Kevin Adam Curtis (born 1955) is an English film maker. His best known work is The Century of the Self (2002), a film that examined how Freud's theories of the unconscious shaped the development of PR and advertising. He says, "My favourite theme is power and how it works in society", and his works explore areas of sociology, philosophy and political history.
"One of the main functions of politicians – and journalists – is to simplify the world for us. But there comes a point when – however much they try – the bits of reality, the fragments of events, won’t fit into the old frame"
He describes his work as journalism that happens to be expounded upon through the medium of film. His films have won six BAFTAs. He has been closely associated with the BBC throughout his film making career. Curtis was born in 1955 as Kevin Adam Curtis in Kent. His father was Martin Curtis (10 August 1917 - January 2002), a cinematographer from Sevenoaks in Kent who worked with Humphrey Jennings. His family had a left wing background. Curtis attended the Sevenoaks School on a county scholarship. Curtis completed a Bachelor of Arts in Human Sciences at Mansfield College, Oxford, which included courses in genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology, politics, anthropology and statistics. He started a Ph.D, during which he tutored in Politics, but while on the course became disillusioned with academia. He applied to the BBC, and was hired to make a film for one of the BBC training courses, comparing designer clothes in pop music videos to the design of weapons. He subsequently obtained a post on That's Life!, a programme that often placed serious and humorous content in close juxtaposition.
A selected filmography covering all major works:
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, 2011:
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is a 2011 BBC documentary series by filmmaker Adam Curtis. The series argues that computers have failed to liberate humanity and instead have "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us". The title is taken from the 1967 poem of the same name by Richard Brautigan. The first of three episodes aired on Monday 23 May 2011 at 9pm on BBC2. In May 2011, Adam Curtis was interviewed about the series by Katharine Viner in The Guardian, the Register and by Little Atoms. Catherine Gee at the Daily Telegraph said that what Adam Curtis "reveals is the dangers of human beings at their most selfish and self-satisfying. Showing no compassion or consideration for your fellow human beings creates a chasm between those able to walk over others and those too considerate – or too short-sighted – to do so". John Preston also reviewed the first episode, and said that although it showed flashes of brilliance it had an "infuriating glibness too as the web of connectedness became ever more stretched. No one could dispute that Curtis has got a very big bite indeed. But what about the chewing, you ask. There wasn’t any – or nothing like enough of it to prevent a bad case of mental indigestion".
Andrew Anthony published a review in The Observer and The Guardian, and commented on the central premise that we had been made to "believe we could create a stable world that would last for ever" but that he doesn't "recall ever believing that "we" could create a stable world that would last for ever", and noted that: "For the film-maker there seems to be an objective reality that a determined individual can penetrate if he is willing to challenge the confining chimeras of markets and machines. Forget the internet tycoons. The Randian hero is Curtis himself".
All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace (poem), read by Richard Brautigan. Taken from the 1970 Harvest Records LP: 'Listening to Richard Brautigan'. Harvest ST-424.
It Felt Like A Kiss, 2009:
It Felt Like a Kiss is an immersive theatre production, first performed between 2 and 19 July 2009 as part of the second Manchester International Festival, co-produced with the BBC. Themed on "how power really works in the world", it is a collaboration between film-maker Adam Curtis and theatre company Punchdrunk, with original music composed by Damon Albarn and performed by the Kronos Quartet. The visitor is immersed in sets based on archive footage from Baghdad, 1963; New York, 1964; Moscow, 1959; in the Amygdala, 1959–1969; and Kinshasa, 1960. The title is taken from The Crystals' 1962 song "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)", written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. According to Adam Curtis the production is "the story of an enchanted world that was built by American power as it became supreme...and how those living in that dream world responded to it". He has also said; "it’s trying to show to you that the way you feel about yourself and the way you feel about the world today is a political product of the ideas of that time”. "The politics of our time," according to Curtis, "are deeply embedded in the ideas of individualism...but it's not the be-all-and-end-all...the notion that you only achieve your true self if your dreams, your desires, are satisfied...it's a political idea".
Felix Barrett has stated that the production was influenced by his love of ghost trains and haunted houses, and by the idea of blurring fiction with reality: "It takes the idea of the viewer as voyeur and asks at what point are you watching, inside or even starring in the film". The development of new techniques of interrogation by "everyone over Level 7" in the CIA during the 1960s is a theme of the production, and the suggestibility of human beings is something that the production seeks to highlight.
