Negotiating the Pleasure Principle: The Recent Work of Adam Curtis

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2008 (Vol. 62, No. 1). I’ve recently watched Curtis’s powerful and eye-opening Bitter Lake (2015) as well as his somewhat more paranoid HyperNormalisation (2016), also readily available for free on the Internet, which generally maintain the high level of the work discussed here.  — J.R.

There’s been a steady improvement over the course of the three most recent BBC miniseries of Adam Curtis – The Century of the Self (2002, four hour-long episodes), The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004, three hour-long episodes), and The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, three hour-long episodes) —- both in terms of their intellectual cogency and persuasiveness and in terms of the interest of Curtis’s developing, innovative style of filmmaking. One might even contend that each remarkable series has been twice as good as its predecessor. Even so, a closer look at Curtis’s filmmaking style starts to raise a few questions about both the arguments themselves and the way that he propounds them. (Regarding Curtis’s earlier TV series — such as the 1992 Pandora’s Box and the 1999 The Mayfair Set, which I’ve only sampled, and won’t be discussing here —- one can already see some of the thematic and stylistic seeds of his more recent work there.)

I’m certainly not the first one to address these issues arising out of Curtis’s work. Among my predecessors, I’ve been especially impressed by the arguments of Paul Myerscough (“The Flow,” London Review of Books, 5 April 2007, Vol. 29 No. 7) and those of the late Paul Arthur (“Adam Curtis’s Nightmare Factory: A British Documentarian Declares War on the `War on Terror,’” Cineaste, Winter 2007, Vol. XXXIII No. 1). Starting off with a discussion of televisual “flow” as described by Raymond Williams in 1973, Myerscough voices some misgivings about sensual overkill as well as intellectual shortcuts and simplifications, concluding at one point that “I find myself more worried by his documentaries when I go along with them than when I don’t.” Arthur expresses comparable doubts while interrogating some of Curtis’s intellectual arguments in greater detail, and also explores the possible relevance of the neo-Marxism of Curtis’s former schoolmates Jon King and Andy Gill, founders of the postpunk band Gang of Four.

The theses of all three of Curtis’s series are clearly interconnected. The Century of the Self sketches the appropriation of Freud’s theory of the unconscious as a consumerist model for manipulating people economically and politically through their unconscious desires — initially by Freud’s American nephew Edward L. Bernays, the invent of “public relations,” and subsequently by Gallup polls, Anna Freud’s gospel of social conformity, the “Human Potential” movement that tried to overthrow Anna Freud’s principles of social conditioning, and the eventual development of focus groups in both the U.S. and the U.K. to sell products, including such political candidates as Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher, and Blair.

The Power of Nightmares offers a parallel history of militant Islamism as spearheaded by Sayyid Qutb and neo-conservatism as spearheaded by Leo Strauss to trace the development of a political trend in which fear of manufactured and largely imaginary threats have gradually replaced utopian promises of happiness. This culminates in Curtis’s most controversial claim in any of these three miniseries —- that the existence of the terrorist network Al Qaeda is primarily a fiction that was invented in 2001 as a means of gaining and consolidating power.

The Trap to some extent subsumes and extends both of the arguments in the preceding series by maintaining that the Western idea of freedom has been reformulated over the past half-century or so from political freedom to economic freedom (viewed as spending power), again with disastrous results. Basic to this overarching ideological shift is the conviction — promulgated largely by game theorists as a way of explaining the dynamics of the Cold War, and eventually taken up by economists and politicians — that human beings are fundamentally selfish, suspicious, and isolated from one another; that notions of collective will can’t even be theorized according to the new, market-driven models; and that success and happiness are ultimately measurable in numbers rather than in terms of the quality of whatever is being quantified. Here the major villains often seem to be not George W. Bush —- even though he does get a characteristically inane sound bite (“I believe that the future of mankind is freedom”) in the prologue to the first two parts — but Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, for being elected on liberal/labor platforms and then immediately giving away their hard-won power to the banks and markets, meanwhile increasing class inequality in relation to everything from career opportunities to life expectancies in both the U.S. and the U.K. But more generally, what gets vigorously castigated here are irresponsible forms and applications of social science, especially psychiatry, spurred by various forms of capitalism and the numbers game.


