The allure of spectacle: Adam Curtis’ IT FELT LIKE A KISS

  • Datum 27-01-2011
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Richard Porton writes about the most provocative and disturbing film he saw in recent months: Adam Curtis’ it felt like a kiss, to be seen in streaming format on the internet.

Archival scavenging is unquestionably one of the most noteworthy trends in contemporary filmmaking. Raiding the archives has produced fecund results for a wide swath of directors that include — to name just a few — Mark Rappaport, Edgardo Cozarinsky, and Thom Andersen. Appropriating, and hence transforming, found footage functions as a salutary catalytic agent for documentary essayists — a technique that allows for both cogent historical reflections and idiosyncratic personal interventions.

In recent years, Adam Curtis’s BBC documentaries have employed found footage in the service of cleverly honed political arguments. Many of his films rely upon paradoxical rhetorical juxtapositions. For example, the power of nightmares (2004) constructs ideological links between Leo Strauss, the late philosophical guru of the neoconservatives, and Islamic fundamentalism. And, among other, highly provocative assertions, the trap: what happened to our dreams of freedom (2007) claimed that there were points of convergence between R.D. Laing’s seemingly anti-authoritarian brand of anti-psychiatry and the bureaucratic modus operandi of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
it felt like a kiss (2009), which Curtis himself labels a foray into "experimental" filmmaking, eschews the linear accretion of paradoxes that animate his earlier films and instead pours a number of cultural and political contradictions into a the equivalent of a cinematic Cuisinart. And, with the assistance of feverish montage, the film attempts to unravel how the post World War II dream of infinite American plenitude (e.g. "the American Dream," a rubric nevertheless not referred to by name by Curtis) curdled into shadowy conspiracies and the dystopian apogee of the Manson murders at the end of the Sixties.

What makes it felt like a kiss incrementally more powerful than Curtis’ previous estimable films is the fact that, whether unwittingly or not, it extends the Situationist legacy of détournement — the appropriation of "preexisting artistic elements" for parodic or critical purposes. Critique and parody are often closely aligned in Curtis’s film and his aesthetic of appropriation is occasionally reminiscent of other films whose analyses draw sustenance from found footage: a preoccupation with the chasm between Rock Hudson’s screen image and his closeted homosexuality is perhaps a covert tribute to Rappaport’s rock hudson’s home movies (1992) while the vertiginous montage invokes, consciously or not, the mordant playfulness of Dusan Makavejev’s wr: mysteries of the organism (1971).
In an uncharacteristic move for Curtis, voice-over narration is abjured; kiss‘ cascade of images are only intermittently supplemented by pithy on-screen captions. At the film’s outset, a loose agenda is proclaimed — after the United States attempted to "remake the world" during the height of the Cold War in the late Fifties, the "confident" stories it told itself gradually came to resemble "fragments" of haunting, "half-forgotten dreams." The focus is broad enough that events of great political import (e.g. the Vietnam War, Saddam Hussein’s U.S.-sponsored coup in Iraq) share screen time with pop culture epiphanies, especially some of the anthemic tunes produced by Phil Spector, and the detritus of consumerism exemplified by advertisements and fashion shoots.
If détournement is the aesthetic ballast behind Curtis’s methodology, another of Guy Debord’s key terms — "the spectacle" — can help to clarify his jaundiced political perspective. Even though Curtis is something of a media critic, as Anselm Jappe emphasizes, Debord believes that "…the ‘mass media’ are but a ‘limited’ aspect of the spectacle… From city planning to political parties of every tendency, from art to science… from everyday life to human passions and desires, everywhere we find reality replaced by images."
Unlike Debord, however, Curtis clearly appreciates the allure, as well as the nefariousness, of popular films and music. Curtis in fact protested to Brian Appleyard of The Times that the film is not guilty of "anti-Americanism" but is in fact "in love with" American music and culture and cut in a fashion that pays tribute to American cinema. Much of KISS’ impact can probably be attributed to this tension between the director’s unabashed appreciation of the sheer dynamism of American popular culture and a cynical abhorrence of American hubris and imperial folly. From this vantage point, It Felt Like a Kiss, Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s song recounting the pummeling King’s babysitter endured at the hands of her boyfriend, becomes an oddly mournful Liebestod when it eventually accompanies footage of a Buddhist monk immolating himself as a protest against the U.S. government’s support of the corrupt Diem regime in Vietnam.

What also becomes clear from Curtis’s film is that "the spectacle," with its built-in motifs of obfuscation and self-reinforcing reification, has at least a tenuous kinship with paranoid schizophrenia. The incongruousness of various aberrant coincidences — e.g. the possibility that, like Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald may have, or may not have, been) a CIA tool, the strange confluence of the origins of the HIV virus in the Congo with the CIA’s overthrow of Patrice Lumumba — reiterate the truism that spectacular society promotes a fragmented view of history and inhibits us from viewing social reality as a coherent totality. Popular art thereby becomes inextricable from this overweening sense of alienation: Curtis pays homage to Lou Reed’s I’ll Be Your Mirror as both an effect of — as well an antidote to — the singer’s revulsion against the soul-numbing effects of the electroconvulsive therapy he endured as a teenager. Spector’s most elaborate pop song, River Deep-Mountain High, a delirious paean to rag dolls and puppy dogs, is both a joyous effort to exorcise demons and an off-the wall mishmash that inspires kiss‘ most hyperkinetic montage sequence.
Underlined by a poignant caption — "The Imaginary Became So Real — it felt like a kiss builds to a frenzied tableau of images illustrating the gargantuan distortions of spectacular society. It is perhaps grimly appropriate that the Manson "family’s" gruesome murders provide the crescendo of Curtis’s film essay; the footage of Manson and his drone-like disciples delineate how hippie pacifism became subsumed by a "cult of personality" to rival Stalin’s. In a bizarre maneuver, the rhetoric of the antiwar movement was channeled into homicidal lunacy. Perhaps the oxymoronic gestures of this quintessentially American phenomenon are now echoed by the equally flagrant contradictions of the so-called Tea Party — a populist movement funded by wealthy ideologues, a supposedly libertarian group embracing supremely authoritarian tenets and tactics. It will certainly take someone of Adam Curtis’s passion and talent to investigate this latest recrudescence of the society of the spectacle.

Richard Porton

Richard Porton is one of Cineaste magazine’s editors. He is the author of Film and the Anarchis Imagination (Verso) and editor of the anthologies: Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals (Wallflower) and On Anarchist Cinema (Arena).

it felt like a kiss can be viewed here: