‘Murdoch’s Revolution’ is a short film about you-know-who that was directed by celebrated BBC documentarian Adam Curtis. It was part of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe Review Of The Year, 2011 TV special.
Curtis does a nice job of showing the viewer how Murdoch sees himself. As the old man’s fall from grace resembles more and more a Shakespearean tragedy, it’s interesting to see Murdoch when he was a younger man and less cynical about his goals.
I find it difficult to watch Adam Curtis‘s various acclaimed documentaries without thinking: how much has he taken from Bruce Conner?
Indeed without Conner, would Curtis have developed his magpie, collagist-style of documentary making?
I doubt it, but you (and Curtis) may disagree.
The late Bruce Conner is the real talent here - an artist and film-maker whose work devised new ways of working and presciently anticipated techniques which are now ubiquitously found on the web, television and film-making.
Conner was “a heroic oppositional artist, whose career went against the staid and artificially created stasis of the art world”. Which is academic poohbah for saying Conner kept to his own vision: a Beat life, which channeled his energies into art - with a hint of Dada, Surrealism and Duchamp.
Conner was cantankerous and one-of-a-kind. He would wear an American flag pin. When asked why, he said, “I’m not going to let those bastards take it away from me.”
He kicked against fame and celebrity, seeing art as something separate from individual who created it.
“I’ve always been uneasy about being identified with the art I’ve made. Art takes on a power all its own and it’s frightening to have things floating around the world with my name on them that people are free to interpret and use however they choose.”
Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner attended Witchita University, before receiving his degree in Fine Art from Nebraska University. At university he met and married Jean Sandstedt in 1957. He won a scholarship to art school in Brooklyn, but quickly moved to University of Colorado, where he spent one semester studying art. The couple then moved to San Francisco and became part of the Beat scene. Here Conner began to produce sculptures and ready-mades that critiqued the consumerist society of late 1950’s. His work anticipated Pop Art, but Conner never focussed solely on one discipline, refusing to be pigeon-holed, and quickly moved on to to film-making.
Having been advised to make films by Stan Brakhage, Conner made A MOVIE in 1958, by editing together found footage from newsreels- B-movies, porn reels and short films. This single film changed the whole language of cinema and underground film-making with its collagist technique and editing.
The Conners moved to Mexico (“it was cheap”), where he discovered magic mushrooms and formed a life-long friendship with a still to be turned-on, Timothy Leary. When the money ran out, they returned to San Francisco and the life of film-maker and artist.
In 1961, Conner made COSMIC RAY, a 4-minute film of 2,000 images (A-bombs, Mickey Mouse, nudes, fireworks) to Ray Charles’ song “What I Say”. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Conner produced a series of films that were “precursors, for better or worse, of the pop video and MTV,” as his obituary reported:
EASTER MORNING RAGA (1966) was designed to be run forward or backward at any speed, or even in a loop to a background of sitar music. Breakaway (1966) showed a dancer, Antonia Christina Basilotta, in rapid rhythmic montage. REPORT (1967) dwells on the assassination of John F Kennedy. The found footage exists of repetitions, jump cuts and broken images of the motorcade, and disintegrates at the crucial moment while we hear a frenzied television commentator saying that “something has happened”. The fatal gun shots are intercut with other shots: TV commercials, clips from James Whale’s Frankenstein and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The film has both a kinetic and emotional effect.
REPORT “perfectly captures Conner’s anger over the commercialization of Kennedy’s death” while also examining the media’s mythic construction of JFK and Jackie — a hunger for images that “guaranteed that they would be transformed into idols, myths, Gods.”
Conner’s work is almost a visual counterpart to J G Ballard’s writing, using the same cultural references that inspired Ballard’s books - Kennedy, Monroe, the atom bomb. His film CROSSROADS presented the 1952 atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in extreme slow motion from twenty-seven different angles.
