as the spaceship passed over the jungles where he had been born

So, thanks to Nicola, I have now watched all three episodes of Adam Curtis’ film series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Here are five things I like about Curtis:

One

He’s funny.  For example, in episode two there were two moments when I (figuratively) wet myself with laughter. There is a section in this episode where we are introduced to a few people who believe that you can create system, or computer models of the world. These models show how everything is connected and how an entire system works. One of these people is called Jay Forrester.  He seems an interesting fellow, but there is a bit where he says that he created a systems model for the entire world, and he bends down and picks up a sheet of about A3-sized paper.  There are boxes and dotted lines on it.  Quite a few but, you know, really not as many as you would expect to explain how the world works.  Ok, so it’s not that funny, but I love how seemingly normal people (old white guys in suits) can suddenly reveal that they believe in amazing things (“Look! The whole world is on this little piece of  paper!”).

 The second was a dude with a little blonde moustache following a deer around a field recording everything it ate into a portable tape deck.  A golden moment.  This was all done because George Van Dyne wanted to create a computer model of some grasslands, and to do that they had to intensively understand what went on in that grassland and turn all that into data.  Cue dude following deer around, and two other guys driving a big vacuum cleaner over the fields and studying all the confused bugs they captured.

As Curtis described Van Dyne pouring more and more data into the model and waiting for a pattern to emerge I thought:

  1. I wonder how his research funding went in the next round? (“I just need MORE DATA!”)
  2. It’s actually possible that he was right, and that he did just need more data, or different kinds of data, and that if you could figure out how to do it a pattern might actually, eventually emerge
  3. All of this is just one step away from a Vonnegut or Pynchon novel
  4. Adam Curtis is bit like those systems people, which might be why he likes filming them –  he likes to explain the world (or a part of it) by creating a system of images and connections that kinda do and kinda don’t explain the world (or part of it)

Two

He’s probably wrong quite a lot.  I always feel like I’m watching Oliver Stone’s JFK when I watch his films because it has one of those compelling narrative flows where more and more disparate bunnies are pulled out of hats and then (gasp) it turns out they’re all connected.  Some of them are of course, but I can never really follow the thesis right through from beginning to end, I just feel like something bad has happened.  To be honest I am more interested in the individual sections of the films than the whole.

Three

He introduces me to crazy beautiful people.  In episode one I became fascinated by a person called Carmen Hermosillo who told us to watch out for the internet and things like (ahem) WordPress, Blogger, Bebo, Facebook (etc) because they were commodifying us.  Even if we didn’t actually sell our thoughts and feelings with Google ads, we were still being used by these providers to attract viewers/readers/consumers to these host sites.  This idea is still gnawing at me.  The problem is that the alternative to people saying “you are being used by society” is that you have to drop out of society and talk to yourself and this is a bit dull.

In episode two the crazy, beautiful person is Richard Brautigan who wrote poems about digital-eco paradises (among other things).  The titles of his books and collections are brilliant all by themselves: The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery, The Octopus Frontier, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt.  But when you read his story in full it is actually sad.  Poor bastard.

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Four

Curtis creates beautiful, edited things.  Video mosaics where the meaning is often in the transitions.  A bit like walking through a video-art installation.  Sometimes the meaning is clear and sometimes it is ambiguous.

Five

He’s a great story-teller.  Watching the first four minutes of episode three is like watching the set up to some incredible, compelling, beautiful and absurd thriller.

but even as he died Hamilton knew he would live forever

because he had shown that human beings are really just

self replicating machines like computers

whose function is to transmit a vital code across time

that will live throughout eternity

meanwhile the chimp faeces waited at Nairobi airport

for someone to come and collect it

and everyone got their mobile upgrades

and their laptops

and their Playstation 2

(cue music: “I close my eyes…”)

We watch the clouds of the Earth resolve and dissolve through the eyes of Enos the chimp floating in space and the subtitle says – “But as the spaceship passed over the jungles where he had been born” – as the music chimes (In dreams I walk with you), and the face of a snoozing ape appears.

Breathtaking.  Strangely beautiful.  Someone should turn his films into pot boiler novels.

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4 thoughts on “as the spaceship passed over the jungles where he had been born

  1. Have you seen his other stuff? I recommend searching it out – a lot is on YouTube.

    Most people I know who’ve seen Machines have had the reaction “It’s great, but he’s not always right”. But what people consider was “wrong” differs from person to person. For example, an acquaintance who is really into the idea of people’s revolutions organised by Twitter, refused to believe Curtis’ assertion that these sorts of mass organisations aren’t so great getting anything done in the long run.

  2. Yes, five points I all agree with; thought provoking seems an understatement. Yet, ironically, in the days following the last episode, I felt a kind of numbness. Because, for a person who thinks (probably over-thinks) how the world works and had been surviving the gloomy days of winter on a simple cartoon (http://www.savagechickens.com/2011/01/hoping.html), I found it a little too daunting to contemplate what he was really saying, especially as Episode Three drew to a close.

    Now, a couple of weeks on, I might be ready for a re-watch. I followed the comments on Curtis’ blog in the days following the airing of the episodes- it was interesting to watch others trying to process it as well. The music also I think adds to the beautiful editing.

    Thanks for your post.

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