Interview: Adam Curtis
By Chris Darke on 7.17.2012
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
The following interview with Adam Curtis by Chris Darke took place on September 15, 2011.
I bumped into you a few years ago, after The Power of Nightmares, and I distinctly remember you saying “They hate me in BBC Current Affairs.” [Laughs.] Have they learned to put up with you since then?
Well, with The Power of Nightmares I couldn’t help but criticize some of my colleagues. Do they still hate me? What I was arguing in The Power of Nightmares was simply that whilst there is a serious terrorist threat, it isn’t as apocalyptic as many of those men and women were making it out to be. And I tried to argue why that might be. I gave them a good kicking so they tried to give me a good kicking back. And when the bombs went off in 2005 here, they used that to kick me. I then went back and examined what I’d said in the light of the attacks here, and I think, actually, what I said stood and still stands. That there is a serious terrorist threat but that it isn’t in any way an organized network as these journalists, my colleagues [said] . . . No, I can’t say it was just my colleagues, it was a whole range of people including terror experts. I think we love each other now, because it has quietly been accepted that pretty much what people like me and Jason Burke [Observer journalist and Islamism specialist] were saying is really much closer. I mean, it’s always very difficult to get it exactly right—it’s closer to what is really true than some of the exaggerations that had really run out of control.
Are you still based in BBC Current Affairs?
No, I’m completely nomadic. I’ve always been nomadic. I move around, to be honest, where there are budgets. No, two things: I move around where there’s money and where there is someone who is interested in trying to do different sorts of things. So at the moment I straddle about three different areas from which I take money. There’s a thing called Future Media and Technology, there’s BBC Production—Factual Production, not Current Affairs—they tend to do documentaries. The BBC’s so complicated, but at the moment I’m plugged into three different areas.
To stay with The Power of Nightmares for a moment, and this relates quite interestingly to the ire you felt at the time: the media, both here and in the U.S., was almost craven in its obeisance to a government line.
Yeah, most films I make aren’t really very angry, they’re more quizzical, sometimes a bit sardonic. That was the only thing I was a bit grumpy about because I’d gone and done the research . . . Is that the question you’re asking me?
I think for a lot of people—and you must have realized this in the response the film had when it came out—it was as if someone was finally daring to contradict the media chorus of “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
Yes. Funnily enough, last night I was talking with someone about Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove and we were both saying, look, it actually did connect with the fears of that time. With The Power of Nightmares, what I think we discovered was that what I was saying was in the back of most people’s minds at the time, and therefore most journalism was not really connecting with the fears of people. It was going against the apocalyptic, fear-driven narrative that most media and most terror experts and politicians were putting forward at the time and that didn’t actually fit with what was at the back of people's minds. They were saying, like you said, this just isn’t quite true. It’s too simple.
And, yes, I suppose I went and did the historical research that leads you to the conclusion that it’s much more complicated. [Al Qaida] was actually a declining force rather than an overwhelming force and actually there wasn’t an organized network. There were a bunch of very nasty people—men—and I think that actually touched, not a nerve, but it touched a thing in the back of people’s minds. Because [the BBC] actually went and did focus groups after The Power of Nightmares, because it did cause such a stir, and I looked at some of them and people were going, “No, he was just saying what we thought.” Which is actually a bit humbling. They knew it already. It wasn’t a great piece of investigative journalism. I was just pushing at an open door in people’s minds. And actually, I think the most interesting thing of our time is why journalists don’t do that any longer. Why they actually create their own little rooms of fear and apocalypse, which don’t actually relate to how people think and feel these days. They just don’t. And I don’t know why journalists have lost touch. It’s quite odd.
It was brave of the BBC, given the apocalyptic chorus that was common at the time, to let The Power of Nightmares out. What was the pitch and what was the response? Did you have to fight for it?
It was an example of how the BBC, for all its faults and stupidities, is actually a wonderful organization. I was allowed to do it because I’d gone and done a historical piece and I had a lot of evidence and I was telling a story. It wasn’t a rant. If you look at it, I’m telling you the story of the history of Islamism, which is actually quite a serious political story. Of course, it was lawyered but I wasn’t libelling anyone. I was just arguing that if you look at the history you are led to this conclusion and that it puts into perspective, historically, a lot of what other people are saying. Well, quite frankly, I didn’t even have to go to what’s called Editorial Policy for that. It was a perfectly reasonable piece of historical journalism in which, at the beginning and end of each episode, I argue an interpretation. The guy who ran BBC Current Affairs at that point, Peter Horrocks, is a very tough, intelligent, and fair-minded man and he thought it was a very good corrective to what he instinctively felt was possibly something that had been oversimplified and had run out of control. I think the BBC was pleased to do it. It was different from someone like Gilligan [Andrew Gilligan, former BBC Defense Correspondent, forced to resign over allegations that the Labor Government had “sexed up” the dossier claiming Iraq possessed WMDs] because it wasn’t actually arguing politically against the government. I was saying that they were exaggerating as well, but it wasn’t specifically a political point.
