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Is Adam Curtis the World's Most Important Political Filmmaker? Or Just a Wacko Conspiracy Theorist?

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik March 8, 2012 at 9:33PM

British TV journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis, director of "The Power of Nightmares," is currently receiving a retrospective at New York galley e-flux, and if you haven't heard of this most essential documentarian, now's your chance to see his dizzyingly paranoid, and highly astute examinations of history, society and power. This weekend, they're screening his latest monumental 2011 work "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," which connects Ayn Rand and her "Fountainhead" beliefs to an entire system of Sillicon Valley, economic and computer-worshipping excess that has put us in the mess we're in now. (Alan Greenspan was once a disciple of Rand's.)
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British TV journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis, director of "The Power of Nightmares," is currently receiving a retrospective at New York galley e-flux, and if you haven't heard of this most essential documentarian, now's your chance to see his dizzyingly paranoid, and highly astute examinations of history, society and power. This weekend, they're screening his latest monumental 2011 work "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," which connects Ayn Rand and her "Fountainhead" beliefs to an entire system of Sillicon Valley, economic and computer-worshipping excess that has put us in the mess we're in now. (Alan Greenspan was once a disciple of Rand's.)

adam curtis

The e-flux series is showing most of his work from 1989 to the present day. From their website: "The old idea was that the heart of power was primarily located in the realm of politics. Adam Curtis’ films challenge that notion head-on by demonstrating how power really works in today’s complex society, how it also flows through all sorts of other areas: through science, public relations and advertising, psychology, computer networks, and finance and business."

I remember back in 2005 I called "The Power of Nightmares" "arguably the most important movie of the year." Describing that film, I wrote: "Tracing the neoconservative movement back to the Cold War period, Curtis makes a compelling argument: Osama and Al Qaeda are just fantasies defined and inflamed by neoconservatives to preserve their power and rule by fear. I know it sounds like lefty conspiracy hype, but when Curtis examines the historical trajectory of the neocons -- and the way they distorted and manipulated the threat of the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s -- the argument appears perfectly logical. Call it persuasive propaganda or a brilliant political-historical analysis of the politics of fear, but "The Power of Nightmares' should be essential viewing for everyone."

If you're not in New York, much of Curtis's work is available online: "The Power of Nightmares" is on YouTube, as is "Pandora's Box" (1992), "The Century of the Self" (2002) and "The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom" (2007), among others. Personally, I'm not sure YouTube is conducive to watching multi-part 180-minute provocative political collages, but at least they're out there.

Also be sure to check out Curtis's text-video essays at his BBC blog, which are irreverent and informative proto-docs about everything from religious fundamentalism in politics (his latest) to a great essay "The Bitch, the Stud and the Prawn" that connects economic malfeasance and private equity takeovers with a British gangster and independent films.

And as for the question as to whether Curtis is invaluable or outrageous, I leave it to others to decide. Personally, I'm a fan. But this analysis from the Guardian's Andrew Anthony seems to acutely suggest the pros and cons of Curtis's counter-cinema. As he writes, "What's certain is that he is a remarkable film-maker, someone who combines an arresting aesthetic sensibility with a commanding intellectual reach. If over the past decade his films have increasingly come to resemble sophisticated versions of new world order conspiracy theories, then Curtis is too subtle and gifted to be dismissed as a mere peddler of paranoia."