His editing techniques influenced Dennis Hopper in making Easy Rider, and said:
“much of the editing of Easy Rider came directly from watching Bruce’s films”
The pair became friends and Hopper famously photographed Conner alongside Toni Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Mitchell.
Always moving, always progressing, having “no half way house in which to rest”, Conner became part of the San Francisco Punk scene, after Toni Basil told Conner to go check out the band Devo in 1977. He became so inspired when he saw the band at the Mabuhay Gardens that he started going there four night a week, taking photographs of Punk bands, which eventually led to his job as staff photographer with Search ‘n’ Destroy magazine. It was a career change that came at some personal cost.
“I lost a lot of brain cells at the Mabuhay. What are you gonna do listening to hours of incomprehensible rock’n’roll but drink? I became an alcoholic, and it took me a few years to deal with that.”
Conner continued with his art work and films, even making short films for Devo, David Byrne and Brian Eno. In his later years, Conner returned to the many themes of his early life and work, but still kept himself once removed from greater success and fame. He died in 2008.
Towards the end of his life he withdrew his films from circulation, as he was “disgusted” when he saw badly pixelated films bootlegged and uploaded on YouTube. Conner was prescriptive in how his work should be displayed and screened. All of which is frustrating for those who want to see Conner’s films outside of the gallery, museum or film festival, and especially now, when so much of his originality and vision as a film-maker and artist has been copied by others.
‘Mea Culpa’ - David Byrne and Brian Eno. Directed by Bruce Conner
Absolutely spot-on parody of BBC documentarian Adam Curtis’s signature style by “psychonomy.” Perfectly encapsulates my own reaction to each and every one of his films:
In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet. Instead, I have plundered various video archives and ripped him off, up, down, left, right and back again.
The documentary films of Adam Curtis are entertaining, for sure, and thought-provoking, too, but I always feel that he takes but one strand of a very complex braid of historical confluences, and then presents this sliver of history as if it is THE received truth in that authoritative BBC voice of his. I do enjoy watching his films (and I like his blog, too) but he completely fails to win me over to his arguments each and every time.
If you caught the new Adam Curtis BBC documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, you may have noticed the lovely opening theme. “Baby Love Child” is from Japan’s Pizzicato Five. I thought it was a weird choice, although I love the song. In 1994 I made a music video for “Baby Love Child.” The video mostly consists of already existing footage of Maki Nomiya, P5’s beautiful lead singer, taken from outtakes from other shoots and bits of a documentary. I shot the in-studio lip-sync, and once back in LA, I did the (primitive) art and the animated Nam June Paik-wanna be segments where I was working at the time. The budget was pretty much a free trip to Tokyo and a $1000. I haven’t seen this in years but I think it came out pretty good. If you want to hear the song I recorded with Pizzicato Five in Japan, I played it in one of the Dangerous Minds Radio Hour shows.
The first episode in the new series by Adam Curtis, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is now available to watch in full on YouTube.
Starting by examining our current era of supposed economic, social and online freedoms, Curtis manages to join the dots between Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, the IMF’s involvement in East Asia, radical Islam and Silicon Valley’s economic boom. This episode features some very interesting and candid interviews with Rand confidants Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, Nathaniel having had an affair with Rand that lasted many years. Presented in the typical, excellent Adam Curtis style, using lots of obscure stock footage and a great soundtrack, this is essential viewing.
Episode two of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (“How The Idea Of The Ecosystem Was Invented”) is available to watch here.
Curtis yesterday published an article through the Guardian about the death of Osama bin Laden, and what that means for the global political spin-machine. In it Curtis addresses the bogey-man status of Bin Laden and how his death will impact on the ongoing Western cultural narrative of “Goodies” vs “Baddies”:
Journalists, many of whom also yearned for the simplicity of the old days, grabbed at [the Bin Laden story]: from the outset, the reporting of the Islamist terror threat was distorted to reflect this dominant simplified narrative. And Bin Laden grabbed at it too. As the journalists who actually met him report, he was brilliant at publicity. All three – the neoconservatives, the “terror journalists”, and Bin Laden himself – effectively worked together to create a dramatically simple story of looming apocalypse. It wasn’t in any way a conspiracy. Each of them had stumbled in their different ways on a simplified fantasy that fitted with their own needs.
