Adam Curtis, “It Felt Like A Kiss” (2009)
A quirky visual montage of old newsreels and Hollywood films that documents a culturally transitional age in American history – the 1960s – during which the United States reigned supreme as the most economically, culturally and militarily dominant power in the world yet also a time when the roots of the country’s decline and perhaps eventual undoing and destruction were being planted: this is Adam Curtis’s “It Felt like a Kiss”. Instead of his usual soothing if slightly shocked narration, the music and captions have taken over: the captions hint at significant events yet to happen and the music, which in the main is 1960s girl-group bubblegum pop and related muzak, is sometimes an ironic commentary on the images and subject matter that suggests itself in the passages of selected montaged images and their neighbours before and after them. The film was originally part of a multi-media presentation with original music provided by Damon Albarn and the Kronos Quartet at its inception as part of the Manchester International Festival in 2009.
I have to admit that although some of the songs were familiar – I was born in the 1960s so some music should be familiar! – I felt they were more a turn-off than a soundtrack to draw me in. There were personalities and excerpts of TV shows and films that I vaguely knew or remembered and of course I recognised Doris Day and Rock Hudson, if not the film they appeared together in. How people born after 1970 can relate to some if not most of the material and the songs in the film is beyond me, unless their parents obsessively reminded them of what they lived through before the offspring were born. If I recognise people like Patrice Lumumba and Nikita Khrushchev or images like the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who dumped petrol on himself and then self-ignited in protest at the civil war in his country, it’s because I was curious enough to try looking up some of these incidents and personalities in print or online media, or they have become iconic in contemporary pop culture.
The film does ground viewers into its preferred time-range by showing captions of significant events about to unfold or to be realised off-screen at a later date: thus the film mentions that construction of the World Trade Center buildings began in the mid-1960s and that Osama bin Laden’s father Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden died in 1967, having built up a successful construction business that spanned nearly 40 years and which included clients such as the Saudi royal family and the Carlyle Group, the global private equity investment firm whose directors and senior management have included George H W Bush, former British Prime Minister John Major, Olivier Sarkozy (the half-brother of the French President) and Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand whose sister Yingluck is the current incumbent. Other events covered include the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers, JFK and Robert, the history of HIV and how it jumped the species barrier from apes to humans, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s rise to power which was aided by the CIA. The way these tidbits of information are scattered throughout the documentary is meant to be intriguing and titillating but after a while they get a little irritating because they come without much context: the emergence of HIV as a major threat to humankind means little without reference to Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt rule as President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the civil war fought in Katanga / Shaba province which tried to secede from the country: both the corruption and the war among other things kept most Zairois stuck in poverty and many people must have hunted apes as a free source of food – this may be one explanation for how HIV came to infect humans. (Another possible if very un-PC explanation is that apes were used as sacrificial victims in religious rituals and their blood included in local medicines or religious worship.) Similarly, mention of the TV show “Bonanza” being Osama bin Laden’s favourite viewing as a child means nothing unless we know for sure if bin Laden sympathised with the Indians and not the cowboys.
The episode overall looks like a rather self-indulgent, even timid excursion in nostalgia for the fads, pop culture and celebrities of mainstream US culture in the 1960s. There’s nothing about experimental or cutting-edge artistic, scientific and technological trends that emerged during the period (we get a brief glimpsed of a young Andy Warhol but that’s about it) which were to become significant in later decades; I would have thought at least the musician and composer Raymond Scott, whose music was adapted by Carl Stalling for classic Bugs Bunny cartoons and who was a significant pioneer in electronic music composition and inventor of various electronic music devices and instruments, might have rated a mention or a music credit as might also the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the time. The message that the episode is meant to convey – that the dominance of US pop culture throughout the world in the 1960s was overwhelming to the extent that other cultural alternatives were either forgotten or went underground where they festered and warped into something abnormal and diseased – is lost on viewers.
The song “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, based on US singer Little Eva’s relationship with her abusive boyfriend, is an allusion to the episode’s theme; it was covered by girl-group the Crystals who were famous for songs like “Da Doo Ron Ron”. Little Eva herself became famous for the original version of “The Loco-Motion”, later made famous around the world by Australian singer Kylie Minogue as her debut single.