So, in that sense, I got it through because really I was a historian. And that’s the key to what I do. I’m fundamentally a historian who nicks larky ideas and techniques from art, pop music, and all the other things around, and who just bolts them together with some quite basic and often quite boring historical research. I’m not some sort of trendy filmmaker. I know that you can make ideas interesting and attractive by using those things. So, if you strip away all the artifice—the BBC doesn’t care about all that sort of stuff when it comes to the questions you’re asking—you’ve got a solid, quite ploddy historical essay with substantial evidence. So the BBC thought: “Right, we’ll put that out. Nothing wrong with that.” And, actually, in the theory of BBC balance, which is that we can have programs that over all the output balance themselves out, which is a very good corrective. There was a lot of sensitivity about it, and they were aware of it, but they weren’t frightened of it. I was very pleased to get it on.
This “corrective” was also felt around the world. I was asked to write about it for an American magazine, for instance.
None of the American networks would show it. Not even HBO.
Didn’t the Cannes Film Festival ask you for a feature-length cut that was then going to go out as a film?
Yes, it went to Cannes, and it was really nice of them to invite me, and suddenly you’re swamped by all these very nice film distributors and producers who wanted to distribute it. But at the same time, what was happening on the Internet—it had begun with the The Century of the Self (02)—was that actually people really liked finding stuff. I was more keen for it just being put up for free on the Internet because, at that point, if people felt they could find something that was a bit different, it was going to get much bigger viewing figures than anything these very nice producers and distributors could ever give me.
The other reason is that I’m very suspicious of film festivals—apart from the Cannes Film Festival, which is a wonderful place! You tend to get lots of very nice liberals coming up to you, and you’re making a film that they agree with. Whereas on the Internet and on television, you still get a much wider range and people who will disagree with you. Because part of what my job is, is to tell stories—good journalism—but then argue a point about that to provoke, saying, “Have you thought about seeing the world like this?” Quite frankly, because it went up on the Internet, I got some pretty vicious reactions from America, but I think that was much more worthwhile than lots of nice worthy showings in a cinema in Wisconsin. Nothing wrong with Wisconsin liberals but they know it already.
But they needed a film like that to rally round, even after Fahrenheit 9/11.
Look, television never really changes things. It either reinforces things that are just there anyway or it reinforces things that are in the back of people’s minds that those in power haven’t recognized. Television is a reinforcing medium. It’s really used by those in power to reinforce ideas, but it’s not a revolutionary medium, it’s not a revealing medium. It really isn’t. In The Power of Nightmares, people knew that already—I was just saying, well, it’s sort of true. I was reinforcing that and giving them confidence, I think. I wasn’t alone: journalists like Jason Burke were saying the same thing and a lot of French historians and academics were saying exactly the same thing. It’s just the weaseliness of our academics and our “terror experts” that we’re stopping it emerging. Anyway, we won’t go into them.
There’s a sort of link from The Power of Nightmares to All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace [Curtis’s most recent series for the BBC, first broadcast in 2011]. I read an interview you did a few years ago with the American film critic Robert Koehler where you mentioned that you wanted to devote an episode of Nightmares to Ayn Rand and her followers. I was wondering if you’d already gathered material relating to Rand for The Power of Nightmares and, if so, why it didn’t go in?
What I started doing—which is what The Power of Nightmares turned into—was the rise, or the resurgence, of modern conservatism, because I think it’s really interesting and I don’t think we’ve fully worked out what the true dimensions of it are. I’m still extremely dubious that it’s the return of the free market. It’s some strange, weird technocracy. I’ve just written a piece on the website about what Hayek really is, and I was researching the resurgence of the Right from the late Seventies onwards. That is what led me to the rise of neo-conservatism, but also then to Said Qutb and Islamism. Because I suddenly discovered that the ideologist behind the people—I mean in a distorted way—who flew the planes into the WTC was actually not a weird, crazy alien but was actually a man who was deeply immersed within the conservative traditions of the West. He’d read Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot. He’d read Marx. He’d read Walter Lippmann. He was self-consciously trying to fuse Western conservative ideas with Islamism. What I suddenly realized we were facing was another manifestation of the wave of conservative reaction that had happened from the late Seventies onwards, to the failure of the Left and the corruption of the politics of the Left. So, yes, that was why I was researching Ayn Rand, because I think Ayn Rand’s an absolutely fascinating example of another of these weird manifestations of the resurgence of conservatism. So I then returned to her. Take the technocracy of Silicon Valley—they absolutely love her there. That’s really the connection.
All I’m really interested in at the moment is trying to say to people, “Look, one of the great problems of our time is that there seems to be no other alternative to the political ideas of our time.” It’s very peculiar. One of the things that’s supposed to define our time is freedom of choice, but actually there’s no choice in politics. And I think that one of the keys to answering that is to look again at the system that surrounds us. It’s not just the resurgence of an old type of conservatism, it is something rather odd, which we haven’t fully got the dimensions of, which is now running out of control, or has gone absurd. But because we can’t see the dimensions of it, we don’t fully understand it. Really, since The Century of the Self, all the things I’ve been doing have been trying to look at it from different ways. Let’s not look at it as, “Ooh, it’s just a bunch if right wingers.” Let’s look at what this system is. How power flows through it. What is it? I’d never put it like that because I haven’t got the answers to that, but I’m looking at it as: what is consumerism? What are things like Islamism, looked at from a Western perspective? What are the ideas drawn from computers that seem to underpin this system? Where do they come from and what does that tell us about this system? Also, to be brutal, Ayn Rand’s a great story.
