Going Viral

Posted: June 30, 2011 in Video

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.

  1. adamcreen says:

    “But this was a fantasy” LOL. Thanks for the debrief!

  2. james hedley says:

    After watching Curtis’s last outing, I felt like one of these dangerously iconoclastic pseudo-intellectuals with a transcendent understanding of history.

    But this was a fantasy.

  3. Haywood Manley says:

    I actually thought there was some quite funny stuff in the last Adam Curtis series – I often found myself laughing when I really shouldn’t and was left wondering what the hell he was trying to say. It didn’t stop it being entertaining.

  4. harold says:

    I like Adam’s stories and your short film was great. The reviews are very good 10:1 thumbs up, but I was wondering why you decided to cut the comments, it could have been interesting.

  5. Daniel says:

    Pretty good. Have you seen this version that’s been kicking around tho? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65WaGZmVL_s&feature=related

  6. Has it ever occurred to anyone that Adam Curtis is such a good documentary film-maker that he has elevated the whole genre into an art form.Not an easy achievement.That’s why you find it so entertaining!

  7. P & F, Co. says:

    its a magic spoof
    ‘but this was a fantasy’ has become a classic slogan and he must kind of wince when he says it now, as he does in every film. but Curtis’ stories (and brilliant blog) are the important thing and they are always amazingly well researched and prescient. but i did notice the piece of spooky spotlit forest footage that had been used in Power of Nightmares reappeared in All Watched Over… That was a bit of a fail.
    I often listen to his docs while im working rather than watching. different experience all together.

  8. Al Hughes says:

    Love AC and loved your spoof too. Win/win. Lucky me.

  9. metadeniz says:

    I’ve found Adam Curtis’ documentaries to be nauseatingly swollen with unsupported, sweeping statements. It was very refreshing and gratifying to see this spoof.

  10. Fenton Delvecchio says:

    Good work. Fancy a pint?

  11. Indeed this was vastly enjoyable and made me search out more of ACs work.
    i believe that television is an unsuitable medium for serious discussion of anything anyway. It always makes a pig’s ear of science, for example. So kudos to Curtis for at least trying something new and becoming iconic in the process. At least it’s great T.V.

  12. c k says:

    Enjoyed your spoof. Enjoy AC too, very much, but after a marathon of watching his docs, I’m more confused about his worldview now than I was when I’d only seen his more popular ones. I’m writing a paper about him for a film studies class. We’re from the same generation, so that might explain some of the… mixed messages. It’s been quite a roller coaster ride these 50 years. He says he’s more libertarian than liberal, and they’ve always struck me as a bit contradictory. Perhaps “complicated” is a better term. We have plenty of them here, and they baffle me too.

    I’d love to have a pint with you, but I’m across the pond. Next time you’re in Montana, look me up!

  13. TB says:

    Nice work,(i’ve got to it a bit late,i know). Its spot on.
    I too,am one of the types who love his work,but certain aspects of it used to,sort of,annoy me.(After you’ve watched them all 15 times…..haha)There is a massive amount of ‘tarring with the same brush’ going on in his docs,and also he seemingly contradicts himself from Doc to Doc,but i came to the conclusion that he is doing it on purpose.Part of it may be trying to portray a “Nobody knows whats going on”-sense,like in the Screenwipe about Death Of The Journalist or Oh Dearism(i can’t remember offhand).
    I still say he makes TV like no other. You actually get to think whilst watching.Which is rare.

    At the end of it,I think he is coming from a disaffected Liberal standpoint. Someone ,like Orwell,who is disillusioned every time he thinks of the coffee shop chin-strokers.

    All the best

  14. Luciano Moffatt says:

    Just after subjecting my family to an AC documentary (the first of the Trap) and after seen other two, it occurred to me that AC found a very structured and effective style for conveying its message. And structured and therefore, recognizable and loved styles are fun to parody. So I google for Adam Curtis and parody and found your short piece. I loved it. You very precisely dissected the elements of AC in its own style. Of course when you have a dish so superbly prepared, as AC usually does, you wonder if the substance is on par with the presentation. My not very humble guess is that it is. AC arguments are usually rational and compelling. Of course a documentary is not a scientific proof but it is quite effective promoting thinking and discussion.

  15. Hey I thought JD did this AC spoof, always made me wince when I watched it as to how good a spoof it was…but this was a fantasy…cool. Gonna post this what with AC, who I enjoy watching, getting a lot of social networking buzz from his bit on Brookers yearly round up show…some archive footage from a US TV AD in the 50s…Burial…enter the neocons. Though this was an illusion.

  16. Simon says:

    Having a go at Curtis’s presentational stylistics, in a slightly disingeuous ‘not telling you what I really think of his work’ gambit, rather than engaging with his ideas unhysterically all reads a bit like a passive-aggressive swipe. Very English, in a sort of ‘I am insecure with earnestness in authorial television because it makes me feel like someone weak, who doesn’t speak his mind unabashedly’. Curtis certainly does though and one doesn’t have to agree but the tenor of critical comment exudes a snide, resentful tone towards *assertive* (I don’t say ‘conclusive’ however, so be careful…) narrative voices like his. Timidity of firm opinions leads to irony as a preferred comedy trope in the UK and irony is the glory of slaves as the poet says. Instrumentalised then by parody, it all becomes a rather dull mock now, more than 40 years after Monty Python exhausted parodic form. Cue comedy criticism of ideas by Ian Hislop style court jester archness; it reeks of an Oxbridge clever-clever-boy ‘well-crafted joke’/Radio 4 approach. Tedious. Not very brave really.

  17. matthewblott says:

    Too bad you disabled comments on YouTube (why?). Anyhow I was laughing out loud. Very funny.

    • benwoodhams says:


      At the time I was fed up with the YouTube comments, and didn’t feel like I was obliged to let such a high level of unpleasantness into my life. I still don’t. But apparently people can suddenly comment with vetting/approval – as here – so I’ll let that stand for the time being.

      Frankly, I’m surprised people are still talking about this after three and a half years. Is this going to happen every time Curtis releases a new film?

  18. TeenTitan says:

    i’m late to the party. but bloody brilliant work! and yes, your work WILL be cited alongside adam curtis’ work – cos the parody is so spot on! thanks, ben!

  19. Sally says:

    I like that you mention you enjoy Curtis’s work. I think your parody pays Curtis an indirect compliment. Instead of damning him with faint praise you parody him with faint criticism almost saying that no more fundamental criticism could be made of his work. And it’s funny as hell!

  20. Adam Curtis is making a new documentary called “Running Like a Ad – for office, a cut of the profit, and a pack of Well-being”.

    The story centres around an international airport – specifically the baggage reclaim where travellers get everything back.

    In the story, Curtis will reveal his techniques and secrets.

    And that he is not ashamed – of his voiceovers or anything else.

  21. Yiam Cross says:

    There must surely be a Hitler’s bunker take on Adam Curtis? If not, why not?

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