“The Master”

THE PRESS MADE MUCH of the supposed subject of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. According to reports, Hollywood Scientologists even tried to prevent the film ever from being made. But though the film’s mysterious, cultish group is Scientology in all but its name, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a slow meditation on faith and meaning in post-war America rather than a hit-piece, and loses nothing either by failing to call a spade a spade or in its offering more questions than answers.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an awkward and volatile Navy veteran with sex on his mind and a taste for strong drink, accidentally finds himself at sea with the members of a cult named The Cause after he boards a ship leaving port. There, he meets the enigmatic, charismatic “Master” of the film’s title, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with whom he forms an instant bond.


The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified.


It is a simple enough plot, but The Master is not so much a story as a character study with a level of depth rarely seen outside of the world of literature. Anderson divides his film into three acts, each of them beginning with an extended shot of the wake of a ship, the water alternately appearing calm and violent, and it’s an image which corresponds to the outer lives of the two central characters.

The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified. Phoenix gives a brilliant performance as the rake-thin Freddie Quell, who swings wildly between awkward odd-one-out and something approaching violent man-child, particularly after a drink of his famous paint-thinner cocktail. The outstanding success of the film is the depiction of Quell’s relationship with Dodd: in the most memorable scene of the film, the pair go to a party where Quell stands around awkwardly, with both hands placed on his lower back––an unusual, strange pose––while the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman charms the hostess and the other guests before giving an impromptu “processing” psychotherapy session, reminding us at every step what an absolutely crushing loss to cinema his early death represents. The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema: Quell finds in Dodd a father figure, sympathy, and meaning bordering on the spiritual; Dodd, in turn, finds his muse in his “brave boy” Freddie, who serves too as a form of narcissistic supply for Dodd that is addictive and incomparable, even among the doting members of his family and his followers.


The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema


The brilliance of the central pair is only made better by the supporting performances of Amy Adams, as Dodd’s quietly zealous, fearsome wife, Jesse Plemons, who play’s Dodd’s son, Val, and Rami Malek––now a household name thanks to Mr. Robot––who plays Dodd’s son-in-law, Clark. The film is also notable for its presentation in 70mm (that dog-whistle for film aficionados), which means, to cut through the whole technical explanation of the thing, that the cinema audience sees more colour and more detail, and––most importantly, perhaps, given the subject matter of The Master––sharper contrast. The events of the film largely take place indoors, but the high-resolution which comes through the use of 70mm film is nevertheless clear to see throughout, particularly during the recurring shots of the ship’s wake.

The Master is not about a cult, Anderson has said (repeatedly)––and he is, of course, correct. Rather, The Master is a study of Freddie Quell, a man physically able but purposeless, horny, drunk on homemade booze, haunted by the past; his woes are a metaphor for the strange grimness that pervaded post-World War II America. Freddie is a traumatised overgrown child whose sense of place has been worn down to dust, and into this vacuum steps Dodd, also a fugitive (albeit in a different way). The film’s success, then, rests nearly exclusively on the narrow shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix and the supporting hands of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they do not––do they ever?––disappoint.

“Looper”

‘THIS TIME TRAVEL shit fries your brain like an egg,’ muses Abe, the cordial crime boss of Rian Johnson’s time-travelling science-fiction thriller Looper, and you get the sense this ever-so eloquently expressed opinion reflects the writer and director’s own. Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain in his third film. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks. It’s this nonchalance which makes Looper feel less like a sci-fi and more like the hardboiled fiction on which Johnson draws so much. It isn’t quite The Big Sleep, but the elements are all there.

The film opens in rural Kansas, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) checks his watch and briefly practices his French before blowing a big bloody hole in the chest of a man who appears on the ground in front of him. Joe is a specialised hitman called a “looper”, who’s hired by gangsters to execute, no questions asked, whichever sorry soul happens to appear, bound and blindfolded, on the sheet in front of him. The film takes place in 2044, which we learn is around thirty years before the invention of time-travel. In that later time, time-travel is highly illegal but available to large criminal organisations on the black market. Due to advancements in tracking technologies, disposing of a body has become a little difficult, so these organisations slip a sack over the head of anyone they wish to get rid of, send them back in time, and have loopers kill them before they were even born. Voila.


Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks.


