Four-hour Brit docu "The Century of the Self" ponders the impact Freud's theories had on 20th century culture. It's a fascinating viewpoint, even if this BBC series has diminishing returns as the narrowness of its thesis is exposed in application to more recent events.

Four-hour Brit docu “The Century of the Self” ponders the impact Freud’s theories had on 20th century culture, particularly the way psychological ideas muddied the distinctions between consumerism, politics, democracy and advertising. It’s a fascinating viewpoint, even if this BBC series has diminishing returns as the narrowness of its thesis is exposed in application to more recent events. Consistently engaging due to the wealth of generally unfamiliar archival footage, which reveals social trends, sweeping overview should provoke healthy debate in further fest dates and foreign tube sales. U.S. market might be an exception, however, since docu’s relentless, very British view of American society as sheep being herded by sharks may be too much even for liberal pubcasters.

Part 1, “Happiness Machines,” centers on how Freud’s nephew Edward Bernaise (seen in a 1991 interview) played a leading role in turning the shrink’s notions about the supremacy of unconscious desires into a tool for mass manipulation. Credited with inventing the term “public relations,” his amply paid consulting gigs with various U.S. concerns impacted everything from promoting Yankee-style democracy in post-WWII Europe to extinguishing the stigma of women smoking cigarettes (by selling them as modern, independent women’s “torches of freedom”).Tapping hidden fantasies of status and luxury (partly by introducing Hollywood product placement), Bernaise is — perhaps extravagantly — given the lion’s share of the blame for changing the populace from participatory citizens to easily placated, self-absorbed consumers. Part 2, “The Engineering of Consent,” extends these themes into post-war years, with focus on how Freud’s daughter Anna upheld a strict interpretation of his ideas — which largely view man as struggling against inner-barbarism. In the conformist Eisenhower Era, with its Cold War paranoia, manipulation of fear and desire encompassed everything from suburban planned communities and consumer product focus groups to the CIA’s overthrowing a Guatemalan president unfriendly to foreign business. On the individual level, belief in the benefits of extreme control led to disasterous results –electroshocktherapy and behavior-altering drugs, for example. High-profile patient Marilyn Monroe’s suicide was seen as a p.r. catastrophe for aggressive psychotherapies.

Seg titled “There Is a Policeman Inside Our Heads and He Must Be Destroyed” charts rising opposition to such controls. To Anna Freud’s fury, her father’s late, once discredited nemesis Wilhelm Reich came into fashion. He’d urged that the innermost, sexual and violent self shouldn’t be repressed, but rather encouraged to express itself; only then could the full person emerge.

Entertaining footage of 1960s-70s “self-actualization” trends (encounter groups, primal scream therapy, est, et al.) is used to ridicule the Human Potential Movement’s perceived re-directing of social idealism toward the indulgences of the Me Decade. Ironically, acknowledgement of those Left-derived values would be used to win voters toward the conservative regimes of Reagan and Thatcher, as skein’s final seg (“Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering,” a hat-tip toward the influence of focus groups on policy) at last pairs up the U.S. and U.K. and ostensibly liberal successors, Clinton and Blair.

In this seg, voters have become so self-interested that no politico can risk addressing important but unpleasant issues such as homelessness, race relations and the growing gap between socioeconomic classes, since marketing research indicates people will become alienated by such topics. Instead, only concerns of direct sentimental or comfort-level interest to the middle class (tax cuts, stiffening criminal sentences) are “safe.”

Here and in “Policeman,” however, docu’s insistence on viewing everything through same narrow prism grows more repetitious and questionable. After all, jingoism and doubletalk in politics were hardly unknown before Freud; ditto myriad other forms of mass-manipulation. As a result, “Century of the Self” grows more simplistic as it goes along.

Nonetheless, these four hours constitute an invigorating perspective of wide interest. Package has been skillfully assembled, with nary a dull moment between wonderful archival clips and an extraordinary interview roster. Latter encompasses strategists Dick Morris and Philip Gould, Celeste Holm (who shared MM’s psychiatrist), est founder Werner Erhardt, Mario Cuomo, surviving relatives of Freud and Bernaise, and many others.

One minus is eventual overuse of a few retro-kitsch musical motifs (also archivally drawn).

The Century of the Self



An RDF production for BBC Television. Produced by Adam Curtis. Executive producer, Stephen Lambert. Directed, written by Adam Curtis.


Camera (color/B&W, vid), David Barker, William Sowerby; editor, Curtis; sound, Judy Davidson, Austin Wyters. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 18, 22. Running time: 240 MIN.
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