YouTube really is a great medium in which to rewatch Adam Curtis 2007 masterpiece “The Trap”. You know the way that Youtube stops and starts every 3 or 4 seconds as it buffers? And how annoying this usually is? Well, it is still annoying when you want to watch the whole film so that you can write an article about it by the following day, but one thing that the inconvenience does illustrate is the huge number of images that Curtis packs into his films. Often you get to see two or three wildly different images before that rotating flower tells you YouTube is doing its work again. The overload of information contained in the images and the confusing effect that they can have, mirrors how I feel through every day contact with the modern world. In a world where seemingly limitless information is available at the touch of a button, we remain confused and ignorant of it’s relevance to a larger vision.
The film is an entertaining and yet incredibly dense, investigation into the dangers of over-simplifying a complex, multi-dimensional world. The world Curtis describes is familiar one; a huge system in which absolute knowledge is impossible, yet individuals and governments continue to presume that they have found the patterns in the chaos that will allow them to predict and influence the future for humans everywhere. The most destructive form this simplification takes in Curtis’ film, is an excessive trust in the infallibility of ‘numbers’ as measure and predictors of human behaviour. This obsession with the power of numbers is “The Trap” of the film’s title. The film investigates thoughts, movements and influences from across a broad spectrum of academic pursuits, within some 60 years of history and from around the entire globe.
You can imagine the complexity of the resulting story. These thoughts are often non-linear in their relationships to each other, and thereby not very conducive to the simple, linearity of time favoured by many filmmakers and especially those less sophisticated documentary makers intent on presenting information in its most unambiguous state. Part of Curtis’ genius in being able to communicate these complex ideas through the medium of documentary film, is that he is able to guide his audience where he wants by borrowing liberally from other branches of film and communication.
There were some rules devised by a chap called Aristotle in the fourth century BC, and noted down in a book called Poetics, concerning the theory of drama. In this book Aristotle noted that the effect of drama is felt most strongly when the audience identifies with the characters, and the way that they engage with a struggle culminating in an understanding of an earlier mistake that they have made (hamartia in the original Greek). Most often occurring because of human imperfection and arrogance this error will, in spite of their eventual realisation (anagnorosis), sadness and remorse (pathos) inevitably lead to a reversal of fortunes and the downfall (peripeteia) of the main actor in the tragedy (protagonist).
Curtis’ film almost perfectly follows Aristotle’s model, thereby creating a story of a ‘real tragedy’. His primary audience is the population of Great Britain, but it can be extended to include everyone on the planet, as we have all become enmeshed in the system of globalisation. The audience is thus exactly the same ignorant protagonist in the tragedy. We were helpless at the time, existing in the context of imperfect knowledge articulated by far removed governments and intellectuals. It is impossible to create a protagonist that the audience can identify and sympathise with more than that same audience themselves. We know how easy it was to fall into this particular trap. We know how it was to exist believing what we thought to be the truth, until we began watching the film (I certainly believed that psychiatrists were knowledgeable professionals and our policemen are more effective when they’re rewarded for their work) and as such, we feel sorry for ourselves as the victim of the tragedy. It is only when divine knowledge (in the form of Curtis’ expose) illuminates the reality of where we are, of what we have done in the name of misguided beliefs, that we realise the full horror and tragedy of the situation.
If you look at horror movies, I’ll bet that you find yourselves getting more scared by the monsters that could exist within your everyday life. Those ones that send you to bed thinking that there really could be a psychopath in the cupboard or that the TV could be possessed. Using these techniques is something that Curtis latches onto again and again throughout his films. By placing the images of the everyday that are recognizable to all, illuminated within a different light (in this case the context of the tragedy Curtis’ story is unraveling for us); Curtis is able to encourage a sense of fear and horror within the audience.
But Curtis’ skills are not only as a merchant of fear, he also uses moments of comedy or sadness with equal flair, even that strange dreamlike state, a combination of knowledge and confusion, in which unconnected images seem to make sense in spite of the absence of a logical link between them. He is a masterful filmmaker, and whilst some of Curtis’ image and music choices may seem non-sensical, each is selected and edited into the film with the utmost care. Their use may be to create an atmosphere, or emotion in the viewer merely through their suggestive power. His sophisticated uses of images of the mundane and the everyday, illustrate not only his keen eye as an artist but also the depth in which he understands the fears, vanities and ideals of his audience. Through the use of this knowledge he is able to provide us not only with a fascinating source of information, a deep and adult investigation into a topic that affects us all without our knowledge, but also a dramatic and entertaining viewing experience.
Curtis’ skill as a filmmaker and his ability to use his audience’s familiarity with the styles and forms of western culture allow him to communicate, not merely using spoken language (which for the sake of argument, here I will consider to be fairly neutral) but also to influence and guide our thoughts by using images and music. This is the role that we are often happy to assign to the artist, illuminating our world by providing a new and unique perspective, a way of seeing and communicating that is unfamiliar to the rest of us. But considering the subject matter of Curtis’s film, there is an added level of irony in this position. Just as science, economics, politics and the public blinded themselves and each other through acceptance of what appeared to be the reality of everyday, so the process is repeated when we unthinkingly buy into the collective conceptions of images and their meanings, upon which much of the power of Curtis’ work relies. So even in ‘reading’ Curtis’ films we are perpetuating many of the same faults that have brought us into the tragedy. Yet the tragedy Curtis shows to Britain is not a horror of ultimate proportions, the UK has not fallen into a Balkan style civil war, we haven’t become the theological island of Iran and not quite the paranoid monster that is the USA. So you may look at the situation and consider it unavoidable, it happened and will happen again, so why worry about it?
But in reaching this point, we have compromised some of the things that we that we most treasure. Or at least the things that we tell ourselves we most treasure. At various points in the films, Curtis mentions how much we say we value individualism, yet this ideal is in opposition to many of the other ideals we hold for ourselves. In my opinion, it is the confusion that arises from these contradictions that show the value of Curtis’ work to his audience. The film is a great dramatic story, yet its real triumph is that it encourages all those who watch and enjoy it to start questioning the axiomatic principles of their lives. By extension the engaged viewer is led to a questioning of everything that uses these principles as a foundation, and this is surely intellectual investigation in its purest form.
The range of sources quoted in Curtis’ films begins to suggest to us how important holistic knowledge is if we are to even begin to explain things in our complex world. The film acts as a call to action for the audience by showing that intellectuals are humans too and (I certainly agree with Aristotle on this point), humans make mistakes. So Intellectuals are not infallible and nor do they hold a monopoly on truth or its explanation. Questioning of the world is shown to be something not just for academics and those whose role it is to be a big thinker, but rather it is for everybody to explore. People with different histories, different training, and different ideas need to contribute them to a global discussion. So although he never explicitly says it, I believe Curtis’ film holds the message that to save the world from further disaster, we don’t need to wear bright red tights or have super human strength. We just need to get engaged with the world, start thinking and questioning even those things that seem so clear. But most of all we just need to not believe ‘Them’ when ‘They’ tell us ‘They are’ right. Whoever, “They” are, they might be wrong, they might be right, mostly likely they hold a little bit of both. But we all have to work together towards understanding the world and to start believing something I consider to be true, that “Nobody is smarter than all of us”.
from Newcastle for Montase Readers