“All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – BBC

In 1974 Orson Welles made the apparently charming but quietly brilliant F For Fake. He was convinced he’d invented a new art form. On the face of it, it was a languid documentary about a famous art forger, but in reality it was used by Welles to prod and probe our notions of art and artifice, of authenticity and mendacity, and he used himself and his life as the vehicle with which to do it. It was in other words a meticulously constructed visual essay.

The essais, or “attempt” was pioneered by Michel Montaigne in 16th century France. It was, as Sarah Bakewell puts it in her superb biography http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Live-Montaigne-question-attempts/dp/0701178922, a way of “writing about oneself in order to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity“. Welles believed the medium of film was a wonderful opportunity to give the personal essay a whole new lease of life.

But to his dismay, F For Fake fell completely flat. And, although Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s magisterial Hitler, A Film From Germany was shown in cinemas three years later in 1977, all 7 hours and 17 minutes of it, it wasn’t cinema that proved to be the natural home for the filmed essay, but television.

The illusion of transparency that the anything but arbitrary quadrangle that television creates is the perfect space to pursue personal passions. It’s given voice to everyone from Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan and Kenneth Clark to Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Louis Theroux. But by far and away the most sophisticated author of the filmed essay is Adam Curtis. It is he who has picked up where Welles left off.

His latest, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace has just been shown on the BBC, and is divided into three parts. The first is its least convincing. Ayn Rand’s “economics” weren’t actually that much of an influence on Alan Greenspan, and the causal relationship he sketches between Asia’s economic chaos and our own six or seven years later is much more complex than he suggests.

The second instalment though is much more satisfying, and the pattern he weaves between some of the 20th century’s big ideas and the direction that the environmental movement headed off in is brilliantly stitched together. The third episode is even more impressive again, and is a searing indictment of Belgium’s responsibility for the genocide and chaos they caused in Rwanda in the latter half of the 20th century. But it is also a fascinating portrait of two of the most important recent evolutionary scientists, George Price and W.D. Hamilton, whose work paved the way for Richard Dawkins to popularise the idea of the Selfish Gene. And it contains an intriguing portrait of the American zoologist Dian Fossey, markedly different to the one you’ll see in Gorillas In The Mist.

What’s so exhilarating about Curtis, and in particular this third episode, is that he somehow manages to meld all these elements together alchemically to produce a coherent whole. So that what you get is three fascinating mini biographies, viewed in the light of the combustible way that science and politics often seem to interact.

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Speak Your Mind