Adam Curtis

Kevin Adam Curtis (born 26 May 1955) is an English documentary filmmaker.[1]

Curtis was a relatively conventional documentary producer for the BBC throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. The release of Pandora's Box (1992) marked the introduction of Curtis's distinctive presentation that uses collage to explore aspects of sociology, psychology, philosophy and political history.[2][3] His style has been described as involving, "whiplash digressions, menacing atmospherics and arpeggiated scores, and the near-psychedelic compilation of archival footage", narrated by Curtis himself with "patrician economy and assertion".[4] Curtis's films have won four BAFTAs.[5]

Adam Curtis was born in Dartford in Kent,[6] and raised in nearby Platt.[7] His father was Martin Curtis (1917–2002), a cinematographer with a socialist background.[2][8]

Curtis won a county scholarship and attended the Sevenoaks School. It was there that an influential art teacher introduced him to the work of Robert Rauschenberg.[9]

Curtis completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in human sciences at Mansfield College, Oxford. He began a PhD and taught in politics, but ultimately became disillusioned with academia and decided to leave the profession.[8]

Curtis applied to the BBC and was hired to make a film for one of its training courses, comparing designer clothes in music videos to the design of weapons. He was subsequently given a post on That's Life!,[1] a magazine series that juxtaposed hard-hitting investigations and light-hearted content. He was a film director on Out of Court, a BBC Two legal series, from 1980 until 1982.[10]

Curtis is inspired by the sociologist Max Weber, who, he argues, challenged the "crude, left-wing, vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society".[8] Of his general political outlook, Curtis has also remarked:

People often accuse me of being a lefty. That's complete rubbish. If you look at The Century of the Self, what I'm arguing is something very close to a neoconservative position because I'm saying that, with the rise of individualism, you tend to get the corrosion of the other idea of social bonds and communal networks, because everyone is on their own. Well, that's what the neoconservatives argue, domestically. [...] If you ask me what my politics are, I'm very much a creature of my time. I don't really have any. I change my mind over different issues, but I am much more fond of a libertarian view. I have a more libertarian tendency [...] What's astonishing in our time is how the Left here has completely failed to come up with any alternatives, and I think you may well see a lefty libertarianism emerging because people will be much more sympathetic to it, or just a libertarianism, and out of that will come ideas. And I don't mean "localism".[2]

I’m emotionally sympathetic to radicalism […] I’m a progressive, I mean that's really what my politics are. I mean, I’m typical of my time, I don’t have a consistent set of politics and I always suspect people who do, but I’m progressive so I try and understand what went wrong with radicalism.[11]

Example of Curtis's "trademark" title screens (Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh, 1997)

Curtis cites the USA Trilogy, a series of three novels by John Dos Passos that he first read when he was thirteen, as the greatest influence on his work:

You can trace back everything I do to that novel because it's all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers. And it's about collage of history as well. That's where I get it all from.[2]

Other creative influences are Robert Rauschenberg and Émile Zola.[2] Curtis makes extensive use of archive footage in his documentaries. He has acknowledged the influence of recordings made by Erik Durschmied and is "constantly using his stuff in my films".[12]

Instead of specially composed music because it "creates a sort of monoculture", he uses tracks from a variety of genres, decades, and countries, as well as sound effects that he discovers on old tapes.[13]

According to a profile of Curtis by Tim Adams, published in The Observer: "If there has been a theme in Curtis's work … it has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragicomic consequences of those attempts".[14]

In 2005, Curtis received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.[15] In 2006, he was given the Alan Clarke Award for Outstanding Creative Contribution to Television at the British Academy Television Awards.[16] In 2009, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival gave Curtis the Inspiration Award for inspiring viewers and other documentary filmmakers.[17] In 2015, he was awarded the True Vision Award by the True/False Film Fest.[18]

Curtis's critics have accused him of exaggeration and distortion, even wilful misrepresentation.[19][20]

Curtis administered a blog subtitled 'The Medium and the Message' hosted by the BBC and updated between 2009 and 2016.[21]