The Trap — What Happened to our Dream of Freedom, 2007:
The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a BBC documentary series by English filmmaker Adam Curtis, well known for other documentaries including The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares. It began airing in the United Kingdom on BBC Two on 11 March 2007. The series consists of three one-hour programmes which explore the concept and definition of freedom, specifically, "how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom".
The series was originally entitled Cold Cold Heart and was scheduled for transmission in Autumn 2006. Although it is not known what caused the delay in transmission, nor the change in title, it is known that the DVD release of Curtis's previous series The Power of Nightmares had been delayed due to problems with copyright clearance, caused by the high volume of archive soundtrack and film used in Curtis's characteristic montage technique. Another documentary series (title unknown) based on very similar lines—"examining the world economy during the 1990s"—was to have been Curtis's first BBC TV project on moving to the BBC's Current Affairs Unit in 2002, shortly after producing Century of the Self.
The Power Of Nightmares, 2004:
The Power of Nightmares, subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear, is a BBC documentary film series, written and produced by Adam Curtis. Its three one-hour parts consist mostly of a montage of archive footage with Curtis's narration. The series was first broadcast in the United Kingdom in late 2004 and has subsequently been broadcast in multiple countries and shown in several film festivals, including the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The films compare the rise of the Neo-Conservative movement in the United States and the radical Islamist movement, making comparisons on their origins and claiming similarities between the two. More controversially, it argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries—and particularly American Neo-Conservatives—in an attempt to unite and inspire their people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies.
The Power of Nightmares has been praised by film critics in both Britain and the United States. Its message and content have also been the subject of various critiques and criticisms from conservatives and progressives. The Power of Nightmares received generally favourable reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 86% of critics gave the film positive write-ups, with an average score of 8.1/10, based upon a sample of seven reviews. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 78, based on six reviews. Entertainment Weekly described the film as "a fluid cinematic essay, rooted in painstakingly assembled evidence, that heightens and cleanses your perceptions" while Variety called it "a superb, eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism". The San Francisco Chronicle had an equally enthusiastic view of the film and likened it to "a brilliant piece in the Atlantic Monthly that's (thankfully) come to cinematic life".
The Century Of The Self, 2002:
The Century of the Self is an award-winning British television documentary series by Adam Curtis. It focuses on how the work of Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and Edward Bernays influenced the way corporations and governments have analyzed, dealt with, and controlled people.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed the perception of the human mind and its workings. The series describes the propaganda that Western governments and corporations have utilized stemming from Freud's theories. Freud himself and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed. Freud's daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in the second part, as is one of the main opponents of Freud's theories, Wilhelm Reich, in the third part. In Episode 4 the main subjects are Philip Gould and Matthew Freud, the great-grandson of Sigmund, a PR consultant. They were part of the efforts during the nineties to bring the Democrats in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power.
Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy, commodification and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitudes to fashion and superficiality. The business and political world uses psychological techniques to read, create and fulfill our desires, to make their products or speeches as pleasing as possible to us. Curtis raises the question of the intentions and roots of this fact. Where once the political process was about engaging people's rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a society, the documentary shows how by employing the tactics of psychoanalysis, politicians appeal to irrational, primitive impulses that have little apparent bearing on issues outside of the narrow self-interest of a consumer population. Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers, is cited as declaring: "We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man's desires must overshadow his needs".
The Mayfair Set, 1999:
The Mayfair Set is a series of programmes produced by Adam Curtis for the BBC, first broadcast in the summer of 1999. The programme looked at how buccaneer capitalists of hot money were allowed to shape the climate of the Thatcher years, focusing on the rise of Colonel David Stirling, Jim Slater, James Goldsmith, and Tiny Rowland, all members of London's Clermont Club in the 1960s. It received the BAFTA Award for Best Factual Series or Strand in 2000.
Part 1: Who Pays Wins. The opening episode, Who Pays Wins, focuses on Colonel David Stirling. Part 2: Entrepreneur Spelt S.P.I.V. The rise of Jim Slater who became famous for writing an investment column in The Sunday Telegraph under the nom de plume of The Capitalist. Part 3: Destroy the Technostructure. This episode recounts the story of how James Goldsmith became one of the richest men in the world. Part 4: Twilight of the Dogs. By the 1980s, the day of the buccaneering tycoons was over. Tiny Rowland, James Goldsmith, and Mohamed Al-Fayed were the only ones who were not finished.