And with the TV chat-show footage of her, as well...
The other reason I couldn’t put her in The Power of Nightmares was because I wasn’t courageous enough to do something I’ve long wanted to do, which is make a film that is both causal and analytical, but which is also about emotion and character and how these echo each other. In AWOBMOLG [All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace] I deliberately decided to do three much more experimental films than I’ve ever done before because, quite frankly, since I’m pretty much allowed to do what I want at the moment, provided it doesn’t cost any money. I thought, why not experiment?
Which leads me to the next question. I was interested by two moments. Effectively it’s the same moment as it’s captured in the archive footage, but it’s treated differently in The Power of Nightmares and AWOBMOLG—the famous footage of Clinton embracing Lewinski in the lineup. [Curtis laughs.] In AWOBMOLG I was interested in the way you treated it. It’s slowed down. It’s about looking at the looks from her to him. You put Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” over the top of it. I was wondering...
It wasn’t ironic.
No, you could feel it wasn’t ironic.
They were in love, I decided. All the other journalists decided they’re not in love. But let’s take it seriously.
Yes, but I was wondering about the approach to that. You’d treated it a certain way in The Power of Nightmares, where it fitted into a narrative which was effectively about the exorcism of the Clinton White House by the Right, whereas in AWOBMOLG it comes across as more melodramatic. I was wondering whether making It Felt Like a Kiss freed you up to attempt that?
Of course, it did. I made It Felt Like a Kiss as an experiment just to make a film which was a piece of history, and analytical, but was also about how emotions are very important in all this. You see, the thing I’m trying to get at is that the ideology of our time says that what you feel and what you want emotionally are the most important thing. It’s a wonderful thing, and it’s liberating in some ways, but it’s also incredibly trapping, and from The Century of the Self that’s what I’ve been about. So what you want to do is to be able to create films that not only analyze that analytically but also analyze that emotionally, because you’re dealing with people’s emotions and desires . . .
And you’ve also got the resources of sound and image to be able to express that.
Yes, exactly. That’s what film can do for you. When I made It Felt Like a Kiss, which was about individualism and its wonderfulness and also the uncertainties it brings with it, it didn’t liberate me, it just made me more confident that you could hybridize. Then I decided: right, I’m going to try hybridizing it. Now, some people think that I’m completely mad and some people absolutely love it.
When you say "hybridizing," what do you mean?
What I mean is that when I did AWOBMOLG I was trying to take a lot of the emotional stuff I’d done with It Felt Like a Kiss and see if I could integrate that with a more straightforward, analytical, causal piece of journalism, and put the two together. Personally, I think I got it right on the third film, the one about George Price the geneticist and the Congo. It was really bonkers, but actually I think it worked. It really did work. I’m terribly proud of that film. What I noticed is that some people get it. They get it that you’re making films that are still serious and clear but at the same time are trying to touch people emotionally. Other people just find it baffling and think that I should keep the two separate. I don’t know.
I think that’s probably a criticism that’s been present since you started hybridizing the documentary form.
Oh, the “Old School”—they loathe it!
Documentarians can be a weird priesthood.
They can stick their heads up a dead bear’s bum! You’re talking about the old-style documentarians. The men and women—mostly men—who will make films that refuse to have any commentary because they don’t want to “mediate,” but it disguises the fact that they’ve got nothing to say. Long shots over the bleak graves of Bosnia, with Arvo Pärt music playing over them. It was a dead end. Those people, they drive me up the wall! Actually, the thing I really disliked about all that movement—I mean, it’s the older generation before I turned up—is that really they had run out of confidence. They were a generation in the Sixties and Seventies that thought they could change the world, and then society went hurtling off in another direction and they were left just watching.
The sort of people who would’ve objected to Chris Marker back in the Sixties.
They’re snobs, to be honest. And they don’t want to communicate with clever, ordinary suburban boys and girls. They just don’t want to do it, they want to keep it to a tiny little preserve who will go to nice little cinemas and who will say the right liberal things, and won’t speculate and won’t play around. Grrr!
Of the three AWOBMOLG films, the third one was my favorite.
I couldn’t put it first because it was just too wild.
It was quite far out. Despite the fact that your work is now everywhere on the Internet, and your following loyally maintains it, the one piece I can’t find is episode 3 of AWOBMOLG.
I know why this is. BBC Worldwide have decided I’m “saleable” now. In their minds I’ve gone from being completely weird [and] now they’ve discovered that actually I seem to have a fan base around the world. So they now want to sell that series, so their lawyers are going around taking it down. They’re not taking down any of the others. There was a moment when it was exciting to find films which were supposed to be a bit dangerous and controversial on the Internet that’d been put up there illegally. That started in about 2001 and The Power of Nightmares hit the peak of that. It’s now an established thing and we all do it.
