All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC2, Monday
Four Rooms, Channel Four, Tuesday
A documentary on the evil of machines managed to be as entertaining as it was synapse-frying
Sunday 29 May 2011
Playing my preview DVD of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, I initially found myself staring at pop princess Katy Perry flogging skin care. "I love being a free spirit...but when you suffer from acne blemishes, you don't feel very free," she beamed, without irony.
Sadly, this was the result of a dodgy scart lead rather than an intended introduction to Adam Curtis's new series, though it seemed a cheekily Curtis-like turn of image, nonetheless.
After all, the fantasy of freedom is a perennial theme of the TV essayist, whose collages of interviews, news footage, pop cultural nuggets and voiceover polemic invariably leave you sweaty-palmed and synapse-fried. In past Curtis pieces, we poor deluded saps have been marked as hostages to consumerism and terrorist scare stories; in this one, it's technology that's got the better of us. By putting our faith in computers to create a stable, democratic world order, so his argument runs, we've become politically and economically naïve and dulled to the business of real social change.
Or something like that. Suffice to say, trying to summarise a Curtis argument is a fool's errand. Last week's opener explored the foundation of the global financial bust. Partial to bravura connections as he is, his thesis began in the 1950s with the philosophy of self-interest propagated by the Tea Party favourite Ayn Rand.
This philosophy, he surmised, inspired some very dangerous technocrats: the Silicon Valley whizz-kids, with their cyber-utopian dreams of self-stabilising, self-empowering digital networks, and Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Chairman who conceded the Clinton administration's control of the economy to the mirage of "risk-free", computer-driven financial markets. And if this all seemed a bit big-picture to your average Facebook/Twitter-user, there was a detour into the dehumanising nature of online interaction. What do you mean, I don't have 562 friends?
That this hour-long episode was the mother (board) of all lectures and yet still felt like an end-of-term treat is testament to Curtis's skill at sugaring his bitter ideas: where others offer pause for thought, he serves up pauses for entertainment. Struggling with the intricacies of global capital flow? Then get a load of this wacky washing machine advert! The soundtrack, meanwhile, was typically inspired. I particularly liked the use of "Blue Velvet" to accompany the unfurling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal on That Blue Dress.
Typically, also, he painted his broad intellectual canvas with some pretty broad brush strokes. Did the Lewinsky scandal, blamed for Clinton taking his eye off the international ball, really "strip the last remnants of power" from the Prez? Was Greenspan "the most powerful man in the world?" And can all these woes be laid at Rand's door? You might wonder, though the very fact that it makes you wonder strikes me as an achievement in itself.
Continuing the self-interest theme was new antiques show Four Rooms, which ditches its competitors' tweedy veneer of artistic/historical appreciation and cuts straight to the ker-ching. Not that it's quite the priceless piece of genre reinvention the pre-publicity suggested. Flog It!, Dragons' Den, Deal or No Deal: all are thrown into the pot of the show's premise, in which punters hawk their collectibles to four competing dealers in turn, each time deciding whether to accept the final offer on the table or risk holding out for a higher bidder.
As a USP, however, the producers had furnished last week's opener with some studiedly outré objets, from a slashed Francis Bacon painting to a set of Princess Di Christmas cards and a Dalek. But when someone pitched up with a bronze Hitler bust taken from a concentration camp, the quartet recoiled in horror at the idea of anyone profiting from the "heinous and abhorrent" object. No matter, then, that they'd just been cooing over some cards made lucrative by a woman's untimely death. There is, after all, no accounting for taste.
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