Tuesday, 15 November 2011
Monday, 14 November 2011
Adam Curtis introduces All American
Glorious Dreams from the Schizoid Empire
America rose to power not just because of industrial might, or armies or its genius for engineering and invention - but because it possessed our minds. In the years after the Second World War, America told a complicated story about itself to the world.
What gave the story such power was that it had two sides to it. One was a dream of complete personal freedom - an endless, open landscape, and songs and films that took you into that boundless world. A world into which British people escaped in their minds - a true liberation in a declining country still dominated by class and snobbery.
But the other story was dark and frightening. It said that America used its power to ruthlessly exploit the world while pretending that it was good. It was an alternative, hidden universe full of conspiracies, assassinations, drug-running, phone-tapping and paranoia. And the nameless people behind it were the men who were really in charge. Not democracy.
America's genius was to allow both stories to flourish - for whichever story you chose to believe immediately locked you into that world of dreams. It was the true confidence of power, because America allowed journalists and film makers complete freedom to fly in to the country and then go pretty much where they wanted - and tell one or other of the stories.
And that is just what the BBC did - from the late 1950s onwards. During that time the films it made swung back and forth between the optimistic dream and the pessimistic version. Over the last ten years the focus has tended towards the dark and pessimistic, except for the brief moment of President Obama's election. So BBC Four has decided to balance that with a season that celebrates America - along with a collection of programmes from the archives available to watch online.
But collectively the films also tell a story about Britain. About how liberal film documentary film makers in Britain turned to America, and its culture, for solace as their own political world moved away from them - towards the right. They used America to try and recapture some kind of grandeur for their own lost dreams.
The collection begins with a group of films made in the 1960s. They range from a wonderfulPanorama that goes to California, in 1966, to predict what the world of 2000 will be like - to a Face To Face interview with Martin Luther King at the height of the civil rights movement, and a brilliant report by Alan Whicker about the Kentucky Derby - which the civil rights movement are planning to disrupt.
What all these films from the '60s capture in different ways is the incredible optimism for change. Only ten years later those dreams had turned to a pessimism and a suspicion of politics and power in Washington. America became a land of paranoia and corruption - epitomised in the figure of President Nixon.
But not all documentaries looked at America like that in the '70s. As politics went hurtling off towards the right in Britain as well, many documentary film makers in the BBC turned away from making films about politics and turned instead to make films about art and culture.
It is one of the great social shifts of the past 40 years that hasn't been fully recognised yet. As progressive politics failed in Britain, large chunks of the middle class gave up defining themselves through their political allegiances, and began instead to define their identity through which films, or bands, or type of art they liked. Central to this was a new belief - popular culture should be taken seriously. And the one place you could do that in an epic way was the country that had created mass popular culture. America. In the collection are a number of films that show how American popular culture was reworked by British documentary makers to give an epic foundation to this new aesthetic sensibility.
But the one that epitomises this most is a wonderful documentary about the Chelsea Hotel in New York made in 1981. It goes on a tour of the hotel's bohemian inhabitants - from the composer of Tubby the Tuba, playing his Turtle Ballet, to Andy Warhol and William Burroughs having dinner together. Warhol wears the headphones of his new Sony Walkman all the time. The film portrays the Chelsea as a kind of alternate universe, separate from the harsh '80s greed outside. Inside the hotel the world of bohemianism flourishes - and its belief in the absolute value of total self-expression.
It is tempting to look at the film as the record of a lost world of true bohemianism in New York. But that is to misunderstand it - for what the film captured in 1981 was an image of the future. We live today in a world where self-expression and our own individual desires have become the central motor for modern consumerism and politics. The give-away is in a brief moment when the hotel manager is talking about his role in running this little society. He says: "I gear my policy-making to fit the needs of the individual". It is the philosophy of all modern governments and their focus groups.
The world of the Chelsea hotel has triumphed. In a way we are all superstar bohemians today. And we all wear our headphones like Andy Warhol.
These films reworked American popular culture to make it epic. But by the end of the 1990s the dark uncertainties began to peek out again. You can see this in the documentary aboutJackson Pollock, made in 1999. It shows how the art establishment made Pollock a hero because he represented the mythic dream of America - the rugged individualist.
But the problem was that Pollock wasn't like that at all. Underneath he was incredibly insecure, and tragic. He wasn't really an old style American Hero. He was a new neurotic - the new kind of narcissistic individualism whose uncertainties would gnaw away at the confidence of American power from inside the society.
Amongst the more recent films is a Timewatch, made in July 2001, about the construction of the Empire State Building. It tells how in 1945 an American Air Force plane flew into the Empire State Building. The B25 bomber was flown by Lt Col William F. Smith, a hero from the war. Smith had been advised to land at La Guardia because of fog, but chose to continue to his destination in New Jersey. The air traffic controllers couldn't stop him because military pilots were allowed to do whatever they wanted. They had priority in the skies because America was still technically at war.
