All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A cybernetic meadow where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony." This was the promise of Richard Brautigan's famous poem All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, which Adam Curtis has billed as an exploration of the way machines (for which read 'systems') have come to shape and to dominate our lives. Curtis' film is concerned as much with philosophical and financial systems as with mechanical ones. In may ways this is an attack on varied forms of Utopianism. Its fatal flaw is that it, too, takes a one size fits all approach and makes its case both by eliding critical aspects of the subjects it discusses and by simplifying them to the point where they naturally appear nonsensical because the internal controversies, the mitigating factors, the processes of readjustment which they employ in the real world are lost.

Like many Utopian thinkers, Curtis appears to have fallen into the trap of assuming that because his theories fit well in some instances they can be applied to everything. He's right that unrestrained market capitalism contributed strongly to the recent world economic crash, but he never mentions Adam Smith's own warnings about the existence of this potential within the system. Instead his focus is on Ayn Rand, who has never been taken very seriously as a thinker outside the US and whose ideas were arguably an excuse rather than an inspiration for the selfishness of many who claimed to follow her. It's right that Social Darwinism can have dangerous consequences but the film is naive in its implication that this makes genetic science itself immoral, and downright negligent in its failure to mention extended Cooperation Theory. Its suggestions in regard to science and morality appear to have bypassed Kant. And it's right that liberal efforts to encourage equality precipitated a crisis in Rwanda, but it fails to show how this serves to invalidate the principles themselves, rather than their application in that situation.

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The feeling is rather that, in his attempt to develop an all-encompassing theory of modern human history, Curtis has taken on so many subjects that he simply hasn't had time to research and understand any one of them properly. As the film goes on, this becomes almost painful to watch, particularly in relation to its criticism of practically anyone who tries to do active good. We're all utterly demoralised by being cogs in a machine, Curtis says with assumed authority. He complains about Westerners who impose their ideas on African countries but repeatedly refers to Africa as if it were just one country with just one set of problems, as well as treating it as a landscape within which only Westerners have agency.

The real tragedy is that in many other ways this film is beautifully made. True to form, Curtis has assembled a wealth of historical footage and has edited it together beautifully. This very nearly makes the film worth watching by itself. There's all sorts of interesting information here as long as you take care to sift the valuable facts from the dubious theory; as long as you can remember, when watching alcoholics fighting and hearing abut homeless people, that the two are not always synonymous. There are some great interviews, especially in the early part of the film; it's a shame they're not as relevant to Curtis' argument as he tries to make them sound.

It's a shame to see such a capable director come to this. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is overambitious and hoisted on its own petard. I like to think (and the sooner the better!) he will take a step back before he finds himself sucked into the kind of conspiracy theory this comes dangerously close to. The film's elegant visual style and passionate narrative are proof that he retains his talent; he just needs to recover his focus.

Reviewed on: 08 Jun 2011
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A documentary asking whether we are now dominated by the systems we built for our own convenience.
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Director: Adam Curtis

Year: 2011

Runtime: 156 minutes

Country: UK


Doc/Fest 2011

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