Louis Theroux returned to BBC 2 last month with three new films investigating contemporary American life. His method has changed somewhat since the late nineties, where once – with a smirk and a raised eyebrow – he followed the call of the weird, he now is an open-minded empathiser. His earlier documentaries were frequently hilarious but mockery lurked somewhere under the surface. Theroux – a gifted protégé of “Michael Moore’s TV Nation” – used to hang out with UFO hunters and suburban swingers, now he delves into another side of American culture. Mega jails, meth addiction, trans children and terminal illness are just some of the serious subjects he has covered in the last few years. He still attempts to get close to his subjects but the intention is to understand rather than mock.
Louis Theroux occupies a space in British TV culture where he only has one serious rival. In terms of technique they are the negative images of each other, but as blockbuster BBC 2 documentarians go only Adam Curtis comes close. Both are public school educated Oxford graduates (Curtis got in on a scholarship, Theroux as the son of a bestselling author didn’t need such charity), both have had the generosity of the BBC extended to them, both have a devoted cult following that ensures continued interest in their work. Whilst Theroux attempts to understand individuals through extended interviews Curtis shows little interest in the lives of ordinary people. Since he found his voice as a documentary maker in the early nineties his stories have become bigger and bigger; his grand narratives sweep through extraordinary events, extraordinary lives. Curtis creates dizzying montages of archive footage and eerie music whilst his warmly authoritative tones take us by the hand through secret histories where unseen ideologies rule all our lives. He delivers damning indictments of political and intellectual delusion but doesn’t offer any solutions.
Louis Theroux documentaries rarely draw any kind of conclusion, at the end he reflects on the experiences of his interviewees but seems cautious of ever making a final judgement. The viewer is left to ponder the individual stories not the overall situation. Though behind the scenes experts are consulted onscreen context is rarely given. In his Miami Mega Jails films Theroux can’t help but touch on the wider implications of America’s prison-industrial complex but the focus on personalities rather than politics means we focus on people rather than the system they exist within.
Adam Curtis’ most recent film Bitter Lake only appeared on BBC iPlayer. Over two hours, it sort of told the recent history of Afghanistan, it sort of told us something about the way politicians present us with over-simplified stories. It was dazzling, ominous and occasionally silent, but in the end its conclusions were almost as perfunctory as Theroux’s. The medium was the message and the message was the world is complex and scary. How ordinary Afghani’s feel is not really shown, one gets the idea Curtis isn’t really interested, the swirl of the story is all that matters. The players are incidental.
Curtis and Theroux are remnants, survivors from a pre-social media world were documentaries could be years in the making, a slower society where subjects could be studied for years rather than hours. Outside the BBC4 ghetto of impeccably researched storytelling television documentaries seem now to either be exploitation (Benefits Street, Body Shock) or extended news items fleshing out some of the details behind yesterday’s headlines. Stories are succinct and we are gently guided to pat conclusions.
We are living in an essentially reactive age. From ISIS to “the dress” events are discussed, analysed and parodied in increasingly shorter cycles. This is the age of the hot-take: every angle is explored before the twittering classes move onto the next subject. A few thousand tweets, a few dozen articles, and then the cycle begins again. Opinions are a currency. At worst this leads to facile unthoughtful filler; at best it has enabled unheard voices to take centre stage. You can tell the something has changed when the Daily Telegraph will publish pieces by feminists.
Curtis and Theroux are in a privileged position where they don’t have to reach a conclusion. At worst both their documentaries have a remoteness, a distance. Theroux the English intruder wanders into other people’s worlds, he empathises but is always an outsider. It is interesting he has stuck to investigating America – working in Britain would surely bring his own class and celebrity status into the stories. Curtis meanwhile can come across like a depressed alien delivering damning judgements on the failing of the human race. They have both been given carte blanche by the BBC to share their stories for twenty or so years, they are both still interesting and entertaining but is anyone following them? Who will allow other voices – maybe people from backgrounds beyond Oxbridge – the resources to explore and investigate? Perhaps publicly funded television is the wrong place to look. Impassioned Tumblr blogs, thoughtful think-pieces and cheaply shot YouTube footage may in a smaller way tell the stories that broadcast auteurs can’t. That may not be an entirely satisfying conclusion but as Curtis and Theroux prove an ability to identify issues and ask questions doesn’t always mean you have all the answers.
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