A withering examples of the latter, offered in part two of The Trap, “The Lonely Robot,” is the way in which normal human reactions such as fear, loneliness, and sadness were redefined as medical disorders in order to sell newly developed drugs such as Prozac and create new forms of social management. My own tragicomic favorite is one of the many grotesque consequences of the performance targets that followed Blair’s election in 1997: when the government’s aim was to reduce the number of hospital patients who had to wait in corridors on trolleys before receiving care, some hospitals would remove wheels from their trolleys and reclassify them as beds, meanwhile reclassifying some corridors as wards.

In all three of these miniseries, one can trace a certain Hegelian convergence of disciplines and theories that becomes all the more ambiguous, exhilarating, and unsettling once one starts to realize that this convergence is part of Curtis’s own methodology as well as his ostensible subject. In other words, I’m continually being won over by grand explanations for most of our contemporary problems, all of which entail other and presumably lesser minds having been similarly seduced; what might more generally be termed the Eureka mentality is thus posited as both the disease and the diagnosis.


I’m reminded of the most stimulating by far of all the university courses I ever took —- a Bard College seminar taught by Heinrich Blücher, the husband of Hannah Arendt, called “Metaphysical Concepts of History and Their Manifestations in Political Reality”. Blücher, a former German Communist who never published a word, is lamentably overlooked by many people who didn’t know him personally, yet his impact on friends and students as well as on Arendt (who dedicated her Origins of Totalitarianism to him) is  irrefutable. The dialectical subject as well as the dialectical methodology of his seminar, which focused on such figures as Hegel, Nietzsche, Spengler, Marx, and Freud, grew out of the various seductions and dangers of all-purpose explanations. Virtually every lecture Blücher gave in the seminar described an arc that climbed towards fervent belief before descending towards skepticism. For better and for worse, Curtis’s audiovisual arguments tend to move in the reverse direction; they all start very promisingly by tearing down some of the ruling myths of our era, and then arguably conclude in far too satisfying a fashion by implying that once we can shatter those myths, we’re almost as wised up as we need to be.

Nevertheless, the value of all three works isn’t just the strength of their arguments but the overall freshness and pertinence of part of the information they impart. Speaking for myself, I was less excited by The Century of the Self because I’d already read Larry Tye’s The Father of Spin: Edward L Bernays & The Birth of Public Relations (New York: Crown Publishers, 1998) — a book whose revelations for me started in its Preface, which explains how the “public relations triumph” that was the “selling of America on the Persian Gulf War…was crafted by one of America’s biggest public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton, in a campaign bought and paid for by rich Kuwaitis who were Saddam’s archenemies.”

If memory serves, this tidbit is missing from The Century of the Self (although Tye is one of the people interviewed), but the material imparted about Bernays and his legacy — starting with his own coinage of the term “public relations” as a euphemism for propaganda — -is pointed, well chosen, and instructive. (One particular gem in Part 2, “The Engineering of Consent,” is the story of how housewives were coerced into buying Betty Crocker cake mix once their egos were stroked by the gratuitous instruction that they add one egg to the mix.) And some of it overlaps neatly with material discussed in Naomi Klein’s magisterial The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), a book whose own clarifying synthesis of information seems comparable and complementary to some of Curtis’s best insights.

I’m thinking in particular of the terrifying exploits of Dr. Ewan Cameron, whose CIA-funded employments of LSD, PCP, and electroshock to hapless patients begin Klein’s narrative and are pointedly referenced by Curtis. One might also note that her postulation of Milton Friedman as a guru from hell essentially “rhymes” with Curtis’s uses of Bernays in The Century of the Self, Strauss in The Power of Nightmares, and even Isaiah Berlin and his concept of “negative liberty” in part three of The Trap, “We Will Force You To be Free”. Indeed, in the closing stretches of the latter, when Curtis is critiquing the disastrously misguided and theoretically driven employments of “shock therapy” in postcommunist Russia and, more recently, in Iraq, his arguments seem to coincide fairly precisely with those of Klein. (Another film with certain conceptual parallels to Curtis’s three series is Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan’s excellent 2003 documentary The Corporation.)


