I can heartily recommend Bitter Lake, the latest documentary from Adam Curtis, available on iPlayer in February 2015, and quite probably somewhere on YouTube after that. I’ve always been a big fan of Curtis’ films and his brilliant blog, even when I’ve found the conclusions more than a little rushed and wrong-headed (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace was one particular culprit). His style is easy to parody, but that’s always true of voices that are this assured.
Bitter Lake does have an interesting new twist, however, in being released on iPlayer rather than having to kowtow to the constraints of broadcast television. It’s long (2+ hours) and uses some particularly harrowing found footage, shown at length. Curtis’ familiar commentary, where he forwards his hypothesis is actually pretty slight, and only expands a little bit on material he has already put out there on his blog, but this is a good thing. It means less of a breathless yomp through the usual twists and turns of historical ironies and unintended consequences (‘They thought this. But they were wrong. What they were actually doing was this. But that was also wrong.’), and also means that juxtaposed in between the paragraphs of commentary, Curtis places long passages of footage from the main site of the unintended historical consequences, in this case, Afghanistan. More than in his other documentaries, he has the space to dwell on the actual concrete human cost of the abstract decisions taken by political elites, and it’s painful stuff.
There’s often a pessimism in Curtis’ work about where the world is heading - I give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and put it down it to a Brechtian historical realism - that is, you make the past look strange and alien, rather than empathise with it, so that you wonder if your present world could be different too, rather than ‘timelessly’ staying the same. In Bitter Lake, his basic suggestion is that the grand narratives of the West have become so convoluted and disconnected from political reality, our leaders face a choice between hopelessly trying to maintain a ‘good guys/bad guys’ facade, or acknowledging the complexity of national self-interest (which brings its own problems).
I think there might be something else going on personally, in that there is an increasing generational rejection of grand narratives that is reaching a critical phase. How this crisis falls out is yet to be seen, but the elites are clinging to the hope of being the ’good guys’ and experiencing rapidly diminishing returns. (I have more thoughts on this… watch this space…)
*The picture I've cheekily defaced at the top is of Radio Kabul in the 1950s - sounds like a good story in itself.