Friday, August 27, 2010

Underrated TV (Not) on DVD #14: The Century of the Self

And this wraps up another TV Week-- Next week: more Hero Project!

Series: The Century of the Self
Year: 2002
Creator: Adam Curtis
The Concept: Curtis explores the hidden history of the 20th century, showing how first consumers and then voters were taught by the public relations industry to listen to their hearts and ignore their minds.
How it Came to be Underrated: This got great reviews when it came out, but it never showed up on DVD in America.
Sample Episode: Episode 1: Happiness Machines
Writer: Adam Curtis
The Story: In Part 1, we meet Edward Bernays, the American cousin of Sigmund Freud himself, who used his “Uncle Siggy’s” ideas for crass commercial purposes, creating ideas of mass consumer persuasion that redefined American culture. Bernays recalls how, after advising Wilson during the WWI peace talks, “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, then you could certainly use it for peace.” He opens the first public relations firm and starts by convincing women to smoke. His success makes him very wealthy and highly influential...

Why It’s Great:
  1. This is more of an essay-film than a documentary: Curtis illustrating his daring thesis with a fascinating rapid-fire montage ranging freely back and forth across the 20th century, creating an experience that just as fun to watch as it is bracing to hear.
  2. But he doesn’t just ask us to take his word for it. He has uncovered an amazing treasure trove of quotes which amply demonstrate his thesis. Here’s one of Bernays’s clients: ”We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires’ culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
  3. Curtis shows how the powers-that-be, once they realized what Freud was saying, quietly decided that democracy was no longer a tenable idea: If mankind was essentially irrational and animalistic, then the unwashed masses couldn’t be trusted with power. But there was no need to openly do away with the system, because the new techniques could be used to manipulate the crowds into neutralizing their own power. Part four talks to the engineers of the campaigns of Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton and Blair. Given what we’ve heard, what they have to say about how they sold their candidates is genuinely chilling.
  4. This one isn’t on DVD, but it led to a follow-up about post-9/11 propaganda called “The Power of Nightmares”, and that one’s finally out on DVD. You can get it through Netflix.
How Available Is It?: All four hours are watchable at Google Video and well worth your time. The video quality isn’t very high, but it’s perfectly watchable. I literally sat down one day to watch the first five minutes of the first one and got up four hours later.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

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