Rock Hudson. Saddam Hussein. Lee Harvey Oswald. Doris Day. Enos the Chimp. And everyone above level seven at the CIA.
So goes the “cast” list, in order of billing, of Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss, which has a rare screening at Echo Park Film Center on Saturday. Like many of Curtis’ documentaries (The Century of the Self, The Trap, The Power of Nightmares), Kiss consists primarily of footage painstakingly culled from the BBC’s video archives. But this unrelenting montage of found footage — blending ads, propaganda films, Pillow Talk and other Day/Hudson vehicles, crime-scene photos, behind-the-scenes footage of both a fashion shoot and the making of Rosemary’s Baby and much, much more — set to a nearly unbroken stream of pop music is stylistically unlike anything Curtis has made before.
Initially created as an element of an immersive, haunted house–style installation mounted in 2009 in collaboration with British theater company Punchdrunk, the Kiss experience was later condensed by Curtis into a 56-minute film. It was unscreenable in most commercial venues due to its high volume of “borrowed” sound and image; Curtis has made it available for free streaming and download via Archive.org.
Dispensing with the stentorian voice-over with which he led the viewer through previous works like Nightmares, Curtis here parcels out guiding anecdotes via on-screen text, describing a continuum of events beginning in 1959 and extending into the mid-’60s. Saddam leaves Iraq to work for the CIA in Egypt; Oswald heads to Moscow. Hudson gets divorced; the AIDS virus first spreads from monkey to human.
The Kennedy assassination — and particularly its aftermath, in which “no one could agree what happened” — is treated as farce, an explanation of the single-bullet theory scored to a bebop beat. An unidentified pundit describes the Twin Towers on the eve of their construction as “fangs” ruining the perfection of the New York skyline — which in turn was “the finest thing capitalism has ever built.” And while these fangs were being commissioned in New York, Osama bin Laden’s dad was breaking construction in Saudi Arabia on a new road to Mecca. While his dad worked, 10-year-old Osama — like any baby-boomer latchkey kid — sat at home watching Bonanza.
It’s instructive that Curtis takes the project’s name from the second half of the title of Carole King’s song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” The emphasis is not on the violent impact of an event, but on the strange reverberations that follow, the romantic justifications of atrocity. Curtis introduces that song 17 minutes into the film, using it as backdrop first to footage of a reclining woman sobbing hysterically (this imagery is returned to later, and revealed to be not exactly what it seems), and then to snippets of Thích Quàng-Đúc’s self-immolation in the streets of Saigon. As Kiss arcs from postwar bliss to pre-hippie confusion, Curtis makes a compelling case that Americans’ increasingly solipsistic, “me me me” lifestyle allowed for a kind of collective blindness to sociopolitical shock waves both local and global.
Americans, Curtis’ text tells us, “had found a new world to conquer inside their heads.” The film crescendoes to adventures in psychedelics and self-actualization, as the definition of “freedom” devolves into a lack of limit on consumption. And then comes the dark side: self-loathing, psychotherapy, self-destruction.
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Curtis cuts between images at the familiar speed and rhythm of a remote control of changing channels, while the soundtrack — Phil Spector–style pop, Sinatra, Shostakovich, excerpts from the Fight Club score — mimics a restless hand on the car radio dial.
It’s essentially the inverse of the approach taken by the other recent mind-boggling found-footage historical document, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. At a narration-and-context-free 180 minutes, Ceausescu is a kind of endurance exercise: With no map imposed on the footage by the filmmaker, the viewer must invent his or her own connections. In contrast, Kiss goes down like candy, but Curtis’ fast-paced, editorial sleight of hand still demands incredibly alert viewing. He regularly drops idea bombs in passing — like the career of Terence Young, a Hollywood and James Bond film director hired to make a melodrama propagandizing Saddam Hussein’s valor, and the heartbreaking origin story of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” — moving from one loaded cultural-historical footnote to another in a lightning-quick barrage, forcing us to pick and choose which aspects of his phantasmagoria to fixate on and dismantle.
“The imaginary seemed so real, and the world outside became like a dream,” reads one on-screen title. This dangerous ambiguity is Curtis’ true subject: reality as filtered through dreams and nightmares, fictions created, consciously or not, as distractions. With its seemingly random juxtapositions creating a wall of visuals as thickly, intricately woven as the wall of sound that serves as much of the soundtrack, Curtis has called Kiss “an attempt to do history as if it was from the point of view of living through it.” It’s a portrait of the peak of American hegemony giving way to its demise — a transition only perceptible from the vantage point of the future.
FILM JOURNEYS: IT FELT LIKE A KISS | Written, directed and edited by ADAM CURTIS | Sat., April 23, 8 p.m. | Echo Park Film Center | echoparkfilmcenter.org