For three weeks, we have been All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, thanks to the empowering genius of BBC2, and to the empowered genius of Adam Curtis. It is easy to call a man a genius, but I think Curtis’s track record is now simply too compelling to ignore. I feel fairly sure, looking at his long CV, that the first of his documentary series I saw was Pandora’s Box in 1992. I’m going to guess that his “trademark style” was by then in place. If I am wrong, do forgive me. I also feel sure I saw The Mayfair Set in 1999. But it was The Century Of The Self in 2002 (very much a defining commission for the newborn BBC4), about the birth of public relations on the couch of Freud, that really nailed Curtis to the mast and I remember vividly that it had me hooked in from the start. Why was nobody else joining the dots for me this way, I thought. He followed Self with the equally compelling The Power Of Nightmares just a couple of years later. He was spoiling us. He was on a roll. This century, I think, suits him. It gave him 9/11 for a start.
It’s rare that a documentary filmmaker carves such a uniquely stylised niche. Plenty of stunning and memorable films have been made that document a certain time or place, or portray a certain group of people in a particularly entertaining or uncomfortable way, but these are usually either fly-on-the-wall or “authored” documentaries, and it’s within these parameters that most of our greatest documentarians work their magic; in other words, you either hear the filmmaker’s voice or see his/her face, or you don’t. Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield are very much part of the narrative of their films; Molly Dineen is sometimes heard, but not seen; as far as I know, Paul Watson keeps out of his films, and Michael Apted was never on camera in Seven Up and subsequent installments.
Adam Curtis is not seen in his astonishing films, but they are his. He narrates them, he authors them, and he originates them, from his brain, and from history, usually 20th Century history. You sometimes hear him off-camera, but these muffled intrusions are not statements, they usually just stand to remind us that Curtis is in the room, and that he likes to edit things together in a rough and ready manner, jump-cutting as if to avoid the artifice of the form. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace was, to my mind, among his finest and, yes, most graceful works. Perhaps his most audacious? In just three, hour-long films, he managed to link so many disparate and obscure threads your head was spinning throughout. (For the record, he does not deal in gristle: though the tone-setting Pandora’s Box ran to six films, Century Of The Self comprised four, and he polished off Nightmares and The Trap in three each.) I really enjoy documentaries on TV, but too often they simply tell a story that’s already been told in a slightly different voice, or pick at a scab and hope that bears results. An hour – and I mean a full, BBC hour, not a truncated commercial-TV “hour” with its throw-aheads and recaps – can be a long time when a subject isn’t enough to fill it. With Machines Of Loving Grace, you got the feeling that Curtis had timed his stories to the second, so that they built and built, and took in tangents without losing the central thesis, and arrived at their punchline at precisely the right moment. You didn’t need to look at the clock while they played out: you could feel the halfway mark, and the ten-minutes-to-go mark. And anyway, who’s got time to look at the clock?
If you didn’t see them, my best shot at conveying the sheer breadth of material would be to list a few, random markers: Ayn Rand, Joseph Stiglitz, the Federal Reserve, Arthur Tansley, Buckminster Fuller, the Club of Rome, computer utopians, Bill Hamilton, Diane Fossey, Rwandan genocide and copper wire. If some of these names are foreign to you, some of them were to me, too. It’s not Curtis’s style to run through names that everybody knows, and the final of the three films, my favourite, The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, was simply mind-blowing in its clear-minded audacity and originality. (I’d heard of almost none of the key players except for Diane Fossey and Richard Dawkins! How thrilling to learn so much.)
Let us simply applaud the BBC for celebrating ideas. Ideas are not always required on the voyage from pitch to programme. A hook is often enough. Or a headline. Or a title. But Adam Curtis trades only in ideas, in connections, in tangents, in profound leaps of intellectual and cultural faith.
I think I love him.