This elegant cycle of time-travel and blasé murder is rudely interrupted by Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis), who arrives unbound and unblindfolded, and promptly escapes. A looper is expected to kill their future self when their employers finally decide to terminate their contract by sending them back in time, accept the handsome redundancy package and then sail off into the sunset to enjoy the next thirty years. Old Joe is on a mission to murder a child fated to become a fearsome underworld tyrant. But if Young Joe doesn’t stop his older self, and his employers catch up with him, they’ll chop him up into little pieces to slow his older self down so they can then take him out.

My primary problem with Looper is that it feels like two films stitched together: the first seems to be about Old Joe’s return from the future and Young Joe’s attempts to catch him while himself on the run from his former employers; the second is more about Old Joe’s own agenda, which really only gets underway about halfway through the film. The two plots are closely related but don’t fit together seamlessly. On the topic of two parts of one thing not quite fitting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, despite capturing Bruce Willis’s manner and facial expressions well, still doesn’t look a thing like the older man, and having the pair in the same frame doesn’t help matters. (The eyebrows, for instance: What were they thinking?) This isn’t so much of a problem, however, and both Gordon-Levitt and Willis serve up solid performances, as does Emily Blunt, who plays shotgun-wielding, foul-mouthed farmer Sara. Her first words are ‘Listen up, fucker! I have shot and buried three vagrants in the past year!’

Looper’s plotting is partly redeemed by its stylistically and thematically noirish elements. The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe, whose childhood ended early when Abe put a gun in his hand, and who’s desperate to redeem his failure to kill his future self. And then there’s La Belle Aurore, the loopers’ favourite nightclub, which happens to share its name with the Parisian bistro in Casablanca.


The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe.


For an hour or so, Looper is at once moody and exciting and interesting and then, all of a sudden, it gets dull. The last portion of the film is interminably slow and tedious, ending with a rushed and predictable conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends. It’s partly this quality that creates the impression that Looper is two films trying to be one. It seems as if Johnson, who for most of the film was happy to leave discussions about the philosophical implications of jumping through time to more traditional science-fiction films like Primer, suddenly felt the urge to give over twenty-five minutes to airing questions about free will and utilitarianism.

Looper represents an unlikely marriage of films like The Terminator and the detective films of the late Forties, and at this ambitious undertaking it’s largely successful. Its second act lets it down quite dramatically, which makes Looper something of a frustrating film. It could have been a science-fiction classic. As it is, it’s unsatisfying.

“Bobby Fischer Against the World”

IT’S BECOMING SOMETHING of a tired saying to note that people exceptional in their professional lives are exceptional in other areas of life, too, in part because it’s cliché and tends to be lazily ascribed, and in part because often its use subtly excuses any number of antisocial or immoral acts, so long as they’re committed by someone who happens to be a dab hand at playing guitar or kicking a football or painting. But that isn’t, I hasten to add, to say that the saying doesn’t contain a grain or two of truth–only, that truly exceptional people are rare.

Bobby Fischer, the American chess grandmaster, might just be one of those people, and Bobby Fischer Against the World, directed by What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus, is as good an examination of his tragic and bizarre life as you’re likely to find. Like Miss Simone, Garbus’ film proceeds linearly through the life of its subject, beginning with his birth to Regina, a “homeless” Jewish Communist activist with no intention of letting her son interfere with her goals and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist who, it later transpired, wasn’t his father at all. From here, and with the contributions of prominent figures from the world of chess such as Garry Kasparov, Larry Evans, Asa Hoffman and others, Garbus patiently and sympathetically leads us through the events that prematurely ended Fischer’s career.

Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life. The time Garbus devotes to Fischer’s early life is an investment that pays off in the later parts of the film, and the slightly exploitative, hard-to-avoid armchair psychologising in which, consciously or unconsciously, she tempts you to engage is softened a little by the decidedly sympathetic tone she maintains throughout the film, and the kind accounts given by the diverse figures from Fischer’s life that she interviews.


Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life.


Chess is an extraordinary game. Richard Reti called it “the triumph of the intellect and genius over lack of imagination; the triumph of personality over materialism”. It is, if I can put it this way, the most purely intellectual sport, and so there’s the implication that its most accomplished players are particularly gifted in this respect. Even among these grandmasters, Fischer was exceptional, and Garbus captures this well. In an era when the Soviet Union, in an effort to show their perceived intellectual superiority, invested heavily in the promotion of chess and chess-players, Fischer, a lonely child from an unremarkable and unstable Brooklyn family, developed an interest and then a passion and then an obsession which led one commentator to say that he had dedicated more time to playing chess than all of his counterparts on the Soviet team combined. Malcolm Gladwell, who makes a welcome if brief appearance as a talking head, discusses his now-famous 10,000-hour rule, which states that in order to achieve mastery at any given pursuit, you must dedicate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to that activity. It doesn’t take much mental arithmetic to get a sense of how much time Fischer must have dedicated to his art.

