There is nothing like delivering your argument with a thump. Adam Curtis is one of Britain’s most original polemicists, the author of groundbreaking television documentaries that combine broad-ranging analysis with superbly edited montages of found footage. For the opening of this year’s Manchester International Festival, he has teamed up with Massive Attack, Bristol-based pioneers of 1990s trip-hop, with whom he shares an essentially negative view of the 21st century.
The gloom merchants have taken over Manchester’s Mayfield Depot, a former railway station that has been deserted since 1986, to deliver a double dose of darkness. Curtis’s eloquent past works, such as The Power of Nightmares, put forward intellectually demanding and provocative conspiracy theories; Massive Attack’s tired, druggy bass lines are the very soundtrack of reluctant docility.
The marriage of the two – forget the antagonism implied by the show’s title, no more than a cute touch – is inspired. With the help of Felix Barrett, artistic director of the Punchdrunk theatre company, the depot is transformed into a giant factory of nightmares: 11 screens surrounding the audience of 1,800, a stage for the band at one end, and banks of gut-churning speakers.
Curtis’s familiar techniques – fast cuts, pounding messages – acquire a visceral force that even the smartest of HD television sets cannot hope to match. It is as if he is literally shaking us from our complacency. We all know the world is screwed up: now feel it in your stomachs.
The film’s thesis is that we are no longer interested in changing the world; only in managing it. The turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s made the western world wary of unpredictable consequences. Its political classes turned instead to the management of risk. The only good outcome was a safe outcome: investments hedged from failure, leaders sheltered from the true verdicts of the ballot box. It hasn’t ended well.
Curtis weaves the stories of individual lives into the mix of bombast and theorising. He gropes to find a thread of intimacy amid the epic claims being made. It doesn’t quite work: there is simply too much noise, too many distractions.
In compensation, there are moments that are unforgettable: a section on the Soviet scientists who sacrificed themselves in attempting to limit the damage caused by the Chernobyl disaster pays tribute to the “old” world of heroism. The words “Into the Sarcophagus” are flashed repeatedly, juxtaposed with snippets of machine-gun fire aimed at the audience. The band turn the volume up to 11, pounding an unforgiving riff over and over again. It’s a Requiem Mass, of sorts.
Massive Attack are at their best in these ear-splitting sections, cleverly grounding Curtis’s skittish editing with relentless, driving rhythms. This is a truly pan-sensory and exhausting experience, feeding the head with random scraps, and hammering the message through your body. There is no chance for reflection: you go with it, or you come out with a giant headache. On more than one occasion the line between polemic and propagandising feels breached. I would hate to have this experience if I found the views expressed unpalatable.
But as an opener for this year’s MIF it struck all the right chords. I felt like a new genre was being invented: docu-drone, or fact-hop. Call it what you will, it will appeal to young audiences wishing to rebel against the tinny-headphoned, atomised world of corporate blandness, wanting to be blasted into a higher form of consciousness.
Only one word to the organisers: lose the warning to wear sensible shoes. It kind of misses the point.
Until July 13, www.mif.co.uk