It Felt Like a Trap

I’ve spent the last couple of days of soaking up more films by Adam Curtis, one of the best living documentary filmmakers. Last year I watched The Power of Nightmares; earlier this year I saw The Century of the Self; lately I’ve been working through his two most recent: The Trap (2007) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009).

It Felt Like a Kiss is an experimental film that is a haunting evocation of the essence of life during the Cold War. Its cast features “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.” The excellent soundtrack was composed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, with loads of additional pop tracks from the period. There’s no real semblance of a plot or, unlike Curtis’ other films, any sort of thesis. It Felt Like a Kiss is quintessential Curtis in terms of look: heavy use of montages (including some dizzying works of editing genius) and heavy use of archival footage, proving that Curtis probably spends 8 hours a day poring through old film reels. Yet this is also a new Curtis — less documentarian, more artist. The result is a trippy hour-long exploration of the ironies, oddities, and ambiguities of 3 or 4 of the most pivotal decades in American history. Were the U.S. a psychotic individual, this film would be its deranged subconscious bubbling up, exposing some of the roots of our modern American madness.

The Trap is much more conventional fare: a three-hour thesis-driven documentary exploring contemporary notions of freedom and how these have often enslaved us. According to the late rhetorician Richard Weaver, “freedom” is a “god term” — a term essentially unmoored from rational foundations and whose use remains potent despite the lack of a concrete definition. Curtis examines three conceptions of freedom, giving particular focus to “negative freedom” (Isaiah Berlin’s term). This notion has been particularly effectual in the West as it defines freedom as the right of each individual to do whatever he/she desires as long as it doesn’t infringe on others’ right to the same. At the heart of the story is a specific conception of man that arose out of nuclear posturing during the Cold War.

That posturing itself was borne of John Nash and “game theory.” The result was the picture of humans as uber-rational machines who acted solely on the basis of self-interest. I personally discovered game theory via poker, which is in fact how Nash et al first came upon their studies. In poker, for example, there are often situations where a mathematical equilibrium may be reached — I know that you know that I know x, but also you know that I know that you know that I know x. The goal is to act theoretically perfectly — rationally efficiently — in personal self-interest to maximize equity, even while the other person is doing the exact same thing. The problem is that game theory is built off a game in which there are clear winners & losers: at some point the equilibrium is disrupted and one person’s edge leads to the demise of the other person. You’d be right if you thought this sounded like a pretty cruel, terrible way in which to organize all of society. Though it was years later, Nash realized some of this based on his own experiences with mental illness. People, in fact, do not always act rationally at all (which is, in part, exactly why poker is so profitable if one is & others aren’t), as demonstrated through experiments with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As Curtis points out, the only two groups of humans who seemed to consistently act with rational self-interest were a) economists and b) psychopaths.

From all this The Trap details a number of implications in British and American life, from consumer culture to psychiatry to free market economics. In typical Curtis fashion, we’re taken on a whirlwind tour of anthropological research in remote tribes, an examination of revolutionary violence from Algeria to Cambodia, behind the scenes of the political triumphs of Clinton & Blair, and on and on. Adam Curtis films are almost unparalleled attempts to pull together disparate threads into coherent narratives that pull back the curtain on beloved myths. The result is not always successful, but never less than thoroughly engaging. In detailing the trap we’ve been collectively ensnared in, the film provides powerful insight into how we’re being controlled — and possible ways out.

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