In episode 3 of AWOBMOLG I sensed rage about the Congo as a site of the worst kind of exploitation and nightmarish human experimentation. The Congo was also a presence in It Felt Like a Kiss. There are these moments in your films—I’ll come back to others—where there’s a locus of a history that keeps repeating.
The thing that really depresses me is the failure of confidence among the liberal middle classes in the West to believe in the idea of progress. I think they’ve retreated into a dark, pessimistic apocalypticism, which I fight against. I believe in progress, and what I was trying to say in that film—it wasn’t really angry—is that the Congo represents to us how difficult it is to change the world. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. Instead what we do is we use the Congo and its failures as a justification for that retreat into a pessimistic view that we’re just fixed creatures. Everyone’s bad. There’s nothing we can do. Let’s just stay at home and have tea. That’s what I want to attack. It’s not political, it’s just a belief that you can change the world for the better, and I think there’s a deep conservatism and reaction that’s emerging in our society at the moment, which is just hold everything steady and don’t try and change anything.
The “keep calm and carry on” mantra.
Keep calm, carry on, and, actually, we’re all fundamentally flawed creatures. The person I really blame is Wes Anderson.
It is? [Laughs.]
There’s a bit in Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic at the end where Bill Murray and the others all hold hands in a submarine and Bill Murray—I’m misquoting—utters Wes Anderson’s ideology, which is basically the ideology of our day: “We’re all a bit crap but that’s OK.” No one is better than anyone else, but we’re all crap, so there’s no point really in trying. I find that so depressing and so dismal and such a low view of the world. I mean, I can see why it’s happened. It’s in reaction to the failure of great attempts to change the world, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and change the world. So that’s what that last film is really all about. I’m trying to say that we use science as a way of justifying the emotional reaction to the failure in the Congo. So I keep returning to the Congo because it’s emblematic of the problem, which is how difficult it is to change the world for the better. Whatever you try to do it goes wrong, or it has unforeseen consequences.
But what you might call the “Wes Anderson Theory of History” is only really tenable from a position of some privilege.
Of course it is! Because when you say, “Let’s keep things as they are because we’re fixed creatures,” you mean keep it fixed where you are. Which is basically you’re happy, privileged. It’s a by-product, again, of an ideology which encourages you to prioritize what you think and what you feel and what you want as the center of the universe. Which is liberating in many ways and you can’t deny it’s been a great thing, but it limits you from seeing things from other people’s perspectives. It limits you from seeing that, joined together, you can be stronger and you can change the world. These things have just disappeared off the radar at the moment. They’ll come back. I’m not a pessimist.
The thing I didn’t realize when I was making The Power of Nightmares, and I may return to it, is how that’s part of an even wider apocalypticism amongst the middle classes at the moment—a total fear of the world. A dark pessimism about their bodies, climate change. Look at climate change: again, a bit like Islamism, a serious problem, dangerous, we should try and solve it. Instead, what they do is they retreat into apocalypse again. There’s nothing we can do. I mean, I know rich people who are off buying sheds at the tops of mountains because they think the world’s going to flood. It’s an amazing period of peace and prosperity, relatively, and why aren’t they trying to actually work out why it is difficult to change the world and see if they can do it in better ways. Instead, what they retreat into is a narcissistic, apocalyptic, self-loathing mood. We’ll look back historically and think, “What was all that about? How dare we?!”
I’d like to rewind a bit and do a bit of background stuff.
I’m not very interested in personal profiles.
Your father Martin was a cinematographer, right?
He was Humphrey Jennings’s cameraman.
You were around filmmaking from an early age. What was that as an influence on your filmmaking?
Yeah, he used to take me to documentaries and I thought they were incredibly boring because they had no story. I loved him, and I think he had a fantastic eye. He was really good, and I think I get a lot of my visual sense from him. But I had to watch these documentaries, and he was pretty skeptical about them himself. I couldn’t understand, then, because they had no story. To be honest, I’m not a documentary-maker. I’m a journalist. I like stories. And as quickly as I could, I went off and watched other films that had stories in them. What drives me is: is it possible to make real life as story-like as novels are? Or fictional films? I’ve never been interested in that observational documentary tradition, I just think it’s a bit dull. This doesn’t mean I hate my father. I do love my father!
But when you say “story,” it’s not just in the way that a hack would talk about “a story.” It’s a story with ideas.
Good journalism should do that. What I do is I tell a good dramatic story. Most of what I nick doesn’t come from films, it comes from novels. The biggest influence I’ve ever had was actually a novel my father gave me to read at the age of about 13. It was a novel called USA by John Dos Passos. At that age, it just got me. You can trace back everything I do to that novel because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers. And it’s about collage of history as well. That’s where I get it all from. So I tell a story, and then at the beginning and the end I argue the interpretative point on the basis of the story I’ve told you, which basically says, “Agree or disagree with this, but have you thought of looking at the world this way as a result of this story?” That’s what The Power of Nightmares was doing.
Wikipedia tells me something about your schooldays and the Art Room at Sevenoaks School in Kent. [Curtis laughs.] You’re named down along with future luminaries of Gang of Four and the Mekons.
