09/29/2013 07:57 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2013

First Nighter: "Massive Attack V Adam Curtis" Explains Today's World But Not Really

Within minutes of Massive Attack V Adam Curtis beginning at the Park Avenue Armory, where it plays through Friday (October 4), I suspected it was going to be one of those events greater than the sum of its parts. And it definitely has myriad parts, including the four-member Robert Del Naja trip-hop band of the title, enhanced by singers Liz Fraser and Horace Andy, and 11 Drill Hall-encompassing screens courtesy of United Visual Arts in collaboration with Es Devlin.

By the time it concluded after about 90 minutes of non-stop music played at standard Massive Attack decibel levels as well as after non-stop footage and still images blared (usually the same still and footage--often newsreel excerpts--on each screen), I had to concede that Massive Attack V Adam Curtis was somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

My 180-degree attitude shift had nothing to do with the music--certainly not with Fraser's singing (for one, an hypnotic rendition of the Fred Ebb-John Kander "My Coloring Book," which hasn't been heard in these parts since Barbra Streisand recorded it in the '60s). The rock concert--which many of the 1800 standees (there was seating only for 18 VIPs) may have thought was going to be strictly what they would be getting--was more than sufficiently torrid enough. There was, however, little Massive Attack-instigated dancing. No room for it.

Massive Attack, by the way, was seen from time to time when the three screens at the end of the hall were backlit. (There were four screens each on the longer Drill Hall walls.) Not surprisingly, the audience cheered when the group first appeared. Whenever the four could be glimpsed subsequently, the fans were palpably appreciative.

The Massive Attack V Adam Curtis drawback was due entirely to documentarian Curtis and his impetus for bringing us this--well, let's call it a report. Or is it simply a report? I just labeled Curtis a documentarian, but here he also operates as a political theorist, whose contribution to the last half century or slightly more of world history is a contention that it can be divided into two parts, one succeeding the other.

According to the way Curtis sees it, during the part immediately following World War II, there was the global belief in an ability to change the world. In Curtis's estimation, when the Cold War began, it quickly became apparent that a changed world wasn't materializing but was also unlikely ever to happen. So beliefs altered. Now it was reckoned that the path to the future lay in a managed world.

To some extent, Curtis tells his story through three famous couples and at least one private couple and one or two others who expected their lives to trend no other way but onward and upward. The celebrated pairs he chooses, of the many he might have, are Romania's Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, Donald and Ivana Trump and Ted Turner and Jane Fonda.

(I know, I know, very weird.)

As images flickered and multiplied on each of the 11 screens, Curtis puts the three couples in a discouraging light. Okay, the Ceausescus put themselves in that glaring light, particularly in the lighting required by the cameras recording their assassinations. Trump, Curtis jibes by referring to the bankruptcies the American master builder has had to declare. Turner undoes himself through inane statements of purpose. Fonda, looking great but hyper-gleeful, conducts exercise classes gleaned from her best-selling tapes.

A Russian couple Curtis selects is called Telov. The son founds a punk-rock group dubbed Glob--punk rock, of course, being the musical expression of young lives devoid of any grope at happiness. The Telovs stand in for a world population under the impression of rejoicing in the promise of good times to come. The common curse is that only despair eventuates.

Curtis's tales are augmented through five parts (Tragic Lives, Fall-Out Chernobyl, New Order, The Shape of Things to Come, The Managed World) that recount the last decades chronologically. They're accompanied by all sorts of corroborating sequences and, perhaps needless to say, world leaders making hollow pronouncements. Vladimir Putin is the last, and who's going to question his tendency towards provocative comments this month? It's all meant to illustrate--not really inaccurately--the mess resulting from both the change-the-world prospectus and the manage-the-world prospectus. By the way, in choosing what he wants to show us, Curtis doesn't hesitate to show the Ceausescu deaths film strips.

Ultimately, the problem with Curtis's weltanschaaung--and with his shaking a tightly clenched fist at authority--is that while he thinks he's rising to a desperate need for profundity, he comes across as sophomorically superficial. Even more superficial is the conclusion he draws for those of us caught in the gathering miasma. I'm not going to quote the five-word exit dictum here that sounds as if it was pulled from every self-help book you might pick up. If I did repeat it, I'm virtually certain any reader would respond with a bemused, "That's what he's come up with?!"

There's an even worse aspect to Massive Attack V Adam Curtis: Without his seeming to be aware of it, Curtis is practicing what he's adamantly preaching against. Eighteen hundred patrons stand while bombarded loudly with images and music. Watching--no, experiencing--this, it's difficult to see the crowd docility as any different from the masses dunned into submission by simplistic messages during mid-20th-century totalitarian rallies.

And to think it's all taking place in what's known as the Drill Hall.