The world according to Adam Curtis

Archival footage with visible timestamps: check. Reassuringly aloof narration: check. Ironic juxtaposition: check. Grand theories and disorientating non sequiturs: check. Stark sans-serif font: check. Uber-cool soundtrack: check. It can only be a new documentary series by Adam Curtis or, as I like to think of him, Ken Burns for hipsters.

Five years after his last series, HyperNormalisation, Curtis’s new six-part documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, has landed on BBC iPlayer (and, inevitably, YouTube). All of the British documentarian’s familiar aesthetic stylings and thematic concerns are present and correct across the series’ running time of almost eight hours. Here, as elsewhere in his oeuvre, Curtis is interested in power, and specifically how its operation is concealed. If the series has what in playwriting terms would be called a ‘central dramatic question’, it might be whether collectivism or individualism emerged as the dominant cultural and political force of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.            

‘What really started me off on this latest series,’ Curtis told the New Statesman’s Gavin Jacobson, ‘was that I became extremely puzzled by all those people who hated Donald Trump and Brexit but were unable to develop any alternative vision of how to solve the issues that gave rise to them.’ Curtis’ analysis of these phenomena is by now a commonplace one on the left (even if Curtis tends to reject the label when it’s applied to him): the working and lower-middle classes, abandoned by Labour and other ‘progressive’ parties, and politically and economically alienated from a globalised and financialised economy, saw in Trump and Brexit the means with which to vent their anger at the ‘elites’ who run everything for their own benefit. (Never mind, of course, that Trump, as well as leading Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, were conspicuous member of the elites themselves.)    

More interesting is Curtis’ gloss on the failure of various revolutionaries and radical movements in China, Prague, Mexico, France, the US, the UK and elsewhere to overthrow establishments corrupted by ideological fervour and the pursuit of personal enrichment. The infiltration of the Black Panthers by the CIA and the fracturing of the Tiananmen Square protest movement are explored at length (and the footage of student leader Chai Ling’s breakdown in front of reporter Philip Cunningham remains shocking).

Even more fascinating is Curtis’ account of Michael de Freitas, aka Michael X, the London-based, Trinidad and Tobago-born black revolutionary who was jailed in the late 1960s for ‘inciting racial hatred’ (Curtis contrasts this with the indifferent response of authorities to the contemporaneous anti-immigrant rhetoric of Enoch Powell, the conservative politician who became notorious for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech). De Freitas is a classic Curtisean protagonist – magnetic, articulate, and ultimately tragic: he wound up being hanged for murder, aged just 41, while on the run from authorities in Trinidad and Tobago. Curtis mines a British television interview to stunning effect.

Curtis’ knack for unearthing compelling archive footage remains intact. Much of it lingers in the mind, like the extraordinary vision of pioneering English trans woman Julia Grant undergoing surgery, dancing in a nightclub, and being interviewed by a distressingly hostile National Health Service psychologist (one of Curtis’ many delicious abutments sees some of this footage spliced with vision of Margaret Thatcher talking – god only knows why – about shoulder pads and the ironing of hems). And I suppose we have Curtis’ former life as a producer of the magazine-style show That’s Life! to thank for his enduring eye for the trashy and absurd. Once seen, the 1996 Moscow Bodyguard of the Year Contest is not easily forgotten.    

Such moments of levity are few and far between, however. If the series has a consistent affective mode, it is one of exhaustion and despair. Each episode, it seems, brims with suicides: the British aristocrat Robin Douglas-Home. The authors Edgar Mittelholzer and Harry M. Caudill. Luo Jingyu, husband of Chinese actress Li Lili, and several leaders of the Red Army Faction as well as founding member Horst Mahler’s father. One can only imagine Curtis’ frame of mind while cutting all this together, with the assistance of producer Sandra Gorer, in some crepuscular corner of the BBC’s archives while Covid-19 raged outside.

In essence, Can’t Get You Out of My Head argues that the twentieth and now the early twenty-first century are haunted by the ghosts of the ideological and revolutionary dead. As the Soviet Union collapsed, its dissolution heralded as the ‘end of history’, the dreams of the revolutionaries lived on not as shaping forces but merely spectral presences, phantasmal reminders of a time when alternatives appeared possible.    

The series is also haunted, in its way, by the late cultural theorist and academic Mark Fisher, himself a proponent of ‘hauntology’ – Derrida’s notion of how the present is always subject to the stubborn persistence of the past. Like Fisher, Curtis is obsessed with several UK artists, many of them on the record label Ghost Box, who took Derrida’s name to describe their particular brand of eerie electronica made to sound like emanations from some alternative, temporally disordered universe.

Curtis’ critics will no doubt find all of their usual misgivings apply. Here, as in his previous documentaries, Curtis gives a lot of weight to charismatic, romantically tragic individuals, and downplays the role of mass movements. To take one example, his claim that the Iraq War provoked no protests because it didn’t impact the lives of Westerners is, frankly, ludicrous. However short-lived or unfruitful organised opposition to the War may have been, the protests were enormous – hundreds of thousands marched in US and UK cities alone – and arguably galvanised a generation, including this writer, in much the same way the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam had thirty-four years earlier. At times, Curtis sounds a little like an updated C Wright Mills, the sociologist who in his pessimistic 1956 