Adam Curtis is my favorite documentary filmmaker–and one of my favorite filmmakers, period. I was introduced to his work a few years ago by my good friends Elaine Vautier and Timothy Roscoe. My thinking hasn’t been the same since.
Last December I blogged about his 2002 feature, The Century of the Self. This weekend I had the good fortune of discovering his most recent production, The Trap, which aired on the BBC in 2007 but of course never made its way to the United States. I’ve embedded some video, below, for those of you who’d like a peek at the first 10 minutes or so. You can watch the entire documentary in delicious snack-size portions on YouTube.
If I had to describe Curtis’ work as a whole, I’d say he’s an intellectual historian who happens to work in the documentary genre (which is to take nothing away from his skills as a documentarian). He has an uncanny knack for bringing complex ideas and systems of thought to life.
In The Trap, for example, Curtis demonstrates how game theory, anti-psychiatry, existentialism, Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts of freedom,” and more converged and connected with one another to produce the highly circumscribed notion of “freedom” prevalent in the West today.
What Curtis’ work also then shows is just how much ideas can and do matter. This is at once encouraging and frightening.
Many critics have suggested that anti-intellectualism now runs rampant in the United States and elsewhere. In an age of punditry, game shows like Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, Vice-Presidential debates in which “avoiding nuance” is a clarion call, etc., they claim that people no longer possess a tolerance for complex, long-form ideas.
Curtis’ work blows that bit of doxa wide-open. His productions chronicle how, time and again, government officials, corporate CEOs, policy makers, management consultants, and others not only listen to and are guided by “esoteric” theories, but also how they find ways to translate those ideas into everyday practices and products.
And this, I suppose, is the rub: you can never know how bodies of thought–even well-intentioned ones–will get taken up and deployed, let alone by whom.