Jonathan Lethem looks at Adam Curtis and the Secret History of Everything:
He’s a cult figure in England, but he has access. The BBC is the greatest broadcasting organization in the world. In ‘Bitter Lake,’ he had all the material. He’s standing in the right place, inside that archive.” Even among those skeptical of Curtis’s narratives, his masterly use of the BBC archive — his uncanny capacity to excavate sequences from the dark side of journalism’s moon and the expressive power he finds in their juxtaposition — produces awe. Curtis possesses a “dazzlingly acute eye,” wrote Andrew Anthony in The Observer, even as he accused him of “superimposing his own creative theory as journalistic fact.”
Curtis is justly proud of his adeptness in the archives: “It’s all stored in a giant warehouse on the outskirts of West London, deliberately kept anonymous. It’s the biggest film archive in the world. The cataloging is good, although it’s been done at different stages. But, because the BBC is an organization that has a vast global news output, I discovered that, throughout the 1980s, there were these giant two-inch videotapes, called COMP tapes, onto which satellites would just dump stuff overnight. And they’re not well cataloged. You can go to a news item and see; if there was a COMP tape for that day, you can order it up. Those two-inch tapes start to degrade, but they’ve been transferred, and they’re amazing.”
Curtis grew up in Platt, North Kent, just outside Greater London. His father was a cinematographer who worked with the British documentarian Humphrey Jennings, with the “Death Wish” director Michael Winner and on “The Buccaneers,” a pirate-themed television program starring Robert Shaw. Curtis’s family was left-wing. “According to family talk,” he said, his great-uncle was a committed Trotskyite. His socialist grandfather, meanwhile, “would stand as a member of Parliament for seats he would never, ever win — and he did it every election.”
Curtis earned a degree in the human sciences at Oxford, then briefly taught there. Unsatisfied with academia, he took a job at the BBC, eventually going to work in the early ’80s as a segment producer on “That’s Life!” a kind of cross between “60 Minutes” and “Candid Camera.” There, Curtis learned his craft. “One week I was sent up to Edinburgh to film a singing dog,” he said. “His owner said that when he played the bagpipes, the dog would sing Scottish songs. We set the camera up. The owner dressed up in a kilt and started to play the bagpipes. The dog refused to sing. It just sat there looking at me just saying nothing. It just sat there, with a really smug look on its face. This went on for about two hours.” Curtis phoned his producer. “She said: ‘Darling, that is wonderful. Don’t you see that the dog refusing to sing for a man dressed up in a kilt is actually very funny? Go back and keep filming. Film the dog doing nothing. But film the man as well.’”
“So I did. We ran a long close-up shot of the dog’s face with the sound of out-of-tune bagpipes. It was quite avant-garde, but the audience loved it, especially when you cut it against the face of the man puffing at the bagpipes who genuinely believed that the dog was about to sing.
“That time with a dog taught me the fundamental basics of journalism. That what really happens is the key thing; you mustn’t try and force the reality in front of you into a predictable story. What you should do is notice what is happening in front of your eyes, and what instinctively your reaction is. And my reaction was that I hated the dog as it looked at me silently. So I made a short film about that.”
Despite his Oxford education, a hint of a provincial resentment defines Curtis’s attitudes toward London’s cultural intelligentsia. Americans might model this as the “John Lennon syndrome” (as opposed to the sense of ease and entitlement exhibited by, say, Mick Jagger). “The snooty people disagree with me,” he said. “The posh literary lot. They don’t like me because they think I’m not elegant and literary and I don’t make enough references. And what I do is I play fast and loose — not with the facts, they’re not interested in that — but with my aesthetic responses. I put pop music, David Bowie, in the middle of an Afghan film. It’s all a bit vulgar.”