The developing style of Curtis’s essayistic documentaries is to alternate talking-head interviews with diverse kinds of found footage, the latter sometimes overlaid by music drawn from Hollywood films. Some of the scores borrowed in The Power of Nightmares come from John Carpenter’s Halloween and Prince of Darkness, The Ipcress File, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, two Morricone-scored Italian pictures, and Neptune’s Daughter —- the last of these being the source for Johnny Mercer’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which dominates the first episode. And especially memorable in The Trap are Bernard Herrmann themes from films by Welles and Hitchcock —- a ploy that periodically becomes distracting, perhaps even more so if one is conscious of where they’re coming from. I’m not sure how helpful it is, for instance, for the sprightly chase music from North by Northwest to accompany Curtis’s aforementioned discussion of performance targets in Blair’s version of New Labour and — more briefly later on — his discussion of Franz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre’s espousals of violence in third-world revolutions. Whatever postmodern ironies Curtis might have in mind with these juxtapositions, they really don’t add much to the discussion.

The fact that Curtis hasn’t acquired rights to either the clips or the music is largely what accounts for them not being better known outside the U.K., although all three series are readily accessible via the Internet for those who go looking for them. (In the U.S., the three parts of The Power of Nightmares, the best known of the   three series, have become available in issues #2, #3, and #4 of Wholphin, a DVD magazine issued by McSweeney’s and available in some bookstores as well as through outlets such as Amazon.)

There seem to be at least three major issues worth addressing about these miniseries. The first is the validity of the intellectual arguments they propound. The second is the validity of the anti-intellectual methodologies they sometimes employ in terms of sound and image, in which the clips and music serve not so much to illustrate the arguments as to weave fanciful and seductive arabesques around them. (These are far more evident in the latter two series, although The Century of the Self already suggests this practice when it suddenly intercuts details from 1929 with tracking shots through opulent, apparently Viennese settings that suggest color versions of shots from Last Year at Marienbad.) And the third is the seeming incompatibility of these intellectual and anti-intellectual elements, complicated by the fact that the anti-intellectual elements at times seem to resemble the advertising techniques that are being critically addressed throughout the series, which appeal to unconscious desires more than to conscious and rational formulations.

Given how much the polemical agendas of these three series are bound up with the way that apparently rational intellectual positions can eventually lead to irrational and delusional conclusions, there’s a great deal at stake in determining how much intellectual honesty Curtis should be credited with as a filmmaker and not simply as a thinker delivering a voiceover. To all appearances, his voiceover remains serious while his filmmaking periodically oscillates between a serious (that is, rational and readily explicable) illustration of his arguments and fanciful, free-form riffs sailing over the arguments, a bit like jazz improvisations. (There are also some images that might be described as both serious and playful, e.g., the recurring image of red paint being poured over a globe of the world in “The Phantom Victory,” part two of The Power of Nightmares — a Cold War metaphor with a certain amount of mockery in its literalism, but none the less a relatively coherent kind of representation.) And just as jazz solos are typically predicated on following the chords of pre-existing melodies, Curtis’s riffs loosely follow the contours of his voiceover arguments that are being heard simultaneously, without being answerable to a comparable linear logic of continuity except by implication.

The issue isn’t whether or not the playful improvs are acceptable in their own right. I believe they are, or at least they can be, and on my website I recently wrote a brief defense of a lively DVD extra — Jean-Pierre Gorin’s “A ‘Pierrot’ Primer” on the Criterion release of Godard’s Pierrot le fou —- that has comparable strengths and limitations. My point there is that once criticism is viewed as a performative act occurring over a fixed period of time, our means of judging such acts can’t and shouldn’t be precisely the same as the way we regard criticism in print. “The truth is, you cannot hang an event on the wall, only a picture,” Mary McCarthy once wrote, in a favorable 1959 review of The Tradition of the New by Harold Rosenberg, the theoretician of action painting (“An Academy of Risk,” in McCarthy’s On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961, New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961, p. 248) —- thus pinpointing part of the ontological difficulty posed by performative criticism, where “scoring points” no longer means quite the same thing, existentially speaking, which implies that somewhat different criteria of evaluation may be needed.

