One of the most interesting things about documentary, non-fiction, journalism, whatever you want to call it — it can be a self-invented genre with few rules other than a need to tell the truth, or at least the need to make an effort in that direction. As a result, documentary filmmaking has become a heterogeneous enterprise. Diary films, agitprop, interviews, narrated slideshows. The greatest practitioners have reinvented the genre for themselves: Vertov, Marker, Herzog, Wiseman — these are my heroes. But I have a new hero: Adam Curtis.
Each of his (often) multi-part, programs for the BBC have been unique. I’m fempted to say, sui generis. Of course, there are historical antecedents, but I like to think of his work as having emerged, fully-formed, from the head of Curtis. My introduction came in The Power of Nightmares. I found myself learning things that I knew nothing about, like “Team B” or Sayyid Qutb. Yes, there is pedagogic element, but they are far from instructional videos or attempts to play to the church choir. They are carving up the landscape of history in new and unexpected ways And they give a picture of the people who create history and who often, as a result, make up history out of whole cloth. The title itself, The Power of Nightmares, is a paean to the orphic power of ideas. Ideas that frame, ideas that coerce, ideas that undermine, ideas that transform. All melded into an assortment of interviews, found footage from the BBC archive, and popular music.
But it is not just the content. Who would like a movie if it were content alone? It is also the style. At times, almost an anti-style. Chairs piled up higgledy-piggledy in an empty classroom. Bad institutional decor celebrated in its own right. Seemingly meaningless details that take on a strange, auspicious character of their own. A light switch in the middle of a wall. And the ubiquitous found footage is rarely, if ever, show-and-tell. Instead, the music and found footage combine flirts with randomness that never embraces it. A chaos of rich associations and connections.
If the underlying theme is 'context is everything,' the style of the art repeatedly underlines this premise. And guess what? Curtis keeps getting better and better. I shudder to think what might happen if he continues on like this for another twenty years.
Allow me to cite one example: the sequence in Bitter Lake that plays over Kanye West’s “Runaway.” An Afghani man playfully shows off his martial arts moves for the camera while outfitting a UNICEF tent. We follow him from the tent and seamlessly into a muzzy landing zone, a rotor-generated sandstorm swirling across a line of kneeling soldiers in an empty expanse. Then, a Taliban video in which a shrouded mujahid tells us to look into our own history if we truly want to understand the conflict there.
Ah. And the best part? There is never, not ever, a flirtation with facile hopefulness. This is the world as it is. Unredeemed.
(via Telluride Film Festival - Tom Luddy)