Thursday, 18 July 2013

Massive Attack v Adam Curtis @ Mayfield Depot, 13.07.13

Billed and very heavily marketed as one of the leading events of Manchester International Festival, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis is described as neither a film nor a gig but rather, and this is the portmanteau of Adam Curtis himself, as a ‘Gilm’. It could equally well be described as a ‘Fig’ but I guess that was decided against as the word was already spoken for.

Massive Attack have long had a reputation as the masters of dark, brooding melancholy of post-industrial trip-hop so any collaboration between Robert del Naja and Adam Curtis, the film maker responsible for the highly acclaimed Power of Nightmares, is going to be met with a great deal of excited anticipation. The show promised to be a utilisation of film, music, ideas and imagery, and on this point it undoubtedly succeeds. What those ideas are though, I’m not quite sure.

Surrounded by three walls of giant screens which project images while Massive Attack play from behind one of them, the event begins with old film of a 1970s Siberian disco to the strains of ‘Rock The Boat’ and diving into a world of imagery that contrasts the ordinary people of Chernobyl as true revolutionary heroes to the concept of a managed world, controlled by banks and the powerful elite, and Jane Fonda exchanging principles of socialism for the high profit of body fascism. Veering between moments of Oh, that was interesting to Yeah, so what? the whole experience comes across as a bit of a sixth form politics student idea of how the world is and how we should see it set to a very expensive PowerPoint presentation. The music though, from Horace Andy singing ‘Sugar Sugar’ and the exquisite voice of Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins doing Burt Bacharach, through to Nirvana and yes, I’ll admit it, a cracking version of Sugababes’ ‘Push The Button’, is faultless.

Adam Curtis is the acceptable face of propagandist filmmaking. His talent for persuasion is beyond doubt and his use of montage to make a point is up there with the greatest of cinematic propagandists, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Riefenstahl. I make the comparison not because I believe the three are ideological bedfellows but simply because of their undoubted power to persuade. Curtis differs from the other two because he is profoundly anti-establishment and on the face of it he carries no particular political allegiance although clearly he is anti-capitalism. Adam Curtis appears to be anti lots of things but like most polemicists he never gets round to saying quite what he is actually for.

Through his films Curtis asks questions of the audience, makes his cinematic statements and representations and invites them to draw their own conclusions. That’s all well and good but, having said that, he does tend to punch you in the face with his cherry-picked moments from contemporary history and the overall narrative, while undoubtedly powerful, is often confusing. As a sensory spectacle and a piece of performance art it is unquestionably impressive. As a work of anything of intellectual substance it is as opaque as the screens that separate the band from the audience.

The use of the long abandoned Mayfield Depot as the location is another MIF masterstroke of venue specific choices for their key artistic events. Derelict since 1986, the interior evokes the death of industrialisation in the world’s first industrial city. At the end of the event the audience is led out through the cavernous depot, scanned by searchlight and watched over by guards with German Shepherds barking threateningly. The message is clear – you are being watched. You are being managed. Yet the future is unwritten and it is yours for the taking.

Well, yes, maybe it is. But for now, on this hot night in the middle of summer, everybody seems to be going onto somewhere else, unmanaged and in charge of their own future, to bars, clubs and parties.

We’ll start the revolution tomorrow. Maybe the day after. We’ll see.

Words: Robert Pegg.
Photography: James Medcraft.

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