It is a story about the unexpected and dangerous side of American individualism - the myth that runs through so many of these films. It is the source of dreams of heroism, and also the dreams of self-expression inside the Chelsea Hotel. But that individualism is also the very thing that the Islamist terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre in September 2001 believed represented the greatest danger to the world.
After 2001 the films made about America changed. After the initial outpouring of sympathy, documentaries started to get dark again. Out of the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan a new received wisdom emerged that said that America's power was now declining and that power was shifting in the world.
But maybe this is just a part of the complex story that America tells - and still holds us in suspense. Maybe it's the moment when you think everything has gone wrong, and it's all over. Have we really woken up from the American Dream? Or is it one of those spooky moments when you think you are awake, but there's a lot more left to come. After all there is no other society in the world that tells as powerful and gripping story as America - and power isn't just about armies and commerce - it's also about crawling inside your head and seducing you with a story that keeps you wanting more.
Adam Curtis, November 2011
Friday, 11 November 2011
It is Armistice Day today. At 11 o'clock we will have a two minutes silence to remember our dead.
Thursday, 10 November 2011
DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
8 October 1917 - March, 1918
Thursday, 3 November 2011
The V&A museum in South Kensington. The home of arts and crafts. When the idea for it was instigated by Prince Albert in 1852. It has 4.5 million objects. It's mandate was to display artefacts from every culture throughout the world so that artists, and artisans of every type could learn from made things. It always has had an educational purpose. This makes it different from art galleries which are seen as culturally elite.
An old shop in Shoreditch, just north of the City of London and the Barbican. It looks like a Victorian shop front but the building is probably Georgian.
A view form Brick Lane. You can just glimpse the Ghurkin and the City of London banking sector through the archway. Brick Lane is an area where many waves of immigrants over the centuries have lived. Hueguenots weavers came first of all, then it became a Jewish settelment, there are still some synagogues in the area. Nowadays it is home to many Pakistanis. Monica Ali wrote her award winning novel Brick Lane which was based on life and the immigrant community here. It was made into a hard hitting film about Brick Lane's society.
You will all know this one. It's Westminster Abbey. It has been the centre of many important events in the history of this country.
So many people mistake this for London Bridge but it is in effect called Tower Bridge because it is situated beside The Tower of London.
This is Villiers Road leading off The Strand. Charing Cross Station is to the right and The Thames straight ahead. There are many literary connections around here, from Charles Dickens to Rudyard Kipling.
This is the Buddhist pagoda in Battersea Park, next to The Thames. The Dalai Llama requested that one be set up in London and other major cities of the world to help bring peace to us all.
This is Spitalfields Market in the East End. It is being renovated and turned into designer clothes shops, pubs, restaurants and clubs. The area is close to Whitechapel, famous for Jack The Ripper.
Boris Johnson, our illustrious Mayor of London, is trying to encourage more cycling. You can hire one of these bikes. There are dozens of these bicycle racks around the city.
I know it looks like a piece of fossilised dinosaur but its one of the new entrances down into the tube system.
The Houses of Parliament. But you knew that didn't you!!!!!!!!! By the way, it's not Big Ben. It is called The Westminster Clock Tower. Big Ben is the bell inside it. You can hear Big Ben but you can't see it.
This is Marble Arch next to the north east corner of Hyde Park on the Corner of Oxford Street and Bayswater Road. It was originally the gate into Buckingham Palace but it was found to be too narrow for some of the carriages so it was moved to this spot. The site was originally Tyburn, where criminals were hung.
A seagull contemplating Westminster Bridge at sunset.
I was needing a bit of glamour. Here is myself with Deb Barnum, who organises the Jane Austen Society of North America, Vermont chapter. "Chapter," is that the right word? It has religious connotations but also reminds me of the Hells Angels.
This is the famous ,"Wobbly Bridge." Behind me, no you can't see it, is St Pauls Cathedral and across the river on the other side, is the 1930's coal fired power station that has been converted into The Tate Modern.
A view of The Thames looking west. That clump of flats (apartments) in the distance is Battersea.
From this viewpoint you can see St Pauls Cathedral, the flats in the Barbican complex to the left, some of the banking district in The City to the right and The Thames again, in the foreground.
An alleyway in Holburn, just half a mile north of The Strand.
Yes I know,drunken telephone boxes!!!!!!!!!!
A statue of that great actor, Lawrence Olivier, situated on the South Bank near The National
Inside one of those London Eye, pods. Going round and round and round!!!!!!
This is not in London but I thought you would like to see Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport.
A horse and carriage on The Strand.
Some Henry Moore sculptures in Battersea Park. Nearby is a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.
Graffitti and skate boarders on the South Bank underneath The Royal Festival Hall.
These are mews houses. They are desirable properties. In Georgian and Victorian times these were the stables for the horses and carriages belonging to the fine houses in areas like Belgravia.
You have got three for one in this picture. That thin looking pedestrian bridge in front is a side view of The Millenium Bridge, also known as The Wobbly Bridge. Southwark Bridge is the next one and then there is the railway bridge coming out of Cannon Street Station. You can see the twin towers of the station to the left.
