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Monday, January 26, 2015 

TV review (of sorts): Bitter Lake.

It's perhaps something of an exaggeration to say there's been a critical backlash against Adam Curtis of late, but no longer have his films been almost universally applauded by those vaguely on the left.  Certainly, his five-minute slot in Charlie Brooker's 2014 Wipe was met by just as much befuddlement as it was adulation by those who see Curtis as something of a prophet, just as Chris Morris once was.  Morris of course responded to this unwanted status with Nathan Barley, co-written with Brooker, with it being difficult not to see the character Dan Ashcroft, a writer admired by idiots who declares he's not a "preacher man" as partly formed by Morris's own anxieties.

In truth, much of this backlash has been due to the decline in quality of Curtis's work.  He without doubt peaked with Century of the Self, which as an introduction into how the work of Freud, Jung and Laing among others was appropriated by business and politics is hard to beat.  Power of Nightmares, despite the brickbats thrown at it continues to stand up, but with The Trap, despite remaining a work of the kind you simply don't get on TV, the rot set in.  All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace followed, and while by no means bad, it just didn't hold up against what had come before.

The main criticisms of Curtis's style of documentary, that he covers up a lack of original ideas and content with inspired music choices and use of stock footage unlikely to have been seen before has been somewhat answered by his irregularly updated blog.  While the questions remain over his answers or lack of them, what can't be complained about is the way he draws you in through his prose, without there being any need to watch the clips accompanying the text.  With the apparent full BBC archive at his disposal, with all the oddities and forgotten shows contained therein, one post resurrects a 70s documentary on the Hells Angels while the next might be about vegetables.  Yes, really.

The announcement that Bitter Lake would only be available on the iPlayer then, and would clock in at just over 2 hours 15 minutes, allowing Curtis to create something not "restrained by the rigid formats and schedules of network television" set alarm bells ringing.  Curtis's past work hasn't shown any indication of being restrained by exactly those forces, which is precisely why so many of us boring gits loved them: long-form documentaries, set to ambient/electronic music, dealing with ideas rarely so much as broached on mainstream television, let alone in depth or with the allowed space to make up your own mind.  One word instantly came to mind: indulgence.  Much as we might delight in TV that plays out a story over 6 or 10 weeks, there's also nothing quite like a 90 minute nuts and bolts film that does the job and then gets its coat.  Editors are often there for very good reasons (ahem).

Sadly, those suspicions were very much confirmed by Bitter Lake.  This isn't to say that in spots it's very, very good: it draws heavily on a number of posts Curtis has made on his blog on Afghanistan, and coming the week the Saudi king finally did the decent thing, prompting our freedom loving leaders to go and pay their respects, the emphasis on how the kingdom has spread the Wahhabist doctrine which so underpins jihadism is very welcome.  Curtis makes extensive use of the footage shot by BBC cameramen in Afghanistan that has never previously been seen, the rushes normally consigned to the cutting room floor.  If nothing else, this does a service to the men and women behind the equipment who rarely get any credit, something now rectified when they journey alongside TV hacks into warzones at least.  As you'll no doubt expect from a Curtis film, some of this footage is extremely banal while other clips are little short of breath-taking: we see Afghan soldiers dancing to a lone, virtuoso trumpeter; a British soldier coaxes a tame pigeon, probably an escaped pet, first off his gun onto his hand, stroking its breast, before it jumps onto his helmeted head, to the absolute wonder and delight of the infantryman; American and British troops whoop up airstrikes on the enemy; and the attempted assassination of Hamid Karzai is witnessed by a cameraman just feet away from the former president, his security team all but abandoning him as he lays on the seat of his SUV.

The problem is this footage takes up far more of the running time than would ever be allowed on TV for good reason.  As beguiling as it often is, it doesn't add anything to the narrative, which is extremely sparse for the first 90 minutes.  The question then is whether it adds anything to a documentary you have to make an active choice to watch, and even on that score much of it doesn't.  For every one piece that does push it forward, such as the remarkable archive of a British student teaching a class of Afghans about Duchamp's urinal, something that came about as part of the post-invasion this is wot Western education is about like initiative, to their bewilderment and the student's own realisation she's wasting her time, the assumptions of all being challenged and judged, there's 5 clips that just drag.  It all feels disjointed, and seeing as Curtis's thesis is that Western politicians responded to the crises of the 70s, caused in part by the empowerment of Saudi Arabia, with a simplification of everything down to good and evil, often his narration of how this came to be is guilty of precisely the same thing.

It's especially a shame as within the running time there's a couple of hour-long documentaries that ought to be made.  The first on how the West's relationship with Saudi Arabia has and continues to shape policy; and the second on how the British presence in Afghanistan descended into such ignominy, with the army gamed into attacking anyone they were told were Taliban, such was the incompetence of those in charge.

Bitter Lake does nonetheless succeed in showing the way history has repeated in that benighted country.  The Afghan king first sought out American help to develop his nation, before then playing off the Americans and Russians against each other.  As drop-out Westerners journeyed to the country in the 70s in search of something different, Afghans educated in the West brought left-wing radicalism back with them.  Neither their idea of what freedom was, nor that of the Russians when they intervened or ourselves has taken root.  Western ideals of human rights and equality rubbed up against the fundamentalism of the madrasas funded by the Saudis, regardless of whether the West supported the mujahideen in the 80s, or opposed its spawn in the 2000s.

This doesn't however prove Curtis's point: regardless of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mere dropping of demanding the immediate removal of President Assad from power in Syria doesn't mean this dilution of everything into absolutes has been abandoned.  Policy on Syria continues to make not the slightest bit of sense when the "good" rebels are set to be trained to fight the "bad" ones.  Indeed, the only possible outcome would appear to be that which befell Kabul in the 90s: the destruction of everything with the eventual victors likely to be the most ruthless of all.  We continue to oppose the enemies of the Saudis whether it's in our interests or not, for which see the way the oil price is being used against Iran as we're trying desperately to reach a deal over their nuclear programme.  Whether this makes either Iran or Russia more belligerent or more inclined to reach a compromise we don't and can't possibly know.

In the meantime we'll go on telling ourselves we're on the side of the good regardless of our actions, we'll make idols out of schoolgirls to make ourselves feel better, and we'll do as little as possible to examine the mistakes we've made.  For all the criticisms of Curtis and the failings of Bitter Lake, his work continues to take viewers places others fear to go, and few pose the questions he does to such a wide audience.  His answers and conclusions may be faulty, but whose aren't?

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On the plus side, I think in this mega-long form he was able to let a lot more of the clips (some of which were astonishing) to do the talking and to fill in a lot more sense of the country, rather than just relying on bald assertion (another AC stylistic trope). I think this was actually one of his most impressive works to date - it gave you time to think and process as it happened. The many intricate madnesses and double-effects of our various manoeuvres in the region were allowed to stand, visually, and jarringly as the general sweep of his point was made. Bit like Jonathan Meades - there's not enough of this visual essayism on television ...

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