Despite their many differences, I was reminded, as I watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, of Christine, the Antonio Campos film about Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who shot herself live on air. Both directors treat their subjects with not only empathy but something approaching affection, and this makes any accusation of exploitation a weak one. Garbus’ film is, first and foremost, a fair and fairly thorough examination of the life of what might have been the best chess player ever to play the game.

“Black Swan” (2011)

THE AUTHOR WALTER Dean Myers noted after seeing a production of Swan Lake with Erik Bruhn how significant a part the ever-present threat of violence played in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, and in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, in which dancer Nina Sayers struggles to embody the qualities of both dimensions of the lead part, the same thing might said to be true.

An angelic Natalie Portman plays Nina, a fiercely dedicated but shy and passive ballerina at the New York City Ballet. Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the current prima ballerina and darling of ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is to “retire”––that’s to say, not-so-politely asked to move on––which means there is a vacancy, and one that Nina and her fellow dancers would like to fill. Thomas, however, has reservations about Nina: she is, he says, the perfect White Swan; it’s her ability to play the White Swan’s evil counterpart, the Black Swan, that he has doubts about. Meanwhile, a new dancer has joined the corps. Lily (Mila Kunis), straight off the plane, so to speak, from San Francisco, is cheerful and reckless and fun––perfect, in other words, to play the Black Swan.


Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other.


Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other. What Aronofsky and writer Andres Heinz do so well is create conditions and characterise Nina in such a way as to allow these two things this to be the case. Nina is beautiful, artistic and athletic, but her commitment to the ballet is an inheritance from her overbearing mother Erica––played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey, incidentally––who at one stage makes a point of saying that if “I hadn’t taken you to each of your classes you would have been completely lost”. It’s a line that betrays Erica’s belief that she is to credit for Nina’s success, but one that also carries a grain of truth. The role of Erica in Nina’s life allows Nina to be at the same time as an élite ballet dancer sexually naive, vulnerable and susceptible (if not prone) to mental illness. In Beth and Veronica (Ksenia Solo) we see all the envy and aggression we might ordinarily expect of an artist and athlete with Nina’s level of ability and dedication.


Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.


Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. And you wouldn’t blame her either: every shot of Nina’s reflection in a mirror or pane of glass or water is a reminder that her very sense of identity is under attack. As much as the film belongs to Portman’s Nina, it is the kittenish Mila Kunis as Lily, determined, so to say, to unshackle Nina, and a brilliantly sinister, sexually aggressive and aristocratic-looking Vincent Cassel who play large parts in inducing this crisis. And that’s not to include the above-mentioned Barbara Hershey’s Erica, whose determination to infantilise her daughter (Nina’s room is a baby-pink nightmare of dolls and music boxes) can only end on way.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked with Aronofsky on The Fountain and Pi, creates an intimate and even claustrophobic sort of atmosphere that reflects Nina’s utter inability to get out of her own head, while the loud refrain from Tchaikovsky’s ballet threatens at all times to make your ears bleed, (which would, in fairness, be in keeping with the film’s abundant body horror.) As Thomas introduces his new production of Swan Lake in the opening ten minutes of the film, he acknowledges that the ballet has been “done to death, I know––but not like this.” Black Swan is somehow passionate, deranged and emphatic. It meditates on the obsessive nature of perfection while portraits scream at you from the walls. Like it’s main character, it’s nothing if not ambitious, and the result is spectacular.

Juan José Campanella’s “Los Secretos en Sus Ojos” (2010)

AT THE RISK of sounding glib, Argentina in the nineteen-seventies wasn’t a particularly fun place to be. This was the era of the so-called Dirty War, when the Argentine Military Government and the right-wing death squads of the Triple A “disappeared”, in the language of the time, about thirty thousand suspected left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, journalists, and anyone else believed to be associated with the socialist cause. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were among los desaparecidos, still march in front of the Casa Rosada every Thursday in public defiance of state terrorism and in pursuit of the truth.

It is in that swirling vortex of paranoia and violence that Juan José Campanella’s thriller El Secreto de Sus Ojos is set, and you do wonder why more films have not been placed in a time and setting that seems almost impossibly well suited to film noir. The film begins in nineteen-ninety-nine, when retired deputy prosecutor Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is brooding over a life of disappointments and having difficulty writing his first novel, which concerns a brutal rape and murder case that took place twenty-five years before. After a meeting with Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), with whom he originally worked on the case (and with whom he’s hopelessly in love), he decides to begin his book with the crime itself. In all this Espósito has a sidekick of sorts in the figure of his bespectacled clerk, Pablo (Guillermo Francella), who prefers to spend his evenings getting blind drunk with the local low-lives rather than with his frustrated wife.

