Shots From the Canon #5: ‘The Century of the Self’ (Adam Curtis, 2002)


Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

This week in New York, British nonfiction genius/essayist/showman Adam Curtis is doing a bit of theatrical cinematic experimentation with the trippy, political Massive Attack V Adam Curtis, and since I get to see it I thought it would be a great time to induct his masterpiece The Century of the Self into our cinematic nonfiction canon.

Curtis (usually) makes essayistic montages out of bits and scraps that he finds in the BBC archives, to which he has unlimited (and unprecedented) access. He edits these visual moments of strange clarity (ominous shots down hallways, instructional films, out-of-context documentary scenes, camera adjustments during famous political moments — to name a few of his favorites) with a blistering style and an amazing eye for uncanny revelation. To this he adds smash edit sound effects, pop music, interviews and his own incisive, acerbic narration to create grand, subjective takes on history.

His voice is not one of God; the tone is more madcap professor. Curtis’s sweeping assessments of history are as absurdist and punk as they are authoritative. The endgame of his radical, dramatic, expansive and finely-tuned observations is to reconfigure historical moments and rethink every single assumption about what makes this world turn.

The Power of Nightmares, Pandora’s Box, The Trap and The Way of All Flesh are all nearly perfect illustrations of Curtis’ signature style. It Felt Like a Kiss was a move away from narration and toward a more abstract, sensual experience (with Massive Attack V Adam Curtis being the next logical step). Everything the man has made is worth a look, but The Century of the Self is his masterpiece.

In four hour-long segments, Self spirals out from Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the inventor of public relations, who sold his uncle’s insights into the subconscious mind to eager capitalists to help create the modern consumerist state. From here Curtis painstakingly deconstructs Individualism as the defining ideology of the twentieth century, connecting 1950s marketing, primal scream therapy, Clintonian triangulation and more as he traces the rise of the all-powerful, all catered-to self. With Curtis, one feels as if he is being told a radically personal perspective on everything, with each new connection as startling as the last. It is a totally exhilarating, mind-expanding film.

As with all great nonfiction, the content is not the only king. Curtis is a master craftsman and Self prizes structural mystery, visual wit and dynamic, caustic editing over the simple conveying of message. Curtis’s films are kaleidoscopic powerhouses that unnerve and thrill. This is lion-like cinema and it should be required viewing.