I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

It Takes a Nation of Billions - Adam Curtis' The Century Of The Self

by Scott Tienken
Jan. 4, 2012
Adam Curtis’ 2003 Documentary The Century of the Self  gets right to the business of reminding us what a mass of consumeristic sheep we have been molded into.

He provides us with the story of Edward Bernays(1), the nephew of Freud who adapted his uncle’s theories concerning animalistic drives and deeply-sunken baser motives for the purposes of propaganda and, far more pervasively, advertising and politics. We are relentlessly reminded of our tendency toward self-interest, vile competitiveness, shallowness, and weak-minded caprice.

This is not unfamiliar territory in that we’ve been reminded of our tendencies towards conformity, self-gratification, and egoistic drives well before Freudianism put the whammy on our way of thinking about ourselves. What makes this a very valuable document is that the level of conversation is a bit more advanced (Maybe I’m over-weaned on American Television and this was standard intellectual fair for the BBC.) and we are actually compelled to dig a little deeper than “Yeah, I’m a sheep . . . but it feels good.” <- And there is the trick of effective/progressive/even radical political documentary. -> The viewer is forced to face a relatively un-mined truth or issue, quickly come to terms with it, and then made to see how pervasive or insidious the problem is. The inescapable Michael Moore is always well shy of being a radical, for instance. His documentaries tend toward gotcha-ism and the neat and clean breakdown of facts just beneath the surface of our collective consensus. He is a pop documentarian and incredibly valuable for being accessible enough to go down easy.

What is so crafty on the part of Curtis is how, through his editing and use of found footage (2), he places the viewer IN the roiling crowds, the great mass who shall be led on a tether (more on this in a second.) There is beautiful footage from the 20’s and 30’s of thousands and thousands of our fellow human animals gathered in large public space; workers, parade goers, pedestrians, ballgame attendants. The viewer in sucked into the sameness we see. A more ironical documentarian (again, Moore) might not be as scientific-borderline-affectionate towards the arrayed masses (ready to be manipulated.) He doesn’t so much want us to identify with those faces just barely too distant to hone in on but wants us to imagine their motivations en masse, their place in history. In this way Curtis (intentional or no) echoes the innovation and radicalism of Eisenstein (2). Even the briefest snippets of large, moving groups of people is incredibly compelling (and a great metaphor as well). In 1925 (just as Bernays was in his pre-rocket stage of influence) The Battleship Potemkin arrayed unprecedented groups of actors on the silent screen (reenacting factory work, marching, battle). Eisenstein’s propaganda (the broad strokes of gathering a nation under an ideological umbrella; Leninist style socialism) is a more emotional documentarian drive. (3) You are compelled to follow Curtis’ outtakes of great crowds scientifically, first, and (inescapably) emotionally second. We are damn angry and swept up with our avatars in the silver and bronze of our grandparents and parents age. We get to feel just shy of the chest-pumping sweep of a Kurosawa battle scene (4) in the haunting outtakes Curtis chooses. Then, when he moves in for a more intimate outtake (commercials, market research, and (in real time) interviews with friends of Bernays) it feels revelatory and makes the fascinating manipulations (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair style centrism being a major example of late-stage Happiness Factories) seem exemplary, scientific.

This is how Curtis becomes a radical documentarian. Rather than prattering on about wrongdoings he puts us in the grand sweep of human movements. We may be conditioned to become consumers but our sheer size very generally demonstrates who will be dictating change on the ground. Though we are manipulated by ‘idea men’ and ‘happiness purveyors’ WE will drive The Depression (that only briefly causes Bernays to regroup and recalibrate.) And, hopefully, become enlightened enough to grow more selective about our consumption -> and probably have that turned into an advertising trope as well.

Scott Tienken's Mass Transportation (August, 2011) is the second book in The Portland Trilogy. He is co-founder of The Cartophile Imprint an on-line publisher, art repository, and music label. His Knocking on 1,000 Mysterious Doors Project and Pine Needles, a musical collective of instrumentalists and city-sounds can be followed at www.thecartophileimprint.comAlleys, the first installment of Libretto for Cities, a analytic epic prose poem about city space, will be released summer, 2012. He lives in Portland, Oregon.