Espósito’s research into the murder case, which took place in nineteen-seventy-four when Argentina was just collapsing into its dirty war and subsequent dictatorship, runs in tandem with the investigation he undertook at the time as a junior policeman. Campanella does this with great skill: the scenes depicted take place in the past, in the present and in the imagination, and in each one there is the suggestion of secrets alluded to in the title. Similarly some credit is due to the hair and makeup team who “age” Benjamin and Irene in a way that isn’t jarring. (See J. Edgar or, for an example in reverse, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). An interesting dynamic between Benjamin and Ricardo (Pablo Rago), the widower of the raped and murdered schoolteacher, develops in the early narrative and continues to exist a quarter of a century later. Both Benjamin and Ricardo are obsessed with bringing the killer that has evaded them to justice, albeit for different reasons.

Campanella’s pacing and direction is particularly impressive. His crowning achievement is a travelling shot that begins above a football stadium and goes into the stands, where Benjamin and Pablo are searching out a suspect, before ending on the pitch itself. But the film belongs, if I can put it like that, to Ricard Darín and the obsessive Benjamin Espósito, who seems to hope that he can drown, or at least choke, his remorse over what could have been with Irene by concentrating his attention on a particularly savage killing and empathising with the heartbroken widower it created.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop”

‘I DON’T REALLY know what the moral is,’ says the reclusive, elusive street artist Banksy at the end of his entertaining and cheerful documentary debut film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which tells the bizarre story of how a voyeuristic Frenchman armed with a video camera became the multimillionaire artist Mister Brainwash almost overnight.

The film opens to the tones of Richard Hawley’s ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ and a montage of various street artists at work in cities around the world. Banksy, his face and voice obscured, explains how the film is a sort of counter-documentary before saying, with typical self-deprecation, that ‘it’s not Gone with the Wind.’ The subject of the film is an energetic and obsessive Frenchman called Thierry Guetta, who passes off old clothes as expensive vintage items to gullible Angelinos. Thierry is obsessed with his video camera, and says as much. In fact he says the thrill filming gives him is ‘more than drugs’. His daily routine of marching around L.A. hassling celebrities like Jay Leno and Noel Gallagher is interrupted by a visit from his cousin, the urban artist Invader, who leads him into the emerging and counter-cultural world of street art.


Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming.


The mood for this bizarre story is markedly light-hearted and mocking, and this is reflected in the derisive narration of Rhys Ifans, whose casting is something of a masterstroke. Underpinning this, however, is something slightly sinister. Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming. The Dickie Greenleaf to Guetta’s Ripley is of course Banksy himself, the most famous and elusive of all street artists, and in an ironic twist, it’s Banksy who extends his hand. Guetta had been telling people that he was making a documentary about street art; he wasn’t, but it got him access to the biggest names in the movement, and the anonymous Banksy was convinced that Guetta’s filming might have some value.

Banksy pushes Guetta to make his film and the shambolic result (‘It was at this point that I realised that he maybe wasn’t a filmmaker. That he was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.’) makes him decide to re-edit the footage himself, the result of which is Exit Through the Gift Shop. Guetta, meanwhile, is sent back to Los Angeles to immerse himself in the art scene and try to put on a show and weeks later, and now calling himself ‘Mister Brainwash’, unveils ‘Life is Beautiful’. MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and Banksy seems to have been his main source of ‘inspiration’. And, in part thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


Banksy pitches what he perceives as Guetta’s cynicism and commercialism against the undoubtedly mischievous and playful but largely idealistic world of street art, which, despite its polarising, is-it-art-or-vandalism? character, involves mainly serious artists who have spent their lives developing their own unique style. But Banksy stops short of moralising, opting instead, in his characteristic style, to approach the subject with humour and irony. The documentary also offers an interesting insider’s look into the world of street art with all its midnight outings and building-scaling and thrills of hiding in plain sight. But it isn’t so much about street art as it is about Thierry Guetta.

