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

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Power of Nightmares Returns 

Last July, I reviewed Adam Curtis' striking BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, integrating cultural and political analysis. I described it as follows:

. . . 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 The 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.

Now, Information Clearing House reveals that The Power of Nightmares can again be downloaded over the Internet. Last word is that Sony Pictures Classics plans to release it as a feature film but, according to Curtis, it will be cut, so download it if you want to see it in its original, unedited form.

Curtis impressively interweaves political and psychological themes, as I noted back in July:

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.

Additionally, Wikipedia has a detailed entry about the film as well, with numerous links to articles, reviews and criticism. Quite by accident, my review was posted here four days before the London bombings on July 7, 2005. I subsequently wrote my perspective about this tragedy in a posted entitled, London 7.7.2005: Questions, Questions, The Power of Nightmares Revisited. Curtis himself addressed the subject in the Guardian:

Last year I made a series of documentaries for the BBC, The Power of Nightmares, which showed how a fantasy image of the "al-Qaida" organisation was created. The films told how the response to the shocking events of September 11 2001 swung out of control, and the threat became exaggerated to a dangerous level. Although there was a serious terrorist threat, the films criticised the apocalyptic vision of what lay behind it - the "nightmare" of a uniquely powerful network, unlike any previous terrorist danger and capable of overwhelming our society and our democracy.

The Power of Nightmares said bluntly that this was a fantasy. The real threat came not from a network, but from individuals and groups linked only by an idea. Our energies were going into fighting a phantom enemy. We were looking for a network that didn't exist when we should have been dealing with an idea that does.

The evidence we have of what lies behind the London bombings confirms that this was the real nature of the threat. It is fascinating to see how suddenly all the terror "experts" have changed their tune. For three years they told us breathlessly about a terrifying global network. Now, suddenly, it has gone away and been replaced by "an evil ideology" that inspires young, angry Muslim males in our own society.

It is good that we now all agree on the nature of the threat, but there remains a danger that the "idea" will be simplified, exaggerated and distorted just as the "network" was, and that in this mood of fear the government will bring in policies that will alienate young Muslims further and drive them towards dangerous extremism.

Sadly, The Power of Nightmares may become a timeless film for this century, if we insist upon repeating our mistakes.

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