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Broadly speaking, the series looks at certain pervasive ideologies (which range from individualism to the Gaia Theory), attempts to trace where they came from, then questions their implications for global society. Curtis puts it more bluntly in a series of title cards that opens each episode: “This is a story about the rise of the machines/and how they made us believe/we could create a stable world/that would last forever.” These lines are pure Curtis, presenting an eccentric—and ultimately unprovable—theory with such authority that it first registers as fact. They should be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s seen his previous long-form essays, such as The Century of the Self (2002), which contends that psychoanalysis gave rise to the public relations industry, or The Power of Nightmares (2004), which presents neoconservative politics and radical Islam as interdependent myths.
In spite of his brash assertions, Curtis has never come off as a conspiracy nut. His essays freely acknowledge their own disorganization, jumping back and forth in time and between myriad types of images (stock footage, recent TV clips, rare on-the-street recordings)—also, his witty, consistently skeptical narration raises as many questions about his own conclusions as they do any of the ones he seeks to disprove. This makes his work dubious as political cinema but inspiring as poetry, rich in associations, ironies, and visual rhymes. Like the great Peter Watkins (whose trailblazing The War Game (1965) stands as an important predecessor), Curtis demonstrates how the tools of nonfiction filmmaking can be used for the creation of fiction. His best work, like Watkins’s, encourages the spectator to become more deeply engaged with—and more critical of—the images around him or her.
All Watched Over may be Curtis’s most purposeful work yet, since the Internet (the series’s ultimate subject—but more on that later) hasn’t received the same degree of visual analysis as movies or television, even though online communication has become as central to contemporary life as either medium. Of all of Curtis’s projects, its unsettling conclusions may be the hardest to resist: if you’re watching it online, chances are you’re already involved with the culture it critiques. Again, this critique is primarily abstract in nature, more concerned with modes of thought than with political deeds. But when Curtis does address some concrete event (such as an economic crisis or a political scandal), it has a supernatural eeriness, as though an idea has run amok in the physical world.
Characteristic of his projects—as well as the Internet at large—All Watched Over brims with facts to the point that the rush of information becomes an aesthetic in itself (this makes Curtis’s work some of the only movies comparable to the recent work of Jean-Luc Godard). Curtis makes his strategy clear early on, beginning the first episode with a rapid montage of skyscrapers, computers, political figures, and other emblems of contemporary life. Edited to a bubbly Japanese pop song, the sequence conveys a sense of wonder as well as confusion, in part because Curtis has the knack to cut from one tracking shot to another. This creates the impression of continuous movement through unrelated information—a feeling that will continue more or less unabated through the rest of the series.
Part one launches directly into a brief introduction to Ayn Rand, whom Curtis presents as a prophet of the Information Age. Curtis raises doubt about Rand’s objectivist philosophy almost immediately, saying “[her] ideas were seen as mad and dangerous [in the 1950s]. Selfishness and greed had led to the financial chaos of the Depression of the 1930s. The job of politics was to manage and control the selfish desires of the individual. But Rand continued to write, attracting a small group of followers...” It’s worth noting the pulpy inflections of Curtis’s narration, which makes Rand’s philosophy sound like a suspense movie McGuffin and renders politics monolithic and slightly unreal (there are precedents to this kind of writing in the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo). It also affords Curtis a certain flexibility with his position. Just as soon as he raises doubt about Rand, he raises doubt about his own doubt, jumping 40 years into the future to consider the Silicon Valley revolution of the 1990s, which had been spearheaded largely by Rand devotees.
“An idea was emerging in California that technology could turn everyone into heroic individuals,” Curtis goes on to explain, and that the self-governance of online communication could replace traditional means of social control. The remainder of the first episode—titled “Love and Power”—questions the wisdom of such an idea by considering its impact on economics and politics through the 1990s. Much of the running time is devoted to the Presidency of Bill Clinton, whom Curtis depicts as a tragic fool. As presented by Curtis, Clinton was elected on the belief that he could use political power to improve society, but he was quickly seduced by the philosophy of the zeitgeist, which said that advanced societies (like online systems) could regulate themselves. This led to devastating cuts in social spending and an even more devastating acquiescence to the investment industry, as represented by his appointment of Robert Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive, to the US Treasury.
Who convinced Clinton to change his ways? Why, Alan Greenspan, a close confidant of Ayn Rand! In Curtis’s portrait, Greenspan is both a Svengali and a self-hating neurotic, whose obsession with macro systems further isolated him from his own humanity. At one point, Curtis interviews an old friend, Nathaniel Branden, who claims that before Greenspan met Rand, he lacked even the philosophical certainty that he himself existed—it’s hard to say whether he ever gained it. The first episode of All Watched Over juggles the narratives of Rand, Greenspan, and Clinton, ultimately presenting all of them as victims of ideology. As their stories intertwine, their actions produce an ever-growing trail of victims, ranging from Branden (with whom Rand had a disastrous love affair) to Monica Lewinsky to the entire populations of South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia—the economies of which were ruined by the “self-regulating” model imposed on them by Rubin and other investment industry veterans in the IMF.
Is this good history? Not really. Only an extremely selective imagination could conceive of Ayn Rand and Bill Clinton as secret siblings. Further, Curtis fails to provide much evidence for his most outlandish assertions. But as a fable about hubris, All Watched Over is plenty instructive. Curtis presents the downfall of both Clinton and Rand as the result of ill-advised affairs—Rand’s is ill-advised because she assumes she can approach passion (and with a married man, no less) with a rational mind; Clinton’s because he assumes his private life won’t have any effect on the self-regulating, economic-driven society that he leads only nominally. In both cases, desire proves an unstable force, capable of undermining systems power.
It even disrupts the flow of All Watched Over. Curtis first delves into the Lewinsky scandal exactly halfway into episode one, cuing up Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” as Hillary Clinton, at her most housewifely, takes a journalist on a tour of the White House. The expert combination of sound and image leads one to ask, Did she know? And, regardless, what sadness is she hiding? Cohen’s song of spiritual and sexual longing tears through the facade of business as usual (I’ve never heard it better used in a movie), conveying the messy, vital emotions barely acknowledged by the self-regulating ideal.
It’s a powerful sequence, but it doesn’t contain the most upsetting image of “Love and Power.” That would be the shot of an early 80s experiment shown early in the episode, then repeated just before the end (as Curtis explains how the dishonest accounting of the 1990s economic boom would lead directly to the economic meltdown of 2008). The experiment, designed by a software programmer named Loren Carpenter, had a roomful of people given paddles that corresponded to sensors on a giant computer monitor. Working together, the people on each side of the room were able to use their paddles to control a “player” in the computer game Pong. On first viewing, it seems like a moment of ecstatic communal activity—when it returns, it seems a hollow shell of such a phenomenon, with a group of thinking, feeling individuals converted into a giant hard drive. It creates a sad rhyme of the tracking shots across rooms of processors that Curtis cuts to throughout the episode, a found image that acquires the imposing terror of HAL 9000’s iconic red eye.