by junkies and speed freaks. By the late 70s it was a disaster and it wasn't until the gentrification of the late 80s and 90s did it Disney-fy itself into the shopping mall it is today.

    In some ways, I wonder if this latest work of yours has learned the lessons of your own previous works. The Trap is a hypermediated revisioning of Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectics of Enlightenment. For them it was VERY clear that the intellectual tools of the 17th and 18th century led directly to auschwitz and hiroshima. The Century of the Self examines Bernays et al and the psychology underneath the mediations of political economy - clearly demonstrating that we might develop choices rationally but we make a decision from those choices irrationally. This is underlined by Rushkoff and his work on "The Merchants of Cool" and "The Persuaders" (both viewable on PBS.ORG)

    So, here with your recent work I am given the position of an emotional tourist to a time when I was an older child and you a young teenager. Impressionable and important times of one's life. But from CotS and the Trap, we have learned to distrust emotional manipulations - we know we're being "Set up"...

    1970 is also when US oil production peaked, as predicted in the 1950s by M King Hubbert. The USA was already importing oil, but after 1970, that import would grow enormously. OPEC was a direct result of this geological fact, as it now became advantageous for the producers to collude against their biggest customer. At this time (or was it 1971?) when Nixon removed the last vestiges of the gold standard, and tied the American dollar to oil. Since then, the volume of dollars sloshing around the world has expanded exponentially, and now with the peaking of oil production, the relationship between the dollar and energy has grown frayed and tenuous. Reports are coming out on nearly a monthly basis of how the militaries of various nations (Germany, USA, UK, China) are concerned and preparing for significant turbulence in the next decade as the production of oil begins to collapse.

    While 1970 is a good year to look at, I think any year is a good year to look at. That said, I do not see it as holographic - one year does not include all years - we are not paradigmatic of anything but what we are now. What your idea for this series provides is a personal vision of the past. With what you have produced for the past decade or so is something vastly deeper, and of such a nature that "personal vision" is left suspect. Not because it is wrong, per se, as much as we can't really know who is doing the talking - is it Eight People Sipping Wine In Kettering? Is it Nash? Is it Marcuse? We are asked to trust your vision (and frankly, I do) yet your vision calls for critical thinking, something that a trust in a personal vision requires some suspension thereof.

    Unlike avishalom, I'm not saying DON'T DO THIS, and I certainly enjoyed the first installment (although I think you could work on the pacing a bit - it's a bit draggy in the middle), but I do think that this project really needs to be tighter to the theory you opined, and I quote:

    "But my idea is also to use it to chart one of the great conceptual shifts of our time. It is the story of how, with the rise of individualism, we all stopped defining ourselves by politics and being part of collective groups, and believing in collective ideas.

    And instead we started to define ourselves by culture - both popular and high-brow - because music and style and art allowed us to give expression to our individual identities, rather than supressing them in the greater interest of the group."

    I see THIS as vastly more important than the emotional history (tourism, imho) idea when you said,

    "I have always wanted to make a series of films which would be like an "emotional history" that conveys what it feels like to live through history as an experience rather than a grand story. "

    Perhaps the emotional history idea is one you can run with on your blog, but will it be a distraction? The shift in self definition is an idea you explained clearly in Century of the Self. From CotS, the Trap was the logical follow up. What to follow it with is a big question, one I have been wondering ever since you finished the Trap. I think this emotional history series is an interesting angle, but I am afraid it may be a time consuming fiddling while Rome burns. Yes, we should know the themes of these years past - we need to know our past so we can understand our present and thus have some agency over our future. What I wonder is, "is this really the best vehicle for that?"

    I'm a *major fan* of your work, and I use excerpts of it in my classrooms as I can. That CotS, PoN, and the Trap are not really available on DVD is yet another sign of how the complexity of our civilisation is working against its own survival. I sincerely wish you all the best luck in your endeavours.

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    Comment number 19.

    Just re-watching Pandora's Box. Is not political history a strawman version of science? Indeed, rather than reason, politics seems to be based on fear. No surprise then if people now have a political identity, and while powerless, they show paranoia.

    But back to science, it can still save us. But not the strawman versions created by politicians and intellectuals.

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    Comment number 20.

    Yah - arrogance and artistic types, little people can tell me all about it. Only a perfectly fragile ego would take my tone to heart. Anyone genuine will treat it as mere opinion, no different from Adam's work.

    Dear Adam part 2,

    Another thing that bothers me, is you using this BBC blog format, where everything is tightly censored. You feel no irony, doing your deconstructivism on a blog which exercises censorship on the level of Soviet Authorities? Too bad for the BBC I suppose. Just look at, they have unrestricted comment policies, and it's been working wonders for them. Consider something else Adam, a rather brutal oversight: Unless you put your work into a documentary film format, we will never be able to retain it. This blog here at the BBC, will forever lock in the footage. At most we can copy and paste text. But not even a website downloader will capture the films. Your Afghanistan series will be lost to us, if you don't make it a film. And I beseech you to make it a film!

    That aside. I'd love to provide a few links to Tukrmenistan. But I guess that can't be done - with BBC censorship. So verbally: Youtube has a nice Bouygues Turkmen Clip. No shame eh? Then if you go to the ShadowOfTheHolyBook website, you can find a directory where a document exists for each developed country's relationship with the comatose dictatoriship. Three, the Ukrainian forum of the Skyscraper forums domains. There you will find all the wonders of Ashkhabad. Oh, and most British firms seem to be vastly more careful than Bouygues in advertising their services to Good Ol Berdy - hence you can see that on B. page they get into details on various projects.

    I want to comment on your Afghanistan series. Again, must be in documentary format or will be forever lost. You overlooked the deliberately obscured role US dominated Iran, that of the Germans, and the Chinese, but I suppose you are not working exhaustively. When I add your Yemen post - I feel like Syria, Egypt, and Iraq all merited attention.

    Iran. Adam! There are thousands of immigrants from the Shah's regime still among us. Please interview them while they are here. Their story has NEVER GOTTEN OUT. Everyone reading you, is clueless on the intrigues there, and boy, they were massive.

    I wonder what you could do on Saudi Arabia. Especially after A's documentary. I am certain there is footage out there -that only your genius can locate.

    The Maghreb, and French-US foreign policy tandem, aer fascinating. I am sure you've heard of the admissions in French courts by Moroccan DST, and the Algerians, has never seen these shores.

    Another thing comes to mind - South Africa. I don't suppose you'd like to tackle before/after Aparatheid. Or is that too to the right of your political compass? All the promises made, all the support given by Iran, Marc Rich, etc...and Slavko, good old Slavko.

    Which reminds me, why not do something on the likes of Marc Rich. You know, Ammann wrote a hagiography of him recently, and it is grossly at odds with Copetas. According to the sycophant Rich was nothing less than a Mossad super-spy, on the Department of State's valued asset list, so that the FBI was being deliberately lead by the nose by DOS. That's one hell of a story. Marc Rich can serve, as you used Freud, to tell the story of a wider epoch, and time. Ammann claims Rich invented the spot market as such, and particularly the oil market. Glencore/Xstrata remains till this day, impressively and furtively dominant in global resources markets. It's the Rich gang.

    And I'll end with another suggestion (at Adam, not the nitpickers here looking to bully). Anglo-American foreign policy and the GCC. Have you ever noticed that half of what is owned by GCC firms, in actually is Western money that is recycling ownership?

    Oh, I thought that was the biggest secret out there? Well its true, and P&O isn't really owned by Arabs. But that's another story of our corrupt world.


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