by Mark Sinker
From Film Quarterly Autumn 2008, Vol. 62, No. 1
With the British empire at its turn-of-the-century zenith, a curious shift occurred in the sociology of the English-speaking ghost. Once a haunting had simply marked the site of a traumatic injustice. Now the ghouls of popular fiction were expanding their portfolio; on behalf of the powerful and the ugly of long ago, specters became pitiless watchdogs visiting mayhem on blameless passersby. In the tales of M. R. James— notably Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904—mild-mannered bachelors, opening tombs or sometimes merely books, have grisly retribution exacted on them for no worse than the scholarly crime of curiosity. A further century has turned—and how do ghosts, wronged or otherwise, ugly or otherwise, comport themselves at the margins of today’s empires?
In “The Attic,” the conclusion of Adam Curtis’s 1995 series The Living Dead: Three Films about the Power of the Past, we see clips from The Innocents, the 1961 film adaptation of a much more famous fin de siècle ghost story, The Turn of the Screw; these seem the diverting counterpoint to a documentary about political hubris. Margaret Thatcher’s devotion to Churchill’s wartime vision of Englishness brought emotional momentum to her project of renewal and rejection, Curtis argues, until shades deep within it brought her low. We’ve been watching Tory Party talking heads, admiring and cynical; we’ve been watching current-affairs footage, primarily from the 1970s; we’ve been watching clips of Deborah Kerr as the governess, another haunted blonde, in The Innocents— and then something happens that breaks with all documentary protocols.
Kerr sees Churchill’s face, a malicious cherubic sprite, in a locket; looks up, aghast, as a candle gutters in a sudden draft—and here’s the great storm of 1987, the worst in 300 years, sweeping out of hell to devastate southern England. Stock-market turmoil breaks the Thatcher spell. It isn’t simply that black-and-white documentary footage is slyly matched with black-and-white fiction; it’s that it’s supernatural fiction, policy and economics causally explained by the logic of the beyond. It’s exciting because it so brazenly breaks a rule of genre, of form, of expressive politesse. Exact and true as the sequence may feel, such a stunt surely casts the filmmaker, in his turn, in an impishly hard-to-trust light.
For twenty years, Curtis has been crawling through the vast archive of the BBC, demystifying the follies of empire to humorous and often chilling effect. His proximate target has often been British—his three-part 1999 history of the world of upper-crust arms traders, coup-plotters, and economic saboteurs was called The Mayfair Set—but the imperium at issue is always its successor, which is to say America’s. Which in the 1990s seemed at its zenith, its mightiest foe defeated, its weave of ideologies—the liberal free market, the sanctity of the individual, the efficacy of technologized rationalism — apparently validated by the fact of historical triumph. (“Lo,” wrote the implacably imperialist Kipling darkly in 1897, in his uncanny and prophetic poem Recessional: “all our pomp of yesterday / is one with Nineveh and Tyre.”)
For whatever reason, of all Curtis’s series The Living Dead is currently the hardest to find; it may also be the richest expression of how he views the world, and his own role. It affirmed his fascination with the Law of Unintended Consequences, laying out the emergence of the post-war market-liberal settlement as a sequence of moves intended to bolster it against its foes, which instead cause it to be eaten from within. Part 1, “On the Desparate Edge of Now,” is about the monstering of the defeated criminals who enacted Nazism, including the suppression at Nuremberg of their own account of themselves, and the creation of the necessary myth of the Good War—that imagined conflict in which the soldiers on the winning side saw and did nothing untoward to effect this win—and the European disarray after the Yugoslavian crack-up, when the darkest nationalist monsters reappeared out of the heart of the myth. In part 2, “You Have Used Me Too Long as a Fish,” Canadian Professor Ewan Cameron’s studies in the therapeutic wiping clean of the slate of the unbalanced human mind, adapted by the CIA to create the perfect programmable agent, created an epic blowback, the “wilderness of mirrors” in which everyone, from Lee Harvey Oswald up to the highest in the land, might be an un-detectable brainwashed Soviet mole, and all intelligence poisoned by paranoid doubt.
The issue of the provenance of information, and of where trust lies, is at the heart of all Curtis’s work, formally and technically as well as topic-wise: and it’s some element of this which rattles admirers and detractors both, his approach so bound into his philosophy that the one embodies the other. On one hand, Curtis seems rigorously to present himself as the last of the old-school philosophical idealists; that’s to say, that it’s not tribal or class interest that drives society, but what’s in elite heads—Thatcher’s or Cameron’s or Goering’s. This unfashionable stance (more overt in Curtis’s recent projects, and more angrily challenged) is both his vulnerability and his taboo-busting glamor. We feel naughtily safe in the superb Reithian confidence of his delivery, slightly posh, slightly fussy, perhaps a touch higher and faster than the comfy norm of today’s received gravitas, the provenance of his commissions and his material a near-classical reason to trust his pluperfectly informed authority, courtesy his unfettered access to the BBC archive.