That’s all true, we were all there. [Paul] Greengrass was there.
So were you all knocking around together, listening to the same music, imbibing the same cultural ideas?
No, we all had very different tastes. But basically, this happens at schools, there was a very good art master who dominated that art room and used it as a space to protect people he thought could be encouraged from the other more boring aspects of school. It was just a very, very good space to romp around in, both in terms of art but also content. What I learnt from him, Bob White, was that art and content are indivisible. That you can actually take content, take journalism, but also fuse it with collage techniques, art. He introduced me to Robert Rauschenberg, the painter, whom I was really interested in, who’s always been a big influence. So he was a really good teacher and he allowed us just to romp and you see in the experimentation of Andy Gill, who’s the guitarist of Gang of Four, you see the same influence—it’s experimental.
Who’s Erik Durschmied?
Now, he’s probably the best cameraman the BBC’s ever had. I’ve never met him and I’d probably be too terrified to meet him. You know I spend most of my life looking at the BBC’s archive?
I discovered him very early on. He’s just got the most fantastic visual sense ever seen. You know when you look at something and you think it’s timeless? It’s just a really good eye. I can’t explain why. He’s just brilliant. Some people tell me they don’t understand what I’m talking about, but I know I’m right on that. He worked for BBC Current Affairs through the Sixties and Seventies and I’ve found some stuff he did in the Eighties. Why do you ask?
You mention him as an influence. But also on your blog you’ve excerpted some short documentaries he shot.
Every now and then I find shots that I just think are really beautiful, and I try and show them to people. There’s another one I think I used somewhere of a boy leaving a sweetshop in the Seventies and the camera then just walks down the road behind him for about a minute, and now and then the boy looks round. It’s just an incredible shot and everyone I show it to goes, “That’s an incredible shot!” And they have power. If you take the shot out of context and show it to people they go, “That’s an amazing shot!”
I’m interested in Chris Marker, too. What you have in common, apart from working in the essay format, is that you both like shots of animals and women’s faces.
Women’s faces, too? I thought I’m pretty gender neutral on this.
No, no. I think so. I mean, the Lewinksy sequence …
You mean because women’s faces are more expressive?
Yes, but also because throughout It Felt Like a Kiss there are these incredible black-and-white sequences of this woman...
That’s because that’s Erik Durschmied! That’s just because that’s an incredible film. It was made in 1968 by the two people I most admire in the BBC: Erik Durschmied, the cameraman, and James Mossman, the reporter. It’s a fly-on-the-wall thing with that family and it’s so beautifully shot.
Are they an American family?
Yes, just outside San Francisco. It’s an amazing piece of verité from that time. It’s really, really, really good and she’s got an extraordinary face because it’s, like, not expressive, but it is expressive, and everyone I show it to goes: “You don’t forget her.” Chris Marker doesn’t tell stories. He’s sort of anti-story. I don’t mean that rudely.
He does do dramatic montages that are story-like.
So I’d say that actually we’re not that similar. But animals, oh yeah! I have all sorts of coded, hidden animals throughout my films.
After The Power of Nightmares people got obsessed with the owl! And, actually, the owl means nothing.
I read it as the Owl of Minerva because it was very definitely flying at night.
Yes, but, it was just there because it was a shot put in . . . Actually, I think it was the day before it went out, and I was desperate for shots. But then people got obsessed with it. So now, as a joke, I put in owls. But there are other animals I put it. The marmot I’m trying to put in because I’m trying to encourage the world’s gloved marmots. I just think animals are funny. I do think it’s one of the hidden things of our time, our obsession with animals. Look at Metro [a free London daily]. Metro just has animal pictures in it every day. Popbitch [a gossip website]—for which I put animal stuff in—people love it more for the animals than for the celebrity gossip! Really, we can see what stuff they’re sending on and it’s always the animals. I love it!
You’ve met Marker, right?
No, I never met him. I’m told by various people, Tom Luddy and others, that he likes what I do but I’ve never met him. I think he’s deeply serious, isn’t he? I don’t really know that much about art film history. I nick good ideas I see, but I don’t really know that much about him. All I know is that he’s like a god of that world so I’d be terrified to meet him. I do like his films a lot, but I don’t really think they’re like mine at all. The one thing I can’t do is that kind of real poetic mood. I can’t do it. I’m larky, I can create certain kinds of mood, but they’re basically journalistic flourishes. He can do sustained things, and I wouldn’t know how to do that. I wouldn’t know how to begin.
I wanted to go back to The Mayfair Set from 1999.
I liked The Mayfair Set.
The first thing I wanted to draw out is the subtitle: “Four stories about the rise of business and the decline of political power.” Would it be fair to say that this is a favorite theme of yours across all the films?
My favorite theme is power and how it works in society. It’s just what intrigues me most, because I think where most journalism falls down, in Britain especially, is this obsession that power only comes through Westminster. I think, in a mass democracy, power comes through all sorts of things, such as consumerism. One of the things I’m really interested in is to what extent power has shifted over the last 30-40 years. I think we’ve lived through a great change. I’m of a generation who grew up as the liberal dream of change in the world failed, the Left failed, and the Right—or whether they are the Right, I’m not convinced—re-emerged and, with them, power shifted.
