Watched #34
“Doesn’t this new massive increase in the price of oil mean a change in the world balance of power, between the developing nations – like you, the producers – and us, the developed industrialized nations?”

“Yes, it will.”

What does Adam Curtis mean to me? Actually, almost nothing. Like Gone With the Wind or War and Peace, he’s a mighty cultural force I’m aware of but have never really chosen to experience. The novelty of his latest film, Bitter Lake (BBC iPlayer from Sunday) being available online only prompted me to have a look. I make that admission, confident it means I now appear lacking. Why aren’t I all about Adam Curtis? In truth, because the bits of his work I’ve sampled make me feel weary. With its hefty 136-minute running time, Bitter Lake didn’t (in its shape anyway) seem set to charge me up.

It begins, as I’d imagine Curtis fully intends, like a dream, with disconnected imagery and fuzzy music. Curtis’ English lecturer voice, cuts through. “Events come and go,” he says, “like waves of a fever.” His thesis is the world is conveyed in stories and the story that drives the War on Terror has become  confused, even nonsensical. Initially the film feels like its mirroring that, throwing in footage from all sorts of weird sources – the front line in Afghanistan, the Russian film Solaris, Carry on Up the Khyber – and builds into a heightened form, becoming something akin to the aversion therapy sequence in A Clockwork Orange. Or, worse still, a video art installation.

Watching this it’s as if Curtis’ own attention is waxing in and out of the film. But there are moments when it crystalises, as if he’s finding focus. In 1946, US engineers and their families are going to Helmand to build a new world. The king wants to harness both the power of the Helmand River and the verve for modernisation that has transformed America under Roosevelt. Dams are built, the salt level rises in the surrounding soil as a consequence, which proves to be excellent for growing poppies… and then we lose the story to more capricious clips and rumbles.

Except, as it continues, it all starts to make a sort of sense. A self-drawing image being revealed by bits of detail here and there. We learn that through the 1960s and early ’70s Russia, America and China were all courting the Saudis because of their oil resources while, from the UK, newsman Leonard Parkin wondered, “How do you businessmen make appointments?” when he learns of the whimsical ways of Arabic time-setting. His quiet colonial fashion communicates an assumption the Western way of things is the default, and anything else an eccentricity. There’s a sequence from a 1971 edition of Blue Peter in which Val is brushing Afghan hounds Kingsley and Cleo so they may join 20 members of the Southern Afghan Hounds society at The Mall to greet King Faisal of Saudi Arabia on his first – and only – visit to Britain. It feels, initially, that this is put in for jollity, but somehow it segues quite brilliantly into the 1973 energy crisis when Saudi Arabia raised oil prices five times overnight.

And therein follows the quote I opened with above. An incredulous British interviewer, with vowels a-ringing, putting his question to Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Minister of Oil, who smiles beatifically at the clarity of this moment.

Do instances like this make all the clattering round worthwhile? I’m not sure they do. Curtis’ thesis seems meticulously constructed, but in his efforts to simulate that fever dream we now live in, my attention also ebbed and flowed. Since 1992, Afghanistan has been the biggest opium producer in the world, thanks to its abundant crop of poppies. Another connection is made. But, for me, the signal to noise ratio isn’t quite right.

Everyone comes together on a new TV production – particularly expensive ones – with the best of intentions. That what they’re going to make will be good. When does that turn into hubris? Fortitude (Sky Atlantic Thursday, 9pm) gathers all those people you like from all those other things (Sofie Gråbøl, Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, Richard Dormer, Jessica Raine, Johnny Harris… I’m wearing out the ‘comma’ key) and while it’s maybe not fair to chide a drama on the stellar nature of its cast, I never once felt as if I got to know any of the characters. Was that a problem with Simon Donald’s opaque script, or just snow-blindness brought on by each person’s X-from-X factor? Whatever, they and their situation remained distant, particularly with the show itself already having presumed our fascination. Near the end of the opening 110 minutes, Tucci’s detective arrived. At last someone who bore his secrets lightly and allowed us a little getting-to-know-you time. One man, though, isn’t enough and the rest of what happens in that remote place will remain a mystery to me.

Series 15 of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Channel 5 Saturday, 10.15pm) comes screaming at you. Every sequence cut up like a ‘on the next Hell’s Kitchen‘ trailer, no moment going unpunctuated, flashes of white and whoomphs of white noise in all the interstices. This opening episode set up the premise for the run, of a serial killer (it’s always them) who ‘processes’ his own crime scenes, leaving behind tags, threads tracking ballistics and all those other fun accoutrements. This is a world where computers beep and burble, folks say cool things such as, “Looks like Ecklie’s purchasing of a 3D mapping system is paying off!” and a high-powered businessman dismisses his staff from a meeting by clapping his hands twice. “Leave us!”

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, nor the fact the baddy leaves one of his clues in the form a parallax illusion which, like the current Channel 4 idents, only reveals itself when you look at it just so. It’s its own reality.

Not sure why I always write about Dragons’ Den 1(BBC2 Sunday, 9pm). Maybe because it also offers up its very own universe, where a giant clock face lies in a corridor being edgy, the button to call the fictional lift doesn’t light up and it’s understood that the vari-jowled magnates offer wisdom. “That’s not that hard to walk on,” says Deborah Meaden treading over simulated wet grass. A big fan rotates behind a grill. A close-up of Peter Jones massaging his knee.

  1. Which I’ve done here and here
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