Bitter Take: Critical Notes on Adam Curtis’ ‘Bitter Lake’

From out of the murk of the BBC Archive, Adam Curtis’ new film/project Bitter Lake (BL) shines forth. I won’t comment on too much of the general phenomenon of Curtis work and what he has done elsewhere (though I will say I like some, if not much of it). Nor can I attempt to beat this savage critique of Curtis’ later style. What I want to do here is take BL on its own, and try to show some of the flawed logic in its own thinking through some notes. Bitter Lake is a rhetorical Klein Bottle, always returning to its own surface analysis, a remarkable object, yes, but also useless.

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Curtis Lost:

We are told that politicians once believed in the divide between good and evil.

But now the simple narratives of good and evil have fallen apart.

Nothing Makes Sense any more.

Not even the archive footage.

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Curtis The Prophet: Society has become corrupted. Or rather, specific societies have been made corrupt. Corruption in BL is treated almost as if it were a quantum that can be indexed, catalogued, and introduced. It is a contagion that infests societies and humans and reduces them to the state of squabbling manipulative apes fighting over the oil and heroin trade. It is carried by ‘money’ and has no vaccine.  Afghanistan is the perfect example of “a completely corrupted society” that acts as a siphon for all of our failings. To think about a society in this way is troubling indeed, bearing with it the spectre of oriental despotism (more about that below), and the logic of ‘failed states’.

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Curtis the Tragedian: Those with noble intentions always must face up to the flawed nature of those noble intentions or become corrupted and exploited. One must not battle monsters lest one end up becoming one, my edition of Every Boy’s Nietzsche tells me. The white liberal democracies of the world entered Afghanistan with liberating and civilising intentions we are told. Yet they were doomed by fates they long ago invoked through previous transgressions. Who are we to doubt the sincerity of their motives?

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Curtis the Orientalist: His particular version of ‘the orient’ is the dwelling place of Wahhabism, corruption, political despotism and ‘tribal divisions’. Though these ideas may have been unwittingly spread by “The West” in it’s pact with the Saudis, or by the Communist bloc with botched military occupations, they did not know what we were unleashing. Like the planet in Lem and Tarkovsky’s Solaris ( or rather, a version of it that only exists in Bitter Lake), deceiving and warping the the minds of the astronauts, the battlefields of Afghanistan exert a strange energy upon our own society, corrupting it, in some colonial nightmare from which we can (almost) never awake.

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Adam Curtis Did Not Take Place: It is vitally important that to illustrate this point we are shown decontextualised, mostly unattributed, and largely untranslated, snippets of frontline war reportage from the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by coalition forces. One sequence has an extended shot of a soldier stroking a bird, another shows British troops arranging some kind of photocopying contract; in the fog of war, who will do reprography? Excessively literal translation or mistranslation of speakers, and zero translation of others is rife. At least we are spared the Curtis narration for these segments. Watch Bitter Lake with subtitles on, and it’s apparent the most common subtitles used are those which indicate untranslated speech (usually the inelegant ‘MAN SPEAKS IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE’). The dominant voices still speak in English. I am no expert on Afghanistan, but it’s clear the vast mass of humanity that actually suffers as a result of wars, colonialism, religious persecution, and poverty, is poorly represented.

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A side effect of this means that humorous comparison and juxtaposition, between the racist caricatures found in bawdy 1970s comedy films, and Afghan political leaders (Karzai), is perfectly acceptable in Curtis’ eyes. This wretched comparison is offered without further comment by Curtis, not even a wry nod or wink.

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Equally The Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS/IS) is a mystery of confusion and no one knows quite what it is, and the implication is we may as well not bother. We know it has a leader and a location but aside from that: It is shapeless, formless, and most definitely coming to GET you. What is ISIS? One might ask the same about birds; what are birds?

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Indeed, the easy thing about believing in the end of clear narratives is that you never actually have to present one yourself. This might not make for brilliant political analysis, but it does make for good pop art.

