Archive for June, 2011

ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE, part 3: a review

Or… considering the documentary-maker as not really a documentary-maker

7 June 2011

The third part of ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE looked like it would take the form of its predecessors; taking contrasting stories, seemingly unconnected events, and trying to draw pencil-lines (or stronger) between them. But in the end, Curtis ran a digging twist to make you realise this episode wasn’t really a documentary at all, but an attempt to produce high art as provocation.

The episode started in the Republic of the Congo (indeed, with some material lifted & extended on from his piece It Felt Like A Kiss), and looked the near-unimaginable scale of slaughter in Congo/Zaire and neighbouring Rwanda, and the role of Western interference in the region: the Belgians’ attempts to install the Tutsis in Rwanda as political ruling class, the CIA’s anointing of Mobutu Sese Seko as leader of Zaire as a bulwark against communism, mining companies’ bloody landgrab for the mineral columbite-tantalite (used in the manufacture of chips in electronic devices such as the Playstation) in the modern Congo, and even the naturalist Dian Fossey‘s ongoing feud with Rwandans as she tried protect gorillas in the rainforest. Little to do with machines, loving or not.

The other story was more conventional Curtis fare: charting the lives of geneticists Bill Hamilton and George Price; Hamilton came up with a theory of gene-centric evolution, which Price took on further, formulating a model of altruism as a means of gene propagation. And why stop at altruism? Take it to its logical conclusion, and all manners of human behaviour can be described as evolutionary techniques and no more, and we end up being, er, gene-propogating machines. This is on much more familiar territory – the scientific establishment reducing humanity to a mere aggregation self-reproducing automata.

But unlike his usual form, Curtis didn’t attempt to draw causal attempts (the kind that usually infuriate) between the two stories. In fact, apart from Hamilton’s death in the Congo, there didn’t seem to be any link at all. Instead as the episode unfolded it focused more and more on the ongoing slaughter in central Africa, spurred on by the West’s demand for Africa’s mineral wealth. When Rwanda massacres happened in the 1990s, the developed world’s militaries stood by, while its NGOs (despite their good intentions) were powerless to stop the fighting spread to refugee camps. Curtis played a series of increasingly distressing images of atrocities with a backdrop of incongruent music.

And you begin to realise Adam Curtis isn’t even trying to make a connection, and this isn’t even a documentary. Curtis is provoking you into feeling uncomfortable, into dwelling on the loss of control, disillusionment even, with modern liberal Western society, using the history of West’s interaction with Africa – colonialism, decolonialism and the bloody end of mass capitalism – as emotional bait. Your grandparents’ generation subjugated them, your parents’ generation unleashed anarchy upon them, and now you’re fuelling the slaughter and chaos they created when you buy your Playstation. This is not a documentary designed to educate, but an art project designed to provoke – riffing off the aforementioned It Felt Like A Kiss rather than The Power of Nightmares.

And when you’re done feeling uncomfortable, Curtis gives the punchline to the film: this is why you feel so attached to bury yourself in the embrace of the machines, because deep down you no longer have faith in humanity to solve its own problems or its own inhumanity.

This is a leap of logic, a provocative one, a sign of desperation, even, but an intriguing change in style as well. Perhaps Curtis thought this the best way to make his point, perhaps he couldn’t think of any others. It’s certainly a departure from his usual form: of a triptych of tightly-wound, interconnected episodes exploring the concept. And to be honest – it didn’t work; it just made the piece look disjointed and the two storylines out of place with each other. It’s not his style – Curtis is not a polemicist – his flat, laconic commentary and his refusal to appear on camera make it impossible for him polemicise – and to use a tactic of deliberate provocation is as mechanistic a view of human beings as the very philosophy he is attacking.

And yet despite the flaws and non-sequiturs of the main story, I can’t find it easy to shake off the moral of the other tale in the episode: the demise of Price and Hamilton. The originators of the selfish gene theory were ultimately wracked by the implications of their own research: George Price’s fixation on biological determinism led to his descent into self-enforced poverty and Christian piety as a means of escaping it, and ultimately suicide when it offered him no salvation. Bill Hamilton swayed the other way, growing mistrustful of modern medicine as it was an obstruction to natural selection, leading to a belief HIV was a byproduct of vaccination programmes in the Congo, where he ended up dying. Beneath the provocation, Curtis’s underlying point, warning even, seems to be: this machinist view will drive you mad too, one day.

Coming up next: a review of episode two. Yes, I know that’s the wrong order. Consider it a homage to the man’s style…