Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Documentary: The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis, 2004)

This week I will be in Madison, Wisconsin for the 2011 Wisconsin Film Festival, where I was invited to be a juror for the Wisconsin's Own competition (for filmmakers and films with ties to Wisconsin).  I will post Quick Picks this week, and upon my return I will resume the normal schedule.

Tuesdays are usually Documentary days on this blog, but I was in transit to Madison so my apologies for the delayed post.  I thought I'd briefly mention a few docs that I plan to see this week at the Festival, that you should keep an eye out for.  My Perestroika by British filmmaker Robin Hessman, a portrait of post-Soviet Russia, has had a lot of buzz on the festival circuit (Sundance, Full Frame, New Directors/New Films, etc.).  Project Nim, the latest film from James Marsh (director of the Oscar winning Man on Wire, available on Netflix Watch Instnantly) is a portrait of Nim Chimpsky, who was the subject of an experiment to see if a chimpanzee could learn American Sign Language (and who was named with a nod to linguist Noam Chomsky).  And Mark Lewis: Nowhere Land is a portrait of the film installation artist as he prepares a new work called “Mid Day Mid Summer, Corner of Yonge and Dundas” at a four-way crossing in Toronto.

That said, here is the follow-up Adam Curtis post I promised last week.

The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis, UK, 2004, 180 minutes)
BBC News: Part one, Baby It's Cold Outside, traces the origins of the modern neo-conservative and radical Islamist movements in the post-war period, how they both saw modern liberal freedoms as a threat to society and how the Soviet Union was represented as "the evil empire". The second programme, The Phantom Victory explores how the two groups with seemingly opposing ideologies, the radical Islamists and neo-conservatives, came together to fight and defeat Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Finally, The Shadows In The Cave, looks at how in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the neo-conservatives reconstructed the radical Islamists in the image of their last evil enemy, the Soviet Union - a sinister web of terror run from the centre by Osama Bin Laden in his lair in Afghanistan. And asks who benefits from this? link.

Last week I mentioned that Curtis is well known for his imaginative use of found footage, or archival footage, to achieve particular effects.  The opening sequence of The Power of Nightmares succinctly sets up the premise of the three-part series by juxtaposing news media footage with images from popular culture, collapsing the distinction between media hysteria and horror and suspense tropes and cliches.  But the most vivid juxtaposition from the opening of The Power of Nightmares is both deliciously ironic and impressively concise in conveying the central theme of the series: the parallels between the rise of neo-conservatism in America and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.  This argument is visualized by a cut between Donald Rumsfeld and Osama bin Laden (with several of his colleagues), both on camera with their eyes focused in the distance as they wait for the start of a media interview.  The selection of those two images and their juxtaposition are inspired choices in at least two ways.  First, the images by themselves are amusing as these seemingly powerful figures seem somewhat vulnerable as they subject themselves to the process of modern media coverage.  Second, the juxtaposition ultimately does not veer into what I would call conspiracy theory territory or simplistic political grandstanding by suggesting that these two groups are the same. Instead this specific cut, and the series as a whole, suggests that the neo-conservatives and the Islamic fundamentalists are players in a game of a battle of ideas.  Just as they have to wait for the interview to begin in those shots, they have had to wait to see how their ideals and their actions have played themselves out in a causal chain that they cannot completely shape and control despite their ambitious attempts to do so.

Rather than being a post-9-11 conspiracy theory film, The Power of Nightmares at its best moments is a vivid and engaging history of ideas.  And to bring that history to life, Curtis focuses on the legacies of two figures in particular:  University of Chicago political science professor Leo Strauss and Egyptian civil servant and political martyr Sayyid Qutb. Curtis argues that both Strauss and Qutb believed that modern liberal freedoms were a threat to society, but each had their own solution to confront that threat.  Ironically, those who followed some of their ideas ended up agreeing that the Soviet Union was a principal threat, leading to an temporary alliance in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  But once each claimed credit for the fall of the Soviets by the end of the decade, each group was emboldened and went in very different directions that eventually brought them into conflict by the turn of the century.  And each group has used the other as a enemy in the image of the Soviets to rally support for their cause.  Curtis's controversial claim, however, is that the neo-conservatives' analogy between the Soviet Union and the Islamic fundamentalists has created a "phantom enemy"; not that they do not pose a threat, but that the threat has been significantly misrepresented and misunderstood to the benefit of the neo-conservatives.  Curtis goes so far as to claim that the concept and the name "al Qaeda" is a consequence of the trial against the first World Trade Center bombers, rather than a name used by the followers of Osama bin Laden themselves.    