The power of this simple story propelled history forward. It allowed the neocons – and their liberal interventionist allies – to set out to try to remake the world and spread democracy. It allowed revolutionary Islamism, which throughout the 1990s had been failing dramatically to get the Arab people to rise up and follow its vision, to regain its authority. And it helped to sell a lot of newspapers.
But because we, and our leaders, retreated into a Manichean fantasy, we understood the new complexities of the real world even less. Which meant that we completely ignored what was really going on in the Arab world.
Curtis neatly sums up, in one statement, just why there is so much distrust for politics and the media in this day and age, be it from the right or the left, the fringe or the more mainstream:
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.
The article is highly recommended reading and you can view the whole thing here. I especially love Curtis’ work on the effect of the media in propagating certain cultural memes, particularly oldstream media, which tries to pretend it has no effect on politics and society even though it has a huge impact on how we think and function. If you’re not aware of Curtis’ work and his sharp insights (or even if you are) here’s a segment he produced for Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe on media and political paranoia:
Famed British documentarian, Adam Curtis, has been keeping an absolutely wonderful, quirky, must-read blog on the BBC’s website. Often Curtis will post long forgotten TV documentaries and news clips from the Beeb’s archives. Recently, he put up a nearly forgotten piece of history, one that’s particularly relevant again with the Wikileaks scandal currently occupying the government, the news media and chattering classes and which provides a unique bit of perspective… on several fronts:
Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst who is alleged to have leaked the thousands of state department cables, has often been compared to Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
But I have stumbled on a film in the archives that tells the story of another leaker in America who tried to do the same thing, but even earlier.
He was a young State Department diplomat who stole and copied thousands of Top Secret cables. Like Daniel Ellsberg, his aim was to release them to stop America’s involvement in what he believed was a disastrous foreign war.
He was called Tyler Kent. He was a diplomat at the US embassy in London in 1940 and he wanted to stop President Roosevelt bringing America into the war to help Britain.
It is a fascinating story, but it also brings an odd perspective to the contemporary Wikileaks story.
Tyler Kent was a horrible man. He was a rabid anti-communist who believed that the Jews had been behind the Russian Revolution.
He was convinced that Germany should be allowed to destroy both Communist Russia and the Jews. And America should not get in the way of that being allowed to happen.
Looking back, most people now feel that Daniel Ellsberg was right in 1971 because the Vietnam War had become a horrible disaster that needed exposing.
Today, we are not sure of Bradley Manning’s motives (and it hasn’t been proven that he is the source of the leak), but again there is a general feeling that it was good thing because the cables have exposed an empty nihilism at the heart of America’s foreign policy.
But the perspective the Tyler Kent story brings is the realisation that diplomatic leaks are not automatically a good thing. It just depends on who is using them. And why.
Tyler Kent secreted away nearly 2000 cables between then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Chruchill and President Franklin Roosevelt. If the cables would have been made public (Kent’s idea was to share them with Senators who shared his isolationist views) the American people—80% were against entering WWII—might not have re-elected Roosevelt. Who knows how this one twisted freak could have altered the course of history?
Tyler Kent was tried and convicted to seven years in prison (Malcolm Muggeridge was at the trial representing MI6). Oddly, the State Department did not attempt to prosecute him for working as a Nazi spy. Eventually he was deported back to the US, where he married a wealthy woman and started a newspaper with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Kent died, bitter, broke, weird—and an unrepentant anti-Semite—in a trailer park near the Mexican border in 1988. A BBC Newsnight journalist tracked Kent down in 1982 and interviewed him. You watch the report at Curtis’s blog, The Medium and the Message.