Since its release in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop and its subject have been accused of being an elaborate Banksy prank. The best argument for this that I can see is that Guetta’s wife is impossibly tolerant of his peculiar, eight-year obsession. Overall it seems unlikely that Exit is a hoax, but people more interested than I am have done their own investigating, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s funny, occasionally sinister and an illuminating glimpse at the world of street art. And if there is something approaching the ‘moral’ that eluded Banksy, it seems to be the statement ‘I am not for sale’.

Adam Curtis’s “The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” (2007)

IN HIS EARLY-1930s U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos uses a ragbag of stylistic and narrative techniques, including collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics and short biographies of public figures, to tell the story of the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the 20th century. The influence of Dos Passos’ trilogy was far-reaching, and had a profound effect on Jean Paul-Sartre in addition to the science-fiction novelist and short story writer John Brunner. But it also penetrated and became embedded in the young mind of the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, who was given the book as a thirteen-year-old by his father. In a 2012 interview with Film Comment, Curtis said that you “can trace back everything I do to that novel [U.S.A.] because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers.”

Following the publication of U.S.A. and the murder of his friend José Robles during the Spanish Civil War, Dos Passos underwent what can only be described as an extraordinary ideological transformation that flung him from far on the political left to the conservative right. He worked on the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon and found new friends and allies in William F. Buckley, Jr. and his ambitious team at the fledgling National Review. Dos Passos maintained, however, that wherever he found himself on the ideological spectrum he was, first and foremost, concerned with the freedom of the individual.


In a 2012 interview with Film Comment, Curtis said that you “can trace back everything I do to that novel [U.S.A.] because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers.”


It’s this individual freedom, and specifically our understanding of what that freedom implies, that Curtis looks to deconstruct in his three-part 2007 documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?. His hypothesis is, to put it mildly, a bold one, and draws a line that begins in the bleak and paranoid days of the Cold War and travels through the years and the economic and political thought of figures largely on the right, from Friedrich Hayek to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. What Curtis essentially argues is that the models of game theory advanced by the Nobel-prize-winning economist John Nash and applied with zeal during the Cold War were willingly introduced into fields in which the first principles did not apply. To put it another way, these mathematical models, when applied in the context of armed conflict, necessarily operate on the basis that both sides are, so to say, out only for themselves; in the daily interactions of individuals that is not necessarily the case. This is exemplified in some of the early efforts to put the Prisoner’s Dilemma thought experiment to the test. Though the rational thing to do in each case is to betray the other party, very few, if any, of the early participants did so.

If you bring these theories to play in the economic sphere, Curtis says, the effects of holding such a depressingly bleak view of human existence are significant. The free market, which has at its heart the assumption that individuals will behave in a rational self-interested way, serves only to make the ultra-rational and the already-wealthy eye-wateringly rich; the poor and the more compassionate among us become poorer. Curtis’s central idea is high flown if nothing else, and ascribes a popular current of political thought and the administrations of figures on both sides of the Atlantic, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, to a handful of equations scrawled on blackboards in the depths of a Cold War nuclear facility. But nevertheless Curtis argues his point in a persuasive and entertaining and memorable way, even if he doesn’t bother to waste any time (in a three-hour documentary film, no less) presenting any alternatives to his elaborate proposition.


So formulaic is Curtis’s signature style that he at times threatens to become a parody of himself. At the very least, his taste for flat declarative sentences, archival footage and the unsettling tones of Burial, Nine Inch Nails and Brian Eno insists upon the creation of “Adam Curtis Bingo”.


But of course, that isn’t his style, and so formulaic is his signature style that he at times threatens to become a parody of himself. At the very least, his taste for flat declarative sentences, archival footage and the unsettling tones of Burial, Nine Inch Nails and Brian Eno insists upon the creation of “Adam Curtis Bingo”. When Curtis’s technique works, his films take on a dreamlike and hallucinatory quality; when it doesn’t his work seems self-indulgent: there are scenes in Bitter Lake that are almost unwatchable. Thankfully The Trap is an example of the former. Like Curtis’s best documentary film, the exceptional The Power of Nightmares, the style of The Trap glues together a narrative whose constituent parts are sometimes weakly held together while also injecting a little dark humour into an otherwise rather earnest work.

The conservative Spectator columnist James Delingpole once suggested that Curtis had created the “televisual equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge with pretensions to narrative coherence”, which is not completely inaccurate. But neither is it necessarily a criticism: Curtis himself describes what he does as finding “new facts and data, things you haven’t thought about, and turning them into new stories.” In The Trap, Curtis typically takes a grand and sweeping look at the shifting sands of history, but the film nevertheless represents one of the better efforts of a consistently interesting and entertaining filmmaker.

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