Adam Curtis: The Trap- Interview

In which he reveals his love of Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’:-

I went to see Curtis in his editing suite off Oxford Street in central London, and asked him if he was indeed becoming paranoid. He laughed out loud. ‘Well, it’s just silly, isn’t it? There is nothing in those films about any sort of conspiracy. There isn’t one allegation that some group of people plotted or conspired to create something. Isn’t that what a conspiracy is? Let’s not talk about that. My argument is simple: the way that we think about ourselves today, and the way in which those who manage us think about us, those things are not part of a natural order. I am talking about the rise of an ideology that has encouraged us very strongly to focus on people as individuals, on ourselves as individuals, on our feelings about ourselves and on our private relations with other people. And we are discouraged from thinking collectively.’

Interestingly, Curtis blames the pundits less and the whole journalistic culture much more. ‘I am beginning to think that just about all of our journalism is trapped within received wisdom. When did you last see a piece of journalism that surprised you or challenged the way that you see yourself or the way that you see those who rule you? Take investigative journalism. That is supposed to be challenging journalism. Within microseconds you know it is going to reveal a bad person lurking in a large corporation, and it is going to turn up maybe one document that “exposes” something you really already know, and is anyway not that important. Does it surprise you? No. And Hollywood has been doing that since the 1920s. I am trying to surprise people about the way that they are ruled, to shake them out of their complicity with it.’

‘What I am trying to show is how this ideology has permeated not just politics. I am pulling together ideas from many different areas. They are inter-related and they are all about politics in the wider sense. What I do is modern political journalism. So much political journalism is moribund because it simply tries to follow power down the traditional circuits. Power today is travelling much less in the political sphere and much more in the culture generally; in the management culture, in mathematics, in genetics, in science, in psychology. Power deals with people much more directly now.

‘I am simply trying to show the common roots of the ideas that lie behind developments in these areas. The developments are rooted in the period that we have lived through – the Cold War. I make linkages in order to try to make people look again at themselves and at their own world. I want them to pull back, and look down as from a helicopter.’

He breaks off to play some of the sounds that he is tinkering with at his controls. ‘It is amazing how much mail I get about the music in my films. So many people want to know where it comes from, whether it is high classical Sibelius or low-trash electronic pop. I challenge viewers to identify the source of the three-note riff over the opening titles in the second and third films, and which is later repeated. Will you put that in? I will praise them if they get it.’

I ask Curtis how he would sum up his own filmmaking technique. ‘Collage’, he says without hesitation. ‘Let me tell you of my six influences, in ascending order of importance, and collage is important to them all. And what I take from all of them is their silliness and their seriousness. First, John Dos Passos, especially his USA. Secondly the film Hellzapoppin’ from a Broadway musical. Thirdly, the film Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. Fourthly, Robert Rauschenberg. Fifthly, Shostakovich. Sixthly, and most importantly, Starship Troopers by Paul Verhoeven. It is the most prescient, brilliant work of the last 20 years. He was so far ahead with that.’

Curtis’s films do not in fact work just at the level of collage, elegant and powerful though that is. That would underestimate the force of the earnest, steady, authoritative, voiceover argument from Curtis himself. This is the unnerving counterpoint to the dazzling sequence of images and sounds that unfold from the screen. He does not mystify. Indeed he simplifies and repeats. He drives remorselessly on, challenging us to keep up – with the ideas, the images, the sounds. It is total TV.

Where to next with his own work? ‘I’m not telling, but I will say that there are big changes afoot. I’ve come to the end of something. The Trap was itself the third in a series. There was The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares [his much discussed film on the myth of an all-powerful al-Qaeda], and then The Trap. Actually, they could have been called The Century of the Self, The Enemies of the Self, the Death of the Self….

‘I’m moving on now. We are, I think, about to enter a new Romantic age. Big questions are being asked again. What is life for? What is beyond ourselves? What is beyond the universe? Does God exist? The most important expression of this new age so far is the American TV series, Battlestar Galactica.’

How does he see things developing in the world at large? ‘I am optimistic. There are, of course, things that get me down. One thing that continually depresses me is the way that we got to the moon and no further. We just stopped trying. We are more interested today in our obsessive compulsive disorders or whatever. Unhappiness, despair, anger – these are being ironed out of people. They are being turned into medicated zombies.

‘But not all people are like that. The ghost that haunts the system is that of the secretaries at the Rand Corporation in 1956 who were given a game to play and expected to act selfishly – they proceeded to ignore the script and acted co-operatively instead.

‘And look what happened recently with the [British] National Health Service. The government thought it was dealing with selfish, economically oriented, competitive individuals. So it thought that it had to pay the doctors and nurses more money in order to incentivise them to do more work. Then they were shocked that productivity did not go up accordingly. No doubt the staff did want more money and were glad to take it, but the really interesting point that emerged is that nearly all of them were already doing as much work as they possibly could and there was very little more that could be squeezed out of them. So, yes, I am optimistic and that is why I wanted to end the series on a positive note.’

And indeed he does. The third film contains an exhilarating affirmation of revolution. It dwells on the many horrors of many revolutions of the past. It describes how dangerous and frightening they have always seemed to us. But as he says in the film, ‘the dream of changing the world and transforming people and freeing them from themselves’ is one that refuses to go away. The dream ‘haunts us still because it inspires people, it offers hope and meaning.’

With a typically sly flourish, he gives it to Alexander Haig, the US secretary of state to Ronald Reagan, to assert that: ‘There are things that we Americans must be willing to fight for. You know, this republic was spawned by armed conflict. The freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today were a consequence of armed conflict, insurrection if you will.’ Haig might have added that similar developments occurred in England, and it didn’t all end in tears there either.

It is no doubt with such thoughts in mind that at the end of the film Curtis boldly refutes the liberal sage: ‘Isaiah Berlin was wrong. Not all attempts to change the world for the better end in tyranny.’

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