Admittedly, even this distinction becomes somewhat problematical as soon as we consider that there are certain instances of print criticism that might be said to function according to performative models. The sole example of the latter that I cited on my website was Manny Farber, although I could have also mentioned the critical prose of several other reviewers, ranging from Godard to Pauline Kael to Manohla Dargis. The only way of resolving this seeming contradiction, I would argue, is that we know and acknowledge what kind of critical discourse we’re responding to. And this becomes harder to do when we’re confronted with two kinds at once, as we often are in Curtis’s televisual discourse.


I’m not trying to propound the Marshall McLuhan argument here that the medium is necessarily the message. The point of contention here is journalistic shorthand, which exists both in print and in broadcast media and often entails some difference in meaning and content as well as style. Theoretically speaking, insofar as montages are extensions of the Kuleshov Experiment in which the viewer unconsciously connects certain shots by furnishing them with imagined fictional links, the very act of editing these shots together becomes a form of lying. Therefore the juxtaposition of found materials, including the use of Hollywood scores on the soundtracks of Curtis documentaries, might be said to function as vehicles of persuasion —- ploys     for helping us to accept the voiceovers but not really legitimate parts of the          ongoing argument. Whether we identify these ploys as placebos or as less         deceptive vehicles of pleasure is the main issue at stake. Quite apart from  Curtis’s use of such rhetorical tricks in his narration as unjustifiably describing his own arguments as if they were conclusive demonstrations (as pointed out by both Myerscough and Arthur), there’s the broader and somewhat less obvious tactic of making them pleasurable to watch — fun and therefore easy to swallow —- as if they were TV commercials.

Most of the footage in The Power of Nightmares conventionally illustrates Curtis’s voiceovers. Yet all three episodes begin with a free-form montage accompanying his narration that’s so open-ended it becomes impossible to identify what one’s watching, while additional sounds (a howling wind and periodic stabs of percussive music) increase the overall dreamlike effect. All proportions guarded, it’s a bit like the difference in exposition between the enigmatic prologue of Citizen Kane and the “News on the March” that follows it, with the crucial difference that Curtis uses a voiceover in both segments.

Consider just the first four sentences and the accompanying images: Initially we see what appear to be blinking bright lights on an airstrip over the sound of the wind. Then, as Curtis says, “In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. [Music starts.]. They had different ways of achieving this, but their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people,” we’re treated to rapid, disorienting, continuous camera movements in a dark and ambiguous space where people are fleetingly glimpsed in the background that eventually becomes, behind the BBC logo, an empty and overlit TV studio anchor space with a shifting backdrop that’s gripped from behind by visible fingers. Then, while Curtis continues, “Those dreams failed and today people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life, but now they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority,” we get a burst of TV static, another camera movement traversing an indecipherable flash of orange and yellow, a static shot of an ornate chandelier with fading lights (or is it a fadeout in a shot of a chandelier that remains lit?), and then high-contrast black and white footage of a nighttime, flag-strewn political rally that could conceivably be a clip from Eisenstein or Pudovkin. In short, you might say that Curtis is restoring power and authority to his own voice while tossing us into an intractable labyrinth.


If I can be permitted a couple of extended, autobiographical illustrations of comparably pleasurable media tricks, I can say that, like many others, I’ve benefited as well as suffered from the kinds of routine distortions practiced by these methods. In the mid-70s, while living in London, I was once interviewed on BBC radio about Robert Altman’s innovative employments of sound in conjunction with an Altman retrospective at the National Film Theatre that I had just helped to organize. It seemed appropriate to offer an analysis of a particular extract from the soundtrack of California Split, so I was mortified to discover when I heard the broadcast that the producer had chosen a different and much simpler extract to illustrate the point I was trying to make —- with the result that my analysis sounded to me both inane and inaccurate. But when I phoned her to complain, she argued that editing fixes of this kind were standard and that I was naïve to raise any fuss about them.