In The Mayfair Set, I wanted to take a group of people, like you would do in a novel. I really love those 19th-century novels, like Zola, where you take a story and use it to tell something bigger, like I used the Freud family to take you through consumerism [in The Century of the Self]. I just thought this was a very good way of looking at a group of men, because basically what they did was go into old companies that were partners with the state—in the old, state-planning, liberal idea of postwar reform—and just ripped them apart. Their supporters say that re-energized Britain. Their detractors say they’re what’s called “asset-strippers” and they were looting. But what everyone agrees on is that, in the process, they reactivated the stock market as a force. Because they used promises of money to shareholders to fund themselves and that re-energized the stock market, which had been moribund since the 1930s, something we completely forget now. So I was just telling that story.
Now, you could tell that in a really boring, general way about the stock market, but I just did it through those men. Because they were just great stories and also they were sympathetic in a funny sort of way. Although I show they did some pretty ruthless and dodgy things, I really like them because they were buccaneers, bad people who ultimately got destroyed by the very thing they unleashed. If you were a novelist you could see they were larger than life and people would like them for that.
Looking at The Mayfair Set again, I was intrigued because I’d forgotten that James Goldsmith became one of those tycoons who turned, like Soros, and realized that what they’d been responsible for was unleashing a new turbo-charged capitalism that acts like the proverbial plague of locusts.
And then goes sort of mad about it and becomes a sort of precursor of UKIP [British anti-European Union political party]. It was sort of tragic and, at the same time, he was dying. It was a great story and it was difficult to do because a lot of people wouldn’t talk to me. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do—tell the stories of your time that are real but feel like novels. And at the end of it I went and filmed at Goldsmith’s memorial service and there they all were, they’d all come together. So it was like a novel at the end. And all the people he’d helped, all the people around Thatcher, and there was Rupert Murdoch. It was like a novel, it was satisfying to do it like that, and I think people found it satisfying. I really like doing that.
The rise-and-fall, business-and-power aspect of The Mayfair Set put me in mind of something you said in an interview with Errol Morris a few years ago. You made a distinction between the generation of Robert McNamara’s political era and the George W. Bush era, saying one is a manager and the other is a moralist. This returns in the shift between a moralistic sense and the managerial sense that says, “We’ll do as little as possible to intervene in the market.”
Yes, there’s a tug between the two. Again, the thing people don’t understand about the Right is that actually they’re sort of at war with each other. Because there are those like Ayn Rand and Kissinger who believe that the market should be allowed to flourish and the only role of politics is to sort of manage it . . . No, not Kissinger, really the sort of free-market libertarians. And there are those like the neo-conservatives who believe actually that’s dangerous.
People often accuse me of being a lefty. That’s complete rubbish. If you look at The Century of the Self, what I’m arguing is something very close to a neo-conservative position because I’m saying that, with the rise of individualism, you tend to get the corrosion of the other idea of social bonds and communal networks, because everyone is on their own. Well, that’s what the neo-conservatives argue, domestically. So, there is this continual battle within the Right between those who just think you let people be free individuals and you do the least you need to, managerially—there’s another debate about how much managerialism you need—but you just manage that system and you let those individuals do whatever they want and that’s true freedom. And the other part of the Right that thinks, no, human beings left to themselves are, not necessarily dangerous, they just corrode society and leave it as an atomized set of individuals.
But that tradition of English conservatism is dead and buried, isn’t it? It’s paternalist. There are no representatives of that any longer.
There are elements of it still sitting within the Tory party. There are elements of it in Cameron’s cabinet at the moment. It’s not very strong. But it was very strong within the neo-conservative movement right from the Seventies because the person they hated was Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was like McNamara. They saw themselves as morally and emotionally neutral. They were managers of a global system of power relationships and, if you had to do a deal with the devil, it didn’t matter because the higher thing was to keep the system working. The neo-conservatives in the Seventies loathed that because they thought that led to an accommodation with evil. In their reaction to Kissinger and détente you see the roots of all the wars that America’s fought subsequently. Not Bush Sr. He was much more a pragmatist.
What’s so fascinating about our time is that the arguments within the right, within the ruling groups we have around us at the moment, are in fact much more interesting than the arguments between the rather desiccated and unconfident Left ruling elites of the moment. During the Iraq War a lot of the people in Washington who hated it were from the Right as much as from the liberals. Arguments within those who are in power are always more interesting because they’re dealing with the compromises with reality that power brings, which I find really interesting.
It’s fair to say, though, that there’s a relatively narrow road down which power can be steered now because it’s entirely based around the exercise of the free market and that dictates political choices.
Yes, but I think it’s a very limited idea of the free market. The thing I argued in “The Curse of TINA” [a series of postings on Curtis’s blog] is that actually it’s really a technocratic, managed system of an elite who will only allow the free market certain dimensions. If you ask me what my politics are, I’m very much a creature of my time. I don’t really have any. I change my mind over different issues, but I am much more fond of a libertarian view. I have a more libertarian tendency...
