All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – BBC

In 1974 Orson Welles made the appar­ent­ly con­ven­tion­al 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, 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, arguably, its least con­vinc­ing. It’s debat­able just how influ­en­tial Ayn Rand’s “eco­nom­ics” were 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 mini-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.

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