The Way of All Flesh, 1997:
In 1951, a woman died in Baltimore, America. She was called Henrietta Lacks. Cells from her body were taken from her just before she died. They have been growing and multiplying ever since. There are now billions of these cells in laboratories around the world. If massed together, they would weigh 400 times her original weight. These cells have transformed modern medicine, but they also became caught up in the politics of our age. They shape the policies of countries and of presidents. They even became involved in the cold war because scientists were convinced that in her cells lay the secret to how to conquer death.
"I have always been fascinated by the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta was an African American woman from Baltimore who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before she died some of her cancerous tissue was taken - without her permission - and the cells have been reproducing in laboratories around the world ever since. Henrietta Lacks' cells are immortal. They are known as the HeLa cell line, and they have become deeply involved in all sorts of medical and genetic research - sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Back in 1997 I made a film for the BBC - called The Way of All Flesh - which told the story of Henrietta and her cells. A new book about Henrietta Lacks has just been published, and it has become a best-seller in America. And Oprah Winfrey is planning to make a film about it. I thought I would put the film up as a background to the history and the sciences involved. It is a really odd story - and the film also has in it members of Henrietta's family including the wonderful Deborah Lacks who is Henrietta's daughter".
The Living Dead, 1995:
The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past was the second major documentary series made by British film-maker Adam Curtis. This series investigated the way that history and memory (both national and individual) have been used by politicians and others. It was transmitted on BBC Two in the spring of 1995.
On the Desperate Edge of Now (30 May 1995): This episode examined how the various national ideals and memories of the Second World War were effectively rewritten and manipulated in the Cold War period, only to violently resurface later with events such as the Protests of 1968, the emergence of Red Army Faction, and the turmoil of the Yugoslav Wars. You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough (6 June 1995): In this episode, the early history of the CIA's use of brainwashing and mind control was examined. Its thesis was that a search for control over the past, via medical intervention, had to be abandoned and that, in modern times, control over the past is more effectively exercised by the manipulation of history. It concluded that despite successful attempts to remove memories of the past, doing so often left an emotive void that was difficult to refill. The Attic (13 June 1995): In this episode, the national aspirations of Margaret Thatcher were examined, particularly the way in which she used public sentiment in an attempt to capture the national spirit embodied in the famous speeches and writings of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. By harking back, or summoning the spirit of Britain's "glorious past" (to fulfil short-term political or national ends), it is revealed that the process invariably backfired in the long run, entrapping the invoker in the societal maladies of the present.
Pandora's Box, 1992:
Pandora's Box, subtitled A fable from the age of science, is a six-part 1992 BBC documentary television series written and produced by Adam Curtis, which examines the consequences of political and technocratic rationalism. The episodes deal, in order, with communism in The Soviet Union, systems analysis and game theory during the Cold War, economy in the United Kingdom during the 1970s, the insecticide DDT, Kwame Nkrumah's leadership in Ghana during the 1950s and 1960s and the history of nuclear power. Curtis' later series The Century of the Self and The Trap had similar themes. The title sequence made extensive use of clips from the short film Design for Dreaming, as well as other similar archive footage.
The Engineers' Plot: This episode details how the Bolshevik revolutionaries who came into power in 1917 attempted to industrialise and control the Soviet Union with rational scientific methods. The Bolsheviks wanted to turn the Soviet people into scientific beings. Aleksei Gastev used social engineering, including a social engineering machine, to make people more rational. To The Brink of Eternity: This episode outlines how the United States government and its departments attempted to use systems analysis and game theory to develop strategies to control the nuclear threat and nuclear arms race during the Cold War, and, more specifically, to manage the "loss of control" crises encountered during events such as the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. The League of Gentlemen: This film focuses on how both the Conservative and Labour governments of the 1960s attempted to use economists to engineer economic growth to specific targets, as well as programme post-war economic management in the United Kingdom, and attempts to prevent relative economic decline and the perception of the 1960s Wilson governments that devaluation would jeopardise against national self-esteem. Goodbye Mrs. Ant: This part focuses on attitudes to nature and tells the story of the insecticide DDT, which was first seen as a savior to humankind in the 1940s, only to be claimed as a part of the destruction of the entire ecosystem in the late 1960s. It also outlines how the sciences of entomology and ecology were transformed by political and economic pressures.
Further information here, here & here.