Is that because you’re a child of punk?
No. Actually, I got into terrible trouble just after the punk era when I began to point out to people that actually what aspects of punk were saying were not that dissimilar to what Mrs. Thatcher was saying, which is “I want to be me,” to quote a Sex Pistols song. When I was a little kid in the BBC, when I was just starting, I literally cut together some of Mrs. Thatcher’s speeches with “I Wanna Be Me” by the Sex Pistols, and a lot of my so-called friends wouldn’t talk to me for a long time. There’s a whole generation just a little bit older than me who loved punk, but I’ve never understood it. I mean, it was fun, but basically Mrs. Thatcher was on the coattails of something bigger, she wasn’t the leader of it, and punk was just another manifestation of it. It was the desire to be a free individual, not constrained, not controlled. Which ain’t far away from a libertarian market view of the world. Punks don’t like that.
If you have a market idea and you give power to the market, then as a politician, you haven’t got another story to tell people. I often wonder to myself if we haven’t really thought this through. What mass democracy was really about was politicians saying, “You vote for me and I will take you somewhere,” and that’s really what Labor and Conservatives did—Mrs. Thatcher was like that as well, really, up until the early Nineties. Since then politicians haven’t really had a story. I’m convinced that was why Blair went into Iraq, because he wanted a story to tell us. And if you haven’t got a story to tell us, then people just turn away—what’s the point of politics, why should I give you my vote? I think one of the most unexamined areas at the moment is how stuck people feel. No—how people feel that society is sort of stuck and how people are bored with that. I don’t think that politicians have quite got their head round that. Maybe consumerism gets stuck. Maybe it doesn’t have the ability to think its way out. Have you noticed how all the music we hear today is almost archaeological? It’s endlessly repeated.
Thinking just in terms of the fate of the Conservative party, the story they’re probably telling themselves is, “We are the class that was born to lead and here we are again leading.”
That’s the story they’re telling themselves, but that ain’t gonna work with us, is it? But then, maybe it will?
But it matters to them!
But you need a story to tell us. There was a very good piece in The New York Times about Obama recently, which was saying that his real problem is that he hasn’t got a story to tell people. A narrative. People need big stories, as a journalist I know this. You need to say upfront: “This is the story.”
You could also say that he hasn’t had the room to maneuver, or the political courage to do so.
But the way to do that is to say to people “This is the story. I’m going to take you from here to there” to inspire them. I suspect he’s a bit managerial. What happened to politics in this country, from John Major onwards, is it gave up that idea of saying, “I’m going to take you somewhere,” and it said, “We accept this system and we’re going to manage it as best we can.”
But, like you said, that’s no story.
But that’s no story and it leads to absurdities. What you then try to do is use your power to enforce managerial theories of targets in areas where they’re completely inappropriate and that leads to absurdity which leads people to move away from you.
Curiously, what that does is re-ignite an element of Englishness, a sort of rebarbative libertarianism, which is neither left nor right.
Yes, it’s a populist thing. And it’s being fueled by the fact that Belgium, which hasn’t had a government for about a year, is the one country which doesn’t have an economic crisis! What’s astonishing in our time is how the Left here has completely failed to come up with any alternatives, and I think you may well see a lefty libertarianism emerging because people will be much more sympathetic to it, or just a libertarianism, and out of that will come ideas. And I don’t mean “localism.” I got in terrible trouble having a go at the student movement for accusing them of these non-hierarchical systems they’re obsessed by. The Left ain’t going to get anywhere like that. You’ve got to have stories to tell people but they don’t have to be stories like “I’m going to control you,” they just have to be stories.
I want to talk a little bit about the blog. Has it given you a sense of who your audience is?
No. Basically, whenever I do something I try and do it for someone who I imagine is a bit like me—quite clever, quite well educated, confident but not super- confident, and above all not posh. You’re not part of The Economist / Prospect lot. Often when I used to go and research things like The Mayfair Set I would have to go and interview ex–Civil Servants or people like that, and I always found them incredibly patronizing, incredibly supercilious and always wanting to put you down. I know there’s an audience out there who aren’t going to read Prospect, The Economist, and New Statesman, but are really fascinated about this funny area where politics, culture, and art all cross over with each other and influence each other. They’re not interested in kitsch irony but are playful and silly and love pop music and it’s a really big audience and it ranges over quite an age group.
That’s my audience, I do know them, and it’s big. For TV, I get big audiences, and all audiences are crashing at the moment. I got 1.6 million for Machines, which was amazing for the pretentious shit I do! It’s got music, it’s fun, and I don’t patronize, and I don’t always explain lots of things. With a lot of television, if you use a word like “existentialism,” you have to say, “the philosophy that was put forward by Jean-Paul Sartre.” I don’t do that because I assume, quite rightly, that my audience know it. Most journalism is incredibly boring and the reason that most journalism is failing at the moment is only partly to do with the rise of the Internet. It’s because when you open a newspaper it’s boring. You know what they’re going to say.