In various discussions of the film (like the comments at, for example) viewers often bring up other post-9-11 conspiracy films, but Curtis's world view is very different than the conspiracists. In an interesting interview with Errol Morris, Curtis insists that "where people do set out to have conspiracies, they don’t ever end up like they're supposed to.  History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they're taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended."  And he concludes, "to make a conspiracy work, you have to see it from all different angles to make sure the plan works.  [Policy makers] don’t.   Every time you ever read transcripts or detailed descriptions of what goes on at high level policy decisions. . . the arguments, the self-absorption, the disagreements and the narcissism are incredible."  So the argument is not that Strauss and Qutb and their followers changed the world through their deliberate plans, it is that their ideas have influenced subsequent events in ways that neither of them could have anticipated.

Morris and Curtis elaborate on this idea when Morris suggests that The Power of Nightmares has some seemingly "perverse arguments," namely that "Johnny Mercer brought down the World Trade Center," because what Qutb observed at a senior prom in Colorado while young couples danced to "Baby, It's Cold Outside" helped him synthesize his ideas that would later influence Ayman al-Zawahiri, and later still, Osama bin Laden. Curtis's response encapsulates many of his ideals about historiography and documentary filmmaking:

"The person I love best in the whole world is a sociologist from the late 19th century named Max Weber who believed that ideas have consequences.  People have experiences out of which they form ideas.  And those ideas have an effect on the world.  It is true that a man listening to music back in 1949 had an experience that became one of the rivulets that ran into his formation of an idea.  And that idea, in a very strange way, led people to do destroy the World Trade Center.  Now, of course, that's the construction and maybe people prefer to believe that history is much more complicated. Which, of course, it is.  But the construction has a truth to it.  It shows dramatically how particular experiences form particular ideas with particular consequences.  Even though it doesn’t actually ever work out the way the person who had the idea intended.  It’s perverse, but it’s also a way of dramatizing to people how ideas work, how history works - in a different way from all those boring history programs on American television that try to explain the world to you.  They just make it dull."

Curtis's dramatization of ideas extends to film style, for both the image and sound tracks.  Like Morris, he is not afraid to use techniques generally frowned upon by conventional documentary aesthetics.  In his CinemaScope review of the film, Robert Koehler notes, "The ideas spill out of Curtis’ head—and from his hypnotic voice—like an essay turned into a thrill ride, reinforced by an inventive assembly of film and news clips, accompanied by music from [Brian] Eno, John Carpenter, [Ennio] Morricone, Dimitri Shostakovich, [Charles] Ives, and John Barry, that produces constantly jarring but pleasing effects, as though the theme from Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion (1970) were just the thing to accompany a trip into the menacing universe of Richard Perle." (Curtis lists most of the music sources on the BBC News site.) One particularly vivid use of image and sound comes at the end of episode one, when Curtis crosscuts between dancing Mujahaideen from 1980s Afghanistan and dancing young couples from 1950s America as "Baby, It's Cold Outside" plays on the soundtrack.  Some might argue that this is too obtrusive and ironic for a documentary, which some people believe should be a neutral presentation of the facts.  But as Curtis points out, "All history is a construction – often by the powerful.  What I do is construct an imaginative interpretation of history to make people look again at what they think they know. I like to ask people, 'Have you thought of this?'"

Of course, it is the political and historical content of the film that has inspired the most commentary.  While there are many discussions of the film on the internet, I encourage you to visit the BBC News page for The Power of Nightmares for viewer comments (Page One and Page Two), as well as Curtis's own responses to some of the viewer comments. Not all of Curtis's claims are equally persuasive, however.  Regarding the claim that the term "al Quaeda" did not exist previous to the first World Trade Center bombing trial, consult Peter Bergen's Nation article, "Beware the Holy War," in which Bergen argues that "it may be that Al Qaeda is less organized and monolithic than George W. Bush would have us believe, but it is a fierce and determined organization that has spawned a global ideological movement led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose influence and plans we have every reason to be deeply concerned about."  But Bergen concludes: "Still, despite my many disagreements with The Power of Nightmares, which sometimes has the feel of a Noam Chomsky lecture channeled by Monty Python, it is a richly rewarding film because it treats its audience as adults capable of following complex arguments."

In addition to a streaming option, also allows you to download the film in various formats and codecs.  I should point out that I'm not sure if this has been completely authorized by the BBC, but that without this resource it would be very unlikely that the film would be available to American audiences.  For more information about Curtis himself, consult his BBC blog, The Medium and the Message (he just posted a particularly interesting commentary on the current situation in Libya and the idea of a "humanitarian intervention").

I look forward to your responses in the comments section below.  --JLK

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