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Movie Review: The Century of the Self

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There are very few movies I wish I could force my friends to watch, that I feel encapsulate a feeling that I've had but have been unable to articulate. It's not Zeitgeist. It's not Loose Change. It's not controversial. I however find it far more compelling, and have for the past three years maintained a tradition of watching it. It's a documentary by Adam Curtis of the BBC called The Century of the Self.

The Century of the Self enjoyed some success in theaters after its production, and has been warmly received among audiences despite its length of four hours and its rather unsexy subject matter. When I say unsexy, I mean no wild claims are levied at the powers that be, no big conspiracies are alleged. The Century of the Self did, however, win a Longman/History Today award for Best Historical Film of the Year.

So what is that subject matter exactly? You!

Curtis attempts to dissect just what's wrong with the world today, why we're so dissatisfied, when, by all accounts, industry has brought the standard of living far higher than it's ever been in the past. He creates an interesting hypothesis. Curtis postulates that the ideas of Sigmund Freud have had a long-lasting impact on culture that isn't appreciated in most circles, that his notions of the self have created a new kind of citizen.

He charts the life of Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, the man responsible for the term public relations, who was the first to link products with people's unconscious desires. Bernays was the man who gave us product placements, celebrity endorsements, and the Banana Republic coup in Guatemala in the 1950s (and you thought that was a political thing!). Curtis argues that Bernays helped pave the way for the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s, with advertisers seeking ever more to satisfy the needs of increasingly self-interested consumers. He then takes these ideas further and examines the pitfalls this kind of pandering has created on the world scene as the same agencies helping to create focus groups for companies wishing to market new products work to create political platforms for different candidates.

I know it's a big idea, which is why it takes four hours to get through all the implications that it has, but this documentary flies by on the strength of Curtis's intriguing hypothesis, the connections he finds between events and aftermaths, and the dynamic way in which he presents his evidence, specializing in rare, sometimes bizarre, and often humorous archival footage from decades at the BBC.

I promise you this — you'll walk away feeling a little humbled, and a little more skeptical, and – I'll say it – a little bit smarter.

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