There is no portrait accompanying this piece because Adam Curtis doesn’t like having his photograph taken. It’s partly shyness but mostly it’s a belief that if he’s not a highly visible public figure then it’s much harder for those who run television to pigeonhole him. “They don’t quite know who I am” he says with a grin “and that’s fine with me”. It’s a perfectly logical theory and yet you are left with a slight sense of paranoia, a feeling that even the simplest actions may have more ramifications than we realise. Which is apt, as that’s the impression his films leave you with. Curtis specializes in artistically made documentaries which explain “the unforeseen consequences of attempts to change the world, whether they be from right or left. That’s what intriguing, what happens when you exercise power in the world.” This power can be cultural or political - from the effects of Freud and pop music to the similarities between the Neo-Cons and al-Qaeda. Conservative critics dismiss him as conspiracy theorist. They couldn’t be more wrong.

“What my work is actually trying to do is debunk conspiracy theories by saying that the world is complex, fragmented and that as those in power increasingly run out of ideas - which I think they have done since the 90s – they themselves have turned to conspiracy theories in order to justify their flailing exercise of power without any vision.” He talks in lighter, more childish voice than the rich gravitas with which he narrates his films and his rather babyish face lights up as he leans across the table, becoming excited as he spins the accusations against him back onto his accusers. “I mean who’s the bigger conspiracy theorist, me or the people who allege that there’s an international terrorist organisation run by a man in a cave, stroking a cat? I went and interviewed some journalists – who would only talk to me if it was off the record – and they said ‘Oh yeah we make it up. It’s not like there’s an al-Qaeda press office that is going to come back and complain’. The idea of a vast network of sleeper cells waiting to rise up at bin Laden’s command was a completely fake, fictional thing and I did my best to tear it apart.”

The result was 2004’s Power of Nightmares, the first television documentary to be invited to the Cannes Film Festival. What intrigued audiences was not just the controversial arguments but the arthouse techniques he used to weave them together, layering the film with hundreds of beautifully cut montage clips and images. Yet it was still a shock when in his latest work he allowed the images to speak for themselves, removing that backbone of all documentaries – narrative voice – and supplying only pieces of text with which to guide the viewer. It Felt Like A Kiss purports to tell the story of how America set out to change the world in the 1960s. It stars, amongst others, Doris Day, Saddam Hussein and everyone above level seven in the CIA. It is a music video to the best 60s tracks you’ve ever heard and a history lesson that Alice might have invented as she fell down the rabbit hole.

He says ten years ago it would never have worked, but that now “there is a new sensibility around, partly pushed by the internet, but also partly pushed through the confidence of people, which means they are happy to make great jumps in their minds between things – very much like the way they surf at home in front of the computer. Its become second nature.” Curtis also believes that people are increasingly open to more impressionistic, self-interpreted storytelling: “It’s part of the narcissism of our time, which partly exists because there isn’t much else for them to be fascinated by – artists and politicians aren’t inspiring them with any great stories” Not even someone like Obama? “He’s a great rhetorician, but he doesn’t have a narrative to sell you. And in that sense he’s not a progressive. Ever since mass politics emerged at the end of the 19th century there’s been a trade, a deal the politicians make, that in exchange for all our votes you take us somewhere, you have a vision beyond us. Socialism, Fascism, Labour in 1945, Thatcher in the 80s – they all promised to create a different sort of society. And that’s a progressive vision, whatever you think of it. But since the 90s I think Western democracy has run out of a vision of where to take people. They’ve given up on changing the world, they just want to control it by responding to the swing voters. Politics has become managerial.”

It is the death of progressive politics that

he wants to explore in his next project, in what he believes is part of an epidemic that extends beyond Washington and Whitehall. Academics have become increasingly narrow-focussed, interested in “inventing incredibly elaborate and baroque exercises rather than searching for a comprehensive understanding of the world” while science has gone from trying to revolutionize the world to offering “apocalyptic visions of the future and presenting an extremely rigid idea of human nature. And you can’t try to change the world if you don’t fundamentally believe that people can change.” The subject matter may sound bleak, but the fact that we are more open to listening to these interwoven ideas is exciting. “It’s this new sensibility of fragmentation which allows us to go from science to politics to consumerism and to link them up. It’s not a conspiracy, I’m not saying ‘ooh this is some great big interconnected web run by someone’. There are a multitude of threads of power at work in society, which criss and cross and knock each other about and out of that comes something. And I’m going to tell you that story”.

Sponsored links