Curtis Condemns: Bitter Lake tells us ‘We’ only have ourselves to blame for the demons at our door. Through the failings of our political leaders, a concatenation of crises always apparently following sequentially from one another (Bitter Lake agreement causing the Arab Israeli Conflict causing OPEC causing Petrodollars causing Financialisation causing Reaganomics causing Al-Yamamah arms deal causing Al Qaeda causing 9/11 causing Afghanistan 2001 causing ISIS) not from some structural systemic failing, but from the collective personal failings of our political leaders, who, if you remember, believe in great things until it is too late.

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But these were all fantasies, repeatedly, over and over and over and over again. Curtis establishes a myth, then knocks it down, another, knocks it down. From a purely stylistic point, it’s tiresome. From an intellectual viewpoint, akin to a straw man critique performed through the arrogance of hindsight. Great ideas BUT political failure. But, but, but.

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Curtis Regained: Bitter Lake’s narrative, such as it is, flows thus;

The world has become corrupted and debased. Our greed for oil and money has betrayed our society, we have cast aside our social narratives in pursuit of power and wealth, and in doing so we have secretly nurtured the shadowy forces of an international extremist religious movement that spreads corruption and terror through foreign societies and ultimately our own. The ideas we once believed in no longer hold power over us or this new threat. We need to make a new political story, and thereby restore dignity, to our corrupt and debased society.

Such narratives have ominous historical resonances.

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Curtis is well aware that he is embracing the very rhetorical and intellectual manoeuvres he seems to be critiquing, perhaps because he is not critiquing them at all. Curtis’ greatest advantage is his radical ambiguity and his plausible deniability. It allows his analysis to move frictionless through the topography of politics. Bitter Lake intends to be a horoscope to intellectuals, a rorschach to film makers and TV historians, and a curate’s egg to activists. It’s wrong to read Bitter Lake as a simple documentary, it exists more at the seamless border between art and propaganda (doubtless in homage to Marshall Mcluhan’s recordings, which are great). Indeed, to read the comments on a recent article critical of Curtis’ work, is to remind oneself of the role propaganda plays in consolidating social groups against criticisms; this is the cause for worry in this kind of work.

You might well have some criticisms of what I have done here. You might argue I have taken a series of images out of context and spun a confident and authoritative-sounding critique around them; I couldn’t possibly comment on such an accusation. So, I do not aim to convince you that Curtis is wrong about his subject. I merely wish to encourage those reading this far to reflect on which traditions, both political and aesthetic, the face value narrative Curtis offers emerges from, and where such a particular mode of political nihilism might lead.

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2 thoughts on “Bitter Take: Critical Notes on Adam Curtis’ ‘Bitter Lake’

  1. Thanks, a good response – I think of all his BBC work, this is the least convincing, but at the same time hypnotic and powerful. In a way the narrative is less important than the amazing bits of archive. I’d have liked two films – a shorter narrative only version, and then just all the bits of found footage as a pure art project.

  2. Agree with some of your points on the lack of context and depth – Where did wahabism in Saudi Arabia come from, for eg? Where did Bin Laden’s ideology come from?

    Felt like some of the “decontextualised orient” you point to was meant primarily to show the lack of understanding the ‘western’ perspective has in the first place – I found his description of how the British forces took everyone who was against them to be the Taliban as especially interesting.

    Agree about style – but but but.

    I think he tried to do too many things, tell too many stories. Are you presenting an alternative history of the events in Afghanistan? Are you purely critiquing the Western Narrative? Are you trying to explain the current situation? Are you exposing the Geopolitical forces? Are you trying to explain corruption in the region? Are you creating artistic parodies? Are you commenting on the cultural development in the region? Obviously they’re all interlinked to some extent. Each needs its own documentary to describe the factors and give any sense of understanding. To spin a narrative of corruption and intrigue through it all when you’re also trying to give a basic history lesson is to use several different registers and leaves only a very narrow thread to follow.

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