I try to tell stories that surprise people. Like the story about think tanks: at the heart of it is the story about the murder of a man who ran a pirate radio station by a man who ran another pirate radio station—along with J.P. Sartre’s translator. There you are, I got existentialism in again! It’s surprising, and I think that if I like that, other people will like it. The other interesting thing, for all the surveys they do, is: my audience don’t watch television. They watch my stuff but most of the time they watch it online. They don’t watch TV. They think it’s boring.
But the blog is also a place for the BBC archival material you find.
Because the Internet people are much happier with jumping around, because that’s how they use the Internet: they’re happier with collaging stuff in even bigger chunks. The other thing is, I think the future of journalism—and I’m going to use a pretentious word here—is as much about curation as it is writing. Actually gathering stuff together and saying, “Look at this collection of stuff,” which you then write very clearly in between. People like that. It’s quite rich and fulfilling. I’m just pulling stuff together, but you have to tell a story. A lot of the art lot just think it’s enough to put things next to each other without commenting. I think that’s lazy. I think that you have to put things in a context and make sense of it and then it becomes like a rich novel with digressions. You can have a 30-minute film about Screaming Lord Sutch because it’s a beautiful film, then you can come back to the story, or you don’t have to. Providing they feel they’re in the hands of someone who knows where they’re going—sort of—then it works. I think it’s really interesting.
When you say “the art lot,” who are you talking about?
People who make art! For some unknown reason they’ve decided they like me and I’m always incredibly rude to them. This goes back to my fear of Chris Marker, that there’s another way of portraying the world, which I don’t understand because I have a deep, almost nerdy, desire to explain. To fill up every space I can with me yakking, right? Or deliberately putting things together to say something. Which is the journalist. Which is what I am. Whereas the art lot have another way of portraying the world, which they would call ambiguous because they say the world is ambiguous. I understand it, but I would never know how to do it.
But they also have a problem with narrative.
They don’t do narrative. They say that narrative is a prison because it constricts you and it leads you to one way of thinking and people like me go too much like that and tell you what to think. Whereas what they do is they allow you space to think. Now, of course, as a journalist I go, “Come on!” But actually they’re probably right. The liberal in me is going, “Well, we can both coexist,” but for the moment they’ve taken a liking to me. They’re a fickle lot and they’ll probably go off me tomorrow. I don’t know what I’m going to talk to Frieze about. Not about art. The BFI have asked me to do a thing live as well in January or February, which I might do. They came to me and said, “Could you do your blog live on stage?” Do you think that’s a good idea?
. . . The other thing I learnt from the art lot is that really slowed-down footage is great.
I know in that world they’re obsessed with the archive. The essay film is a big thing in the art world now. There are a lot of filmmakers who are effectively functioning as artists and they’re working in the essayistic format because they can re-purpose archive, they can be digressive.
Using their voice or not?
Some do, some don’t.
I met Hans Ulrich Obrist the other day, and he said the same thing. He said, “Yeah, they’re all obsessed with the archive.” I just don’t mix enough in that world, do I? Where does all that come from?
The essay film thing probably comes from the fact that they’re obsessed with Godard and Marker. Probably also because they’re sick of TV. And also for the same reason that you love Erik Durschmeid’s camerawork: they have eyes, they recognize beauty.
I’m thinking of expanding the blog into a slightly bigger website because it’s doing incredibly well. The BBC love it because they have these audience surveys and it performs consistently higher than anything else including Doctor Who. I’m bigger than Doctor Who in terms of “Audience Interest”! So the BBC has said, “Would you like to do something more with it?” And I think, actually, it’d be quite good just to expand it a bit. Maybe I should just turn it into a bit of a magazine, which has films, long essays, silly bits, odd things. I might do that.
The blog appeared after The Power of Nightmares, didn’t it?
Yes, and then I just took to it. If you look at the one I’ve just done—"The Curse of TINA"—very few bits of film are actually completely relevant to the main thrust of the narrative. They’re illustrative or emotional digressions, which makes it feel richer and fuller and people really like it. A bloke called Phil has come to me. He’d come back from Afghanistan with all the unedited rushes of everything we ever shot in Afghanistan from the bureau in Kabul. So I’ve got six drives, each three terabytes of everything we ever shot there. Two weeks ago he came back from Moscow with 43 terabytes of everything we ever shot in Russia for the last 60 years. So I’ve got Kim Philby’s funeral, 37 minutes of it, which is extraordinary. You wouldn’t live long enough to watch it all. It’s amazing. Now the art people came to me, from the Tate, over the Afghanistan footage and said, “Couldn’t we do a thing at the Turbine Hall over one weekend where we have all these big screens and we just plug the drives in and they just play everything at random for 48 hours and you can have a band on stage?” And I said no. Because that’s not explaining it. I think I was right.
Because there are two different sorts of curatorial ideas at work. Yours is one that says this is interesting because of the following reasons...
Exactly. And then you can let it loose and let people watch it and unlike a television thing they can wallow in it a bit. But you have to explain it. It’s like with Kiss. I actually said roughly what it was about at the beginning and then gave indicators as a way through. I do think this thing of just watching is a bit dubious. So I’m going to go back and do more on Afghanistan but I’m going to tell stories about it. Maybe I’ll do something about Russia. But nobody cares about Russia.