He’s not an artist, and he definitely doesn’t want to talk about type. Though rightly celebrated as a leading auteur of the documentary, Adam Curtis says that he is, at heart, a hack, with some big stories to tell. Following the iPlayer release of his longest film to date, Bitter Lake, Rick Poynor meets the filmmaker at his base at the BBC
Adam Curtis occupies a unique place in British television. For more than two decades, he has written and directed documentaries for the BBC that challenge received ideas about the modern world and make startling new connections. It is as though the skin of the reality we think we know is being peeled away to reveal the hidden mechanics that have shaped our time. What Curtis uncovers are not so much conspiracies as the often unintended consequences of the decisions taken by our leaders. Again and again, he returns to the theme of power and how it operates in society. His convoluted tales of ideological and technocratic misadventure are utterly gripping. Other factual programmes can look formulaic and flat-footed by comparison.
Curtis has a devoted fanbase. He also has detractors, often people on the right who object to what they see as leftwing bias in his political analysis. This Curtis strenuously denies. Some also criticise his techniques, his manipulation of emotion and use of pop music as an expressive counterpoint. “Difficult ideas take time to understand, and are not helped by fast cutting, the indiscriminate use of grainy documentary footage and suggestive music,” noted a reviewer of his series The Trap (2007) in Prospect magazine. Curtis’s latest project, Bitter Lake, a 140-minute documentary about Britain’s war in Afghanistan, using found footage, proved to be as challenging and controversial as ever. It was commissioned to be shown on iPlayer, bypassing the usual time constraints of the TV schedule.
I have admired Curtis’s work since watching The Century of the Self in 2002 and I welcomed the chance to interview him. It didn’t turn out quite as expected. We met in the reception of the BBC’s New Broadcasting House and Curtis seemed distracted. He doesn’t have an office – no one at the BBC has an office, he says – so we prowl around looking for somewhere to sit, eventually finding two chairs in an open-plan seating area. Curtis never appears in front of the camera in his films and his calm, modulated and authoritative voiceovers, delivered over a flow of hypnotically arresting images, are now a trademark. He might just be having a bad day, but when we start talking he sounds impatient, irritable and inclined to be over-emphatic.
Snobbery and elitism
We begin with his viewers. “They are quick, clever, intellectually confident, but not intellectuals,” says Curtis. “They feel intimated by a lot of the snobbery and elitism that still clings to certain areas in this country.” He contrasts this with the “rigid definition of how you are supposed to think” allegedly found among intellectuals, with their attachment to theories. “My audience isn’t interested in that,” he says – and nor, he seems to imply, is he. But these sensitivities and distinctions are odd, since by any measure Curtis has pedigree. His father worked as a director of photography with the great documentarian Humphrey Jennings. Curtis went to Oxford, where he taught politics after graduation, while working on a PhD, before realising he “hated academia”. He gained a prized BBC traineeship and has enjoyed astonishing freedom at the BBC to develop and pursue his intellectual concerns. He belongs to the media elite and attracts audiences of two million viewers agile enough to follow his labyrinthine narratives and arguments.
As we talk, I find my perceptions of Curtis, as a viewer, are often at odds with how he sees himself. Many observers, including the American documentary maker Errol Morris, regard him as an innovative practitioner of the “essay film“, a genre held in growing regard. Curtis flat out rejects this. “I’m a journalist,” he says. “I tell stories. I don’t like the word essay because what essay implies to me is no story. It’s a posh word for no story. I was trained as a hack. That’s what I am, a journalist, and the one thing I do is tell a story, and in Bitter Lake I tell you a really big story. Essays are, in my brain, much more speculative.” Essays only confirm, he claims somewhat reductively, what readers (or in this case viewers) already know.
From The Century of the Self, 2002
His arguments, he insists instead, are supported by the stories he tells. Many admire him because his body of work seems to come from a strong personal point of view, even a political position. But he bats this away, too, though he has on occasion called himself a libertarian. “I don’t have a point of view. I really don’t have a point of view.” When the facts change, he says, he changes his mind. A fixed point of view is like using a map that doesn’t describe the territory. “I challenge anyone to know what my politics are because basically I don’t have any politics. I change my politics like most sensible people do in our present age as the facts change, which is why the BBC allow me to do what I do.”