By way of contrast, the way I’m used to deliver the climactic thesis of the feature-length documentary Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream (Simcha Jacobovici, 1997) — that the American Dream as articulated by Hollywood was fundamentally a Jewish invention — is no less sinister, at least in its implications, even though this time I was seemingly boosted rather than undermined by the misrepresentation. Indeed, my talking head is positioned so that the entire thrust of the film’s preceding argument —- actually the argument of Neal Gabler’s first-rate and provocative book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which this film is adapting –  appears to be emanating spontaneously from my lips, when I say, “There was a Hollywoodism then, there is a Hollywoodism today. I would go further and say it is what is the ruling ideology of our culture. Hollywood culture is the dominant culture; it is the fantasy structure that we’re living inside.” None of which I exactly disbelieve. But the ugly and awkward coinage “Hollywoodism,” used as a derivation of “Americanism” — which doesn’t even figure in Gabler’s book — would never have passed my own lips if the interviewer hadn’t planted it there. If memory serves, all I was doing at that point was agreeing with some rough paraphrase of Gabler’s thesis that the unheard and unseen interviewer had offered, meanwhile hoping that the modest personal contribution I’d made to the discussion — about the ways my grandfather, a small-town movie exhibitor, shared many of the values of the studio moguls discussed by Gabler —- would be used in the film. (It wasn’t.) Nevertheless, an old friend of mine, a professional writer of TV documentaries himself, told me that he concluded at the end of Hollywoodism that its overall message, including the coinage of its title, was somehow my own invention.

Such are the everyday, routine spinoffs of the Kuleshov effect in most documentaries employing taking heads and clips. In the same documentary, the same sort of leveling effect allows archival footage of European shtetls to casually rub shoulders with a musical number from Fiddler on the Roof, and virtually equates the veracity of black and white newsreel footage of HUAC hearings with the authenticity of color extracts from a representation of those hearings in Irwin Winkler’s idiotic and reprehensible Guilty by Suspicion.

In an interview with Robert Koehler in Cinema Scope no. 23 (summer 2005), Curtis defends the practice of his own playful montages as follows: “I don’t see why you can’t play with pictures when you’re being serious. That’s my main aim. Because then you get a sense of someone enjoying themselves, and when you get that, then people listen to what you’re doing.” And I suppose a related argument could be made about some of the more ambiguous procedures in Craig Baldwin’s experimental documentaries —- Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991), ¡O No Coronado! (1992), Sonic Outlaws (1995), and Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) — which simultaneously mock and indulge in paranoid rants while dovetailing as many technological conspiracy theories as possible.

There’s something appealing about leaving the overall degree of seriousness behind the arguments up to the viewer, but there’s also a calculated risk. Even though Curtis’s arguments register much more seriously than Baldwin’s, both filmmakers seem to be operating at times with built-in escape clauses. But how many people who watch television are thinking much about the play or, for that matter, the personality of the filmmakers as reflected in such creative decisions?

It’s worth adding that Curtis himself speaks the voiceovers in these series, but never uses the word “I”– even though the arguments are always clearly his own, and when we hear the offscreen questions being asked in various onscreen interviews, it’s invariably his voice that’s asking them. His overall stance is neither that of the traditional voice-of-God narrator nor that of an essayistic filmmaker like Chris Marker who, in Sans Soleil (1982), feels that his speaking voice has to be filtered through one or more fictional intermediaries in order to achieve the kind of guarded intimacy that he wants. But Curtis sounds closer to the voice-of-God narrator insofar as he’s banking on the appearance if not the fact of conventional television. And it’s finally this appearance that makes his work so debatable as well as innovative. Whether or not this is part of his intention (and I suspect it isn’t), Curtis is foregrounding some of the double standards that many of us bring to criticism in separate media simply by banking on them.

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