I’ve just got around to finishing the third part in Adam Curtis’s latest documentary series, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Whether it is quite as good as The Power of Nightmares may or may may not be a matter for debate, but either way here is a series you should all watch – though available now on YouTube rather than iPlayer. This is because, of course, it has a great deal to say to us about the strange, uncertain world in which we live; but it is also because, as a piece of art, it is remarkable.
The series, it seems to me, is as much a work of visual ambition as it is anything like a traditional TV essay. One gets the sense that Curtis has set himself the task of finding a path between an initially entirely unrelated A and B, as if merely to prove it possible. And yet what emerges is a weirdly compelling vision of how we all got where we are, a sort of secret scientific history which seeks to explain what in these three films Curtis comes to see as our current Western world’s lack of hope and direction. (Much of this elaborates upon his work for Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe on, for instance, Paranoia and ‘Oh Dearism‘.)
There’s a scene in the third and final of the films, The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, in which a patina of images of the conflict in the Congo between 1998 and 2003 – violent, desolate, yearning, ironic – are played out to the souped-up strains of Floyd Cramer’s ‘On The Rebound’. It is an almost reckless piece of showmanship, an audiovisual trick which plays to Curtis’s argument that the conflict in the DRC, in which every major regional power played a military role whilst the West cheer-leaded in a variety of ways, was a Wacky Races sort of scramble for the mineral wealth of the hapless country’s filthy mines. Curtis matches sound, picture, and rhythm waspishly – shortly thereafter first a mantis then a scientist in a gas mask whip around to face the viewer as less melodic sonic screeches reach crescendo – and this mastery of the medium serves more than a cynically satirical purpose. There is something painful, something funny, something above the content itself about the connections Curtis discovers in his trawls of the archives.
This – for want of a better term – transcendent quality is fitting: if anything, All Watched Over‘s core argument is that the interpretation of the world through the prism of the machines which have come increasingly not just to dictate but to define our lives has led us to construct sterile managerial principles by which merely to organise systems of feedback and balancing response; that our ability, even desire, to change the world for the better have been defeated by an acceptance that humans, our environment and our political, economic and social relationships are simply mechanical.
The first film, about the influence of Ayn Rand’s vision of the virtue of self upon our approach to organising economics, was withering about our inability to recreate the financial world not merely following the inevitable crashes of 2008, but after the slaying of the Asian tigers in the 1990s. Whether it was truly possible to connect Monica Lewinsky with a thwarted adulteress alone in her apartment collecting stamps in the twilight of an under-appreciated career is a moot point; Rand’s triumph, if it can be termed that, is to be the underpinning for Tea Party-style thinking which crushes government into the tiniest corner possible, telling it to mind its own business and leave well alone. When, in his second film, Curtis turns to the theories of Jay Wright Forrester, the designer of America’s early warning system who later posited the entire world as a closed system and decided that in its current state it would collapse in the first half of the 21st century, he has prepared his viewers for the terrifying concept that Nothing Can Be Done. Humans are cogs in a world machine which grinds onwards in spite of any oscillations of one part or another.
This fatalistic philosophy, of course, is what enables Westerners to wash the blood from their hands each time they power up their PS3, firing circuit boards full of minerals taken from Congolese mines. I write ‘of course’ advisedly; in fact, of course, the viewer should feel ambivalent about the connection of a mass game of Pong in 1970s California with the massacre of Tutsis in 1990s Rwanda. Curtis’s style of big picture lecturing can miss out on detailed analysis of his assertions: whole documentary series could be produced about merely the moment when Curtis declaims that, in the early days of his presidency, Bill Clinton deferred to Rand disciple Alan Greenspan, accepting the impotence of politics to improve peoples’ lives; fat tomes could, and have, been written about the life of the ‘selfish gene’ theorist George Price and what his death, bleeding his last from the carotid artery he cut himself in an apartment divested of the possessions he had given altruistically to London’s homeless over the course of years, might mean for the theory that a human being is a bare vessel for the replication of genetic material. But the fact that Curtis skates over them means his connections can be drawn only in the faintest pencil.
All Watched Over is, in this context, a form of highly stylized agitprop. It matters less whether what it says, whether the narratives it composes, are true – and more what they make you think, feel and do. This is also a definition, I understand, of art. And this is why you should watch this series.