Live: “Massive Attack V Adam Curtis” at New York’s Park Armory

The film/concert combo of Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and heady documentarian Adam Curtis feels like something altogether new: it floods the senses with an immersive multimedia denunciation of our modern condition.

October 02, 2013

Massive Attack V Adam Curtis, currently running in New York’s Park Avenue Armory, is neither a concert orchestrated by Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja accompanied by visual montage, nor a film by heady documentarian Adam Curtis accompanied by a live band—instead, the film/concert combo feels like something altogether new: it floods the senses with an immersive multimedia denunciation of our modern condition.

The decision to host the U.S. premiere of Massive Attack V Adam Curtis in the cavernous Park Armory was a good one—few other venues in the city approach the Armory’s grandeur (the performance hall can fit three adult blue whales head to tail). Eleven enormous screens have been hung within the space, creating a visual cage in which the audience stood, sat, and in elusive moments of levity, danced. Toward one end of the hall, the screens were opaque, and one could watch members of Massive Attack and guests Liz Fraser (of Cocteau Twins) and roots reggae legend Horace Andy perform through the haunting images of Adam Curtis’ latest film, Everything Is Going According to Plan.

One of the more original directors working today, Curtis has a gift for blending his academic background in politics, anthropology, evolutionary biology and psychology into convincing and thoughtful narrative documentaries. His vision of society—expounded in series like Century of the Self and The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom—is as bleak and harrowing as a war memorial. In Everything Is Going According to Plan, Curtis argues that over the last half-century, Western society has abandoned idealistic optimism in favor of risk-averse, managed societies in which we strive to create predictable outcomes—that we no longer want to change society for the better, but are obsessed with keeping it, and everyone in it, safe and secure. In order to predict the future, we look to the past, which sends us into a cultural and political feedback loop. Hence the film’s mantra: “If you liked that then you’ll love this.”

To prove his point, Curtis casts a wide net over history, threading a loose but interesting narrative between such disparate characters and events as Donald Trump, 9/11, Jane Fonda’s workout tapes, Chernobyl, Osama bin Laden, the Soviet Russian post-punk band GrOb, former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, and the first rock concert in Afghanistan—and that’s just scratching the surface. It’s a lot to cover in 90 minutes, and unfortunately that brevity leaves little room for nuance. At times the film devolves into a blurred montage of iconic imagery and two-cent slogans. At its best, Everything is Going According to Plan is a clever and visceral meditation; but at its worst, it feels like you’ve stepped into an audiovisual adaptation of Adbusters.

Meanwhile, Massive Attack threads between the images like a barbed vine, scoring the film with era-appropriate but haunting renditions of Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar,” and just one of their own tracks, "Karmacoma." The effect is disturbing—especially against the film's backdrop of mangled corpses—leaving some dancers in the audience carrying out their own macabre performances. But it’s the ambient sounds and bone-shaking, apocalyptic drones that leave the most distinct impression.

Audience members with an eye—and ear—for detail will be rewarded: pay close attention and you’ll notice that up in the rafters, there are men with barking dogs; a machine gun rests on stage. It's unsettling and leaves one on edge. Halfway through the performance I heard a woman scream from the back of the audience and snapped around to look—Massive Attack V Adam Curtis had gotten the better of me. Leaving the hall after the performance, a young man in a suit turned to his date. “That was intense,” I overheard him say. “Yeah,” she responded. “I’d imagined it differently.”

Massive Attack V Adam Curtis runs through Friday, October 4. Tickets are available here.

Live: “Massive Attack V Adam Curtis” at New York’s Park Armory