And yet what tumbles into The Living Dead from these archives—and all the films and music the BBC can so easily excerpt— is hardly conducive to gravitas. “On the Desperate Edge of Now,” which will outlay the Nazi spectacle and its “theatre of memories,” pasteboard and gimcrack as these often were, begins in the dark forest of Grimm fairytale; blazing arc lights thunk noisily on, to illuminate the stage space between the trees, site of the last terrible days of total war; and we hear the ghastly dream-filtered memories of an American soldier. “You Have Used Me Too Long as a Fish,” opens even more oddly: a passel of Soviet diplomats and hangers-on, surrounding Khruschev and clapping, scored to a pop instrumental whose hook is little but its clap-track, the sequence extended until the Russians come across as hysterical robots. It ends with Linda MacDonald, a Cameron patient of long ago, who’s described her after-treatment self as an “alien”— and all humanity as “you people”—and finally sits with blithe glee alone in a big-sky prairie field to declare how great it is just to start over, free of all one’s troubled past. A film peopled with boffins and diagrams of brains flickers out between clips from two Cold War cult classics of mirror-world panic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962); the individual is at war with the hive in both, in subtly different ways.
The Living Dead bubbles with similar cheeky mischief, the entire idea of elite authority anything but affirmed by the material marshalled. Doubtless the voiceover does self-present as ultimate authority; but the montage all around is chuckling at such a ludicrous concept, pop songs and ad-memes bringing all kinds of other pratfall and spookwork into play, forcing the thesis to connect and interact, to manifest in a wider, a clamoring, a collective world, expanding it and fucking with it. If “The Attic” is a ghost story, “On the Desperate Edge of Now” is a horror story, and “You Have Used Me Too Long as a Fish” is science fiction: which means their pull is in quite unrespectable directions, fully away from respectable current affairs or Reithian pedagogy. In a Curtis project, moral and political seriousness have always to jostle with dry or daft jokes, news form can never healthily be quarantined from fiction, or science from magic. It’s a democracy of collage and genre-play, which as it declares its central argument simultaneously throws into doubt where authority should be taken to lie. What brings the images and songs and sounds to life is the manner in which they react, chemically if not alchemically, with their unexpected fellows.
The irony of Curtis’s institutional power is indeed that he can do what most montagists cannot: to use almost whatever clip he wants, and any music, without conditions. The citational and copyright protocols enforced elsewhere in the grown-up infosphere can be sidestepped. The uncanny in an M. R. James story is a physical, visceral matter: an unavoidable response to the pull of a sound, the feel of a place; no permissions apply. A ghost’s authority is no affirmation of the extant temporal power: we are not haunted because the empire’s (or the market’s) protocols of respect and ownership demand it—precisely the opposite. To defer too carefully to copyright, to negotiate credit too assiduously, is to transform authorial intent—that centerpiece of liberal individualist integrity—into inadvertent corporate flak catcher, patrolling approved meaning and response. The institutional leverage Curtis finds himself with allows him, far more than most, to cede similarly direct authority to the spirit of the material itself—the sight gag, the drum pattern, the play of film stock texture, the fleeting look on someone’s face, the hesitancy in the tale they’re telling—and to the unseemliness of this.
We don’t get to choose what haunts us—it reaches out, unbidden, and grabs. What we get to choose is how we talk about it; how we deal with the fact we’ve been moved, amused, touched, or terrified. It’s this we’ve even become a little shy of, especially in the more recent projects—particularly The Power of Nightmares (2004): how playful and perverse should you allow yourself be, about a war currently being waged? We look to place our trust, perhaps, in some radically oppositional source of authority—instead, a favored son of the last imperial broadcaster presents this seethingly unrespectable collective space which forces our judgment back on ourselves, and how we think, away from intellectual hierarchy: “Yes, ideas do have power in this world, but it’s not the only power at issue.” At one level, The Living Dead is a series of films about the catastrophe of this—how the anti-rational can return to haunt us—but at another, it’s about its value. Democracy is, above all, a trust placed in the unplanned consequence of the jostling interplay of everyone, even the most uninvited.
MARK SINKER is a Sight and Sound contributing editor.
Image detail: Alain Delon and Monica Vitti in L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). Courtesy The Criterion Collection. (from the cover of Film Quarterly 62:1)