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.

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Dangerous Knowledge

I guess I’m on a philosophy film kick. The latest was the BBC’s Dangerous Knowledge, a documentary on mathematicians Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing — four geniuses whose neuroses drove them fatally mad. It’s debatable the extent to which their respective theories made them insane — the film obviously plays this up for dramatic purposes — but it’s an intriguing film and not overly technical.

One of the ironies here is that I learned of this film via some people with deep antipathy towards postmodernism, despite the fact that these four helped unravel the modern project and clear the conceptual space for postmodernism. For me, it’s impossible to ignore the links between these mathematicians at the turn of the century and the postmodern philosophers at the close of the century. The key is recognizing that the quests for certainty, universality, and totality that were under assault in science & politics — climaxing in the existential refutations that were World Wars I & II — were being assaulted in logic & mathematics via Cantor & Co.
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