Originally posted on The Spectator’s Arts blog.
My Adam Curtis parody, The Loving Trap, has variously been described as “harsh”, “gentle”, “expertly done”, “inept”, “genius” and “infantile”. I wouldn’t presume to argue with a consensus like that.
As a Guardian-reading BBC2 viewer, I’m familiar with the sensory overload that Curtis’s assaults on the nation’s synapses can induce. I’ve watched and enjoyed his work, and there’s certainly nothing else like it on television. It was only with his latest, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, that I became suspicious. A meandering road trip around several of Curtis’s habitual preoccupations – power, technology and the ideas behind social movements and change – left me with the nagging feeling that the driver might be lost and refusing to pull over to ask for directions.
So I assembled a parody of the audiovisual smörgåsbord that serves to distract the viewer – and, apparently, Curtis – from whatever the hell it is he’s trying to say. I uploaded it to YouTube hoping that, if nothing else, my Guardian-reading, BBC2-viewing chums would laugh. Two days later, all the cool kids were talking about it. By “cool kids” I mean “Caitlin Moran”, and by “talking” I mean “retweeting”. A lot. Then it went viral, which naturally involved a certain amount of phlegm.
As very little else on mainstream TV approaches the intellectual sophistication – or affectation, if you prefer – of Curtis’s work, some people use it as a personality substitute: “I watch Adam Curtis because/therefore I am a dangerously iconoclastic intellectual with a transcendent understanding of history”. By calling Curtis’s techniques into question I was in effect calling these people stupid. The pseudointellectual’s autonomic response to this kind of threat to their self-identity is an affected stroking of the chin, wearing it down to a bloody stump: a three-minute piece of the silly was subjected to Kristevan levels of practical criticism.
On the other hand, some of those who enjoyed it had clearly been waiting for something to beat Curtis with, and I had unwittingly handed them an internet-sized stick. James Delingpole posted the film to the Daily Telegraph’s website under the headline “Why the BBC’s Adam Curtis will never make another documentary”. Like so many others on both sides of the fence, he seemed to believe that my objective was to skewer Curtis and expose his work as facile nonsense.
But this was a fantasy. In fact, my objective was simply to make people laugh using material available under Creative Archive and Creative Commons licences. There’s a wealth of archive footage kicking about online, most of it free and legal to use for non-commercial purposes. Many talented musicians offer their work for use on similar terms, such as Nick Kent – a.k.a. Xor – whose track The Sunflower Enigma gives The Loving Trap much of its distinctive and tasty Curtis flavour. Given what’s out there for the taking, and how well so much of it would lend itself to parodies of Curtis, the most remarkable thing about The Loving Trap is that no one had bothered to do it before.
Thankfully, most people seem to get it. But a noisy minority seem to believe either that I revere Adam Curtis as a challenging and innovative documentarian peeking under the skin of our culture and society, or despise him as an intellectually risible conspiracy theorist peddling pinko paranoia to credulous cretins. Apparently it has to be one or the other. Well, I’m not telling. Anyone who’s seen a Curtis film should know better than to expect simple, pat answers. Besides, in the end, I’m only being asked because I said aloud what everyone else was thinking.