This is the Hayward Gallery on The South Bank. He's not going to jump. It's a sculpture. About two years ago, life size and life like figures like this started appearing on many buildings all over London. Just another way for us all to relate to art.
St Pauls at night.
The Cenotaph in Whitehall. This is the main national Monument to our British War dead. It was erected just after the First Worlld War. The Queen places a wreath here every year on Armistice Day, November 11th. We all wear poppys to commemorate our war dead.
This is Trafalgar Square last Christmas. The tree is a Norway Spruce.Every year Norway presents us with a Christmas tree to commemorate the help we gave them during the second world war. Denmark, on the other hand, for the same reasons,gave us Carlsberg Special Brew. At one time it could only be sold in England. It's powerful, brain damage stuff.
You are going to laugh at this one. This is George Washington. It's next to The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. In the 1920's the good people of Virginia thought they would like to present the English people with a statue of George Washington.
A guardsman in Horse Guards Parade.
A stern looking policeman at the entrance to Downing Street.
Somebody beach combing under Waterloo Bridge.
The National Theater. It looks more like a nuclear power station. It has three stages and auditoriums. The central concrete column is a computer operated scenery moving installation for the three stages.
A Thames Clipper, a river bus. One of the best ways to see London is from the river. You can buy a days pass, a Rover ticket, for £12.50. You can go up and down the Thames all day long, stopping wherever you want and getting back on again. You can go up as far as the Thames Barrier, stop at Greenwich to see the Maritime Museum and The Royal Observatory, pop in to The Millenium Dome, see The Tower, look in at the Tate Modern, view St Pauls and embark at Westminster. The views are spectacular and the photo opportunities innumerable.
Buckingham Palace from the lake in St James's Park.
The banking sector in the city viewed from The Tower of London. WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?
Canary Wharf. Multinational companys viewed from Greenwich Park.
A diplodocus in the entrance to the Natural History Museum in Kensington.
I often cycle around London. That's my bike on the right. No, not the one with the bent wheel.
The Albert Embankment, across the river from The Houses of Parliament.
The Houses of Parliament. Need I say more?
The memorial to SOE outside of Lambeth Palace.Lambeth Palace is the home of The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England.
A london pub, called The Museum Tavern, opposite The British Museum.
The London Underground.
On the way to an underground platform.
Me, on my way home on the underground. I can't remember which station this was.
The pavement at night outside the Royal Festival Hall.
The Royal Festival Hall. It is the venue for classical music concerts throughout the year. It can hold the worlds largest symphony orchestras.
A London side street.
I was about to enter a capsule on The London Eye.
For all you Doctor Who fans. Hamleys toy shop window at Christmas. It's in Regents Street.
A gold Dalek. Blimey!!!!!!!!!
Is it a cave? Is it a load of old rags?
Regents Street at Christmas.
Theater Royal Drury Lane in Covent Garden.
Once in a while I need to sit down and have a cup of coffee.
Covent Garden from the terrace of the Royal Opera House. I went to see The Nutcracker. Yes, I did.
A green house at the Horniman Museum, which I think is one of the best museums in the London suburbs near Greenwich. It has got some amazing things collected from every culture by Frederick John Horniman, the tea trader, from his travels all over the world.
Hans Place. Another house Jane Austen stayed in. This was owned by Henry too. The house he owned was on this site. This red brick building was built in the late 1800's. It's Victorian.
Clive of India. This is just behind Whitehall set between the buildings that comprise the Foreign Office. Clive conquered India and added it too our British Empire.
Chinatown next to Soho, just off Shaftesbury Avenue.
London seen from Battersea Park.
Charing Cross station and Hungerford Railway Bridge. There are two pedestrian walkways either side of the railway bridge. Virginia Woolf mentions in her diaries walking across Hungerford Bridge. Before the railway station and the bridge were built there used to be some stone steps down to the river called Hungerford Steps. It was here that the blacking factory stood that Charles Dickens was employed in as a young child.
Buckingham palace Road and the magnificent French chateau style Southwestern Hotel that served Victoria Railway Station. The Orient Express leaves from here. Notice the Abbey Road Beetles re-enactment society.
Boudica. She was the warrior Queen who routed the Romans and sacked Roman London.
The reading room in The British Museum. Karl Marx wrote his great works here.
This Georgian house is near Trafalgar Square and Whitehall. Benjamin Franklin lived here for about 18 years. He set up a printing press, and carried out many scientific experiments here.
The Science Museum. These are all 18th century scientific instruments.
An aeroplane in full flight inside the Science Museum. It makes me think of the adventures of Tintin for some reason.
A lion in Trafalgar Square. They are made from the melted down guns of many of the ships that took part in The Battle of Trafalgar.
Some Georgian houses. "Upstairs Downstairs."
Looking across the Thames at twilight. On the other side is Chelsea where many of the Preraphaelite brotherhood lived. Cheney Walk, where innumerable literary and artistic giants lived is next to the river.
Battersea power Station. A 1930's coal fired power station that is being converted into everything you can think of, galleries, shops, hotels, theaters, cinemas, and shops.