'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Power of Nightmares: Fritz Lang is Dead, Long Live Fritz Lang! 

[This post is by guest blogger Richard Estes. Richard lives in Northern California, and co-hosts a radio program, with an emphasis upon peace, civil rights, labor and environmental issues, on KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, CA.]

Adam Curtis' recent BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, has achieved cult status despite his inability to find a distributor in the United States. It is currently being screened at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco, and, it will soon hopefully find other independent venues around the country. It is provocative not only as a consequence of its content, but also because of the interpretative challenges that it presents to the audience.

In The Power of Nightmares, Curtis radically reinterprets the political landscape: the "war on terror" is a fraud perpetrated by politicians who rely upon fear to disguise their lack of any optimistic, futuristic vision. He elaborates upon this insight in three one hour episodes, combined into a feature length film,Baby, It's Cold Outside, The Phantom Victory, and Shadows in the Cave.

According to Curtis, American neoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism represent competing, yet symbiotic, deformed ideologies based upon a shared contempt for the ability of people to govern themselves. They conspire, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, to induce people to believe in the effectiveness of the other to enhance their influence. The willingness of both to deceive the broader public results in them ultimately deceiving themselves, as they did in Afghanistan, with frequently catastrophic consequences for the rest of us.

How is one to relate to such a deconstruction of modern politics and governance? The title itself, The Power of Nightmares, is ambiguous. Is it exposing a grotesque psychological manipulaton or is it just another form of the manipulation that it purports to expose? Does it more skillfully accomplish what it attributes to neoconservatism, the construction of myth in the service of a political ideal? Could it be just a cinematic confection, reducing some of the most traumatic events of the last 50 years into a form of kitsch? Curtis's eclectic storytelling technique, a technique that freely uses archival footage from a variety of media sources to evoke the mood of the historical periods that he surveys, prompts the questions, while making the answers elusive.

If examined substantively, The Power of Nightmares fairs well. Curtis has effectively summarized the evolution of Islamic fundamentalism and American neoconservatism since the end of World War II, with an emphasis upon their pragmatic alliance in Afghanistan, an alliance that emerged out of their hatred of the Soviet Union. Viewers can only be chilled with apprehension, in light of renditions and the use of torture in Iraq and Guantanamo, upon learning that two of the most influential figures in the development of Islamic extremism, Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Zawahiri, advocated resort to extreme violence after being tortured in Egyptian prisons by guards trained by the CIA. Similar to a number of episodes at Abu Ghraib, guards unleased a guard dog upon Qutb after smearing him with animal fat.

Curtis has been criticized for asserting that al-Qaeda doesn't exist. While this is not accurate, anyone interested in commentary upon this aspect of the film and other related issues can read Peter Bergen's excellent, measured evaluation of it and Curtis's explanation of his motivation in making it.

For me, the film's most glaring omissions is the lack of any reference to the neoconservatives in the context of race and economics. Curtis allows Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen to state, without challenge, that the neoconservative movement is driven by the desire to spread democracy. In fact, neoconservatives have consistently demonized people of color whenever they have sought to govern themselves outside the American sphere of influence, democratically or not, as, most recently, in Venezuela. Perle glancingly alludes to it, when he mentions that neoconservatism has revived the legitimacy of evaluating different cultures in the search of ideal social models. Undoubtedly, his model is Eurocentric, but Curtis, given that his subject and critique are, in their own way, Eurocentric, declines to walk through the door that Perle has opened for him.

Such an omission is not surprising. Others, such as Tariq Ali in his 2002 book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, have already excavated this history, and, furthermore, it would raise the explosive question as to what extent neoconservatism can be said to have an independent existence and influence separate from American policy generally beyond mundane domestic patronage struggles, thus suggesting that neoconservatism, and the ill-defined liberal order that it, according to Curtis, seeks to displace, are themselves mythical, with Curtis complicit in the marketing of them. It is certainly to plausible to see The Power of Nightmares as a psychoanalytical avoidance of Ali's materialistic exposition of this story.

Curtis, like the neoconservatives and the Islamic fundamentalists, is fascinated by the question as to whether people have the capacity to conduct their lives independently, without the assistance of an elite to that controls them through the manipulation of their desires. In this respect, The Power of Nightmares is the logical sequel to his earlier film, The Century of the Self, a documentary that exposes the purported history of how Freudian psychology and modern advertising methods have impaired individual political free will. Curtis, unlike the neoconservatives and the Islamic fundamentalists who have responded negatively, evades answering this essential question, while paradoxically recognizing the susceptibility of people to such manipulation.

Curtis is thus an heir of the legacy of the great German and Hollywood film director, Fritz Lang. Lang, like Curtis, frequently referenced Freudian concepts in his films. In early ones like Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and M, all produced during the turbulence of the Weimar Republic, he understood that the social transformation associated with rapid urbanization, technological innovation and new forms of communication (in his case, film and radio), created new, alarming prospects for the exploitation of fear as a means of accomplishing political ends, especially in the form of hysterias incited by inflaming public anxiety. Of course, such exploitation can easily burst through the boundaries by which its originators seek to contain it, a danger explicitly given cinematic expression by both of them.

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