Giving the neo-Cons a good kicking
He invokes the old BBC mantra of balance. “You could argue that The Century of the Self was a perfect rightwing neo-conservative tract of our times, arguing that hyper-individualism was corroding the bonds of society. The next thing I do is The Power of Nightmares, where I try to give the neo-conservatives a good kicking.” His task, he says, is to attempt to make sense of a world where the old points of view have splintered to be replaced by a myriad new ones. The most he can do is to present new stories and facts intended to provoke thought. What viewers do with this sometimes incendiary information is up to them. He has no other agenda, he says, but given his position at the BBC he could hardly admit to one if he had. “That’s the BBC’s job and for the BBC to go any further than that would be wrong, so I don’t go any further than that. And, actually, I’m not sure I know.”
Curtis describes himself as a political journalist and this, he suggests, is the self-evident reason he is so concerned with power, because any political journalist must be. But he is no Nick Robinson, stalking Westminster and reporting the daily fluctuations of national party politics. His cultural and scientific interests and confidence in handling these concepts, since the Bafta award-winning Pandora’s Box in 1992, go much deeper than that. In a previous interview, he pictured himself more fruitfully as “fundamentally a historian who nicks larky ideas and techniques” from art, pop music and other areas, and “bolts them together with some quite basic and often quite boring historical research.”
From The Living Dead, 1995
Yet this still understates the mesmeric and revelatory experience of watching one of Curtis’s programmes. From the outset, he used found imagery to express the emotional and dramatic undercurrents of his stories. In an episode titled The Attic in the series The Living Dead (1995), about the uses politicians make of historical memory, Curtis explores Churchill’s spellbinding influence on Margaret Thatcher’s dreams of national glory. In one section, we see Thatcher off-duty in her garden pruning some roses. Curtis cuts to a similar scene of Deborah Kerr tending roses in the 1961 ghost film, The Innocents. Kerr seems to see or hear something and looks up in wonder. There is an ominous sci-fi sound and we cut to Churchill toiling up a hill, aided by a walking stick. Images of Kerr sensing an uncanny presence recur as an ironical counterpoint. Later, the Conservative MP Alan Clark talks about the intoxicating effects of drinking the potion of national glory and Curtis’s camera tears through a building at floor level accompanied by monstrous and diabolical sounds. This kind of hauntological excavation is a long way from the structural conventions and sobriety of the average political documentary.
Curtis carries out interviews on location when he needs the testimony of politicians, military men or social thinkers, often shooting from a fixed camera position in a frontal style. But much of his time as writer and director – and since the mid-1990s, editor – of his programmes is spent trawling through the film and video archives. He uses historical news footage, old TV interviews, vintage commercials and public information films. In Bitter Lake, he was able to draw on a mother lode of unused and unseen material shot by the BBC in Afghanistan and the extended running time meant he could let this play for minutes in a way that would be impossible in a news report. In one sequence, already much cited, he dwells on a soldier enthralled by a tame little bird. In another, a British lecturer explains conceptual art to bemused Afghan girls, using a picture of Duchamp’s urinal. “I’m really intrigued by letting things run now,” says Curtis. “I think people like that and I was always intrigued by combining that with more traditional journalism.”
In one of the most talked-about and poignant sequences of Bitter Lake, a British soldier makes friend with an Afghan local
Letting the camera linger is one of the obvious differences between art film and faster-moving reportage. Is there a development, perhaps, towards a more consciously art-like practice? “Nah,” says Curtis. “It’s practical really. I’m never very interested in thinking about aesthetics. What I’m interested in is how you convey information.” The art world, nevertheless, finds Curtis fascinating. Hans Ulrich Obrist curated an exhibition of Curtis’s films for the e-flux art organisation in New York in 2012, and interviewed him. He notes that, while Curtis is not an artist, “many artists have become increasingly interested in how his films break down the divide between art and modern political reportage, opening up a dialogue between the two.”
Curtis v the art world
It’s not a dialogue with much appeal for Curtis. “The art world – they’re always chilly,” he says, “partly because they’re uncertain of what they are saying. They’re more interested in the rigours of their style. I’m interested in using those sorts of techniques for emotional purposes. So there’s a difference there – like that soldier with the bird. I put a really beautiful pop song over it and it made me cry when I watched it, and I thought, ‘Well, if it makes me cry, it will make them cry.’ Art people don’t think like that.”
By this point, it’s obvious that despite my enthusiasm for his films, there is quite a divide between Curtis’s position and my own. There are all kinds of artists and some of them do know what they are trying to say, even if they make use of ambiguity in the process. Moreover, Curtis’s documentaries allow plenty of room for viewer interpretation, whatever their underlying arguments. It Felt Like a Kiss, an experimental, free-associating fever dream of a film, which became a theatrical event, left the norms of descriptive documentary far behind. Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, created by Robert del Naja and Curtis in 2013 for the Manchester International Festival, featured a multi-screen montage of faces from American feature films staring with awe at the sky. This was followed by a sequence of tall buildings exploding and collapsing, all shot before 2001, according to a caption. The conceptual gap between this overwhelming spectacle and the installation artist Christian Marclay’s Crossfire (2007), where the viewer is blasted from all sides by a succession of people firing guns in Hollywood movies, is not so great.
Don’t ask about the type
Since directing The Trap, Curtis has often used short phrases in Helvetica or Arial over images on screen. Knowingly or not, his work connects here with the long history of typophoto, the modernist fusion of text and image for communicative purposes, which underpins the evolution of graphic design. The severe, sans serif aesthetic of Curtis’s type-image collisions finds an obvious parallel in the ad-like images of Barbara Kruger, a magazine designer turned artist and activist. In the 1990s, the “radical modernist” designer Dan Friedman used a similar aesthetic in books such as Artificial Nature and Post-Human, which are close to Curtis in their themes. CR was warned in advance by a publicist that the one thing Curtis didn’t want to discuss was “fonts and typography and things like that”, but I can hardly avoid referring to devices that are so crucial to the style and impact of his later work.
“I just bunged it up [the text] when I liked the music,” says Curtis. He didn’t know anything about the history of such techniques. He just did it. He pauses, wondering aloud whether what he is about to say will work. “The people I really admire are South Park because South Park, who I know lots of people think are silly, are not. They are actually brilliant journalists because they have the ability to boil stories down into good, tight little bits. When I use little bits of text I’m doing what I got from South Park, which is to simplify everything right down.” He emphasises again that he doesn’t see himself as an artist – “I don’t have that sensibility” – though I am not trying to suggest he is one. Warming to his theme, Curtis says that he probably got the idea of using text from SMS. “If you are using SMS, you learn how to do something really short and witty. What I learned from SMS is that you can be deadpan funny.” In Bitter Lake, he used text on screen because he wanted to give the viewer a break from his voice. He says the process of assembly is instinctive and intuitive.
Curtis’s idiosyncratic use of typography as seen in It Felt Like A Kiss from 2009
I mention that the designers in his audience are interested in his use of text over images. “We’re heading towards fonts,” he says abruptly. “I’m going to be quiet now. Next question.” He won’t tell me whether he does the type himself, but I assume he does. He uses some startlingly crude colours and the typography often lacks finesse.
On music, though, we are on safer ground and Curtis warms up noticeably. “I really like pop music and I like disco and I like dancing. I just like tunes and emotion.” There is an extraordinary amount of dancing in his films, often a portent that things are not what they seem. In Bitter Lake, the mood music stretches from Kanye West, Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie’s The Bewlay Brothers to the composer Olivier Messiaen’s Jardin du sommeil d’amour. Brian Eno has had numerous outings (The Loving Trap, a wickedly accurate YouTube parody of Curtis, jokes that Eno never had to work again). Curtis listens to music all the time, makes all the selections for his films, and the catholic soundtracks are another instantly identifiable pleasure for his fans. The fabulous line-up for It Felt Like a Kiss includes Frank Sinatra, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, the Dust Brothers, Leonard Bernstein, Dmitri Shostakovich, and He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss) by the Crystals. “If I want to convey my argument as much through emotional force as through my voice, or the story I’m telling you, then I use music,” he says.
Curtis is rightly celebrated these days as a leading auteur of the documentary. Naturally, he won’t hear of it. He has produced a highly personal body of work within the walls of a public institution. The BBC has allowed him to experiment and he wants to push further, to tell stories on the internet. In their hybridising tendencies, his films reflect and illuminate their time. Yet Curtis maintains a bluff journalistic posture, perhaps from a defensive desire to protect his freedoms. He seems unwilling to acknowledge and address parallel forms of creative practice, even when members of his audience are based in those areas.
I always assumed that complicated issues over rights were the reason that the BBC has never released his work on DVD. But Curtis says that he refuses to do this because a “tasteful box set” would supposedly only appeal to a “self-selecting audience”. It’s better, he thinks, that his films surface unofficially – which means piecemeal and in poor resolution – on the internet, where devotees of the geekier kind can delight in tracking them down. I hope he changes his mind. This is a great age of access for those who love film and such a significant body of work should be available for study in a properly curated and durable form.
Rick Poynor blogs at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81
This feature appears in the March 2015 issue of Creative Review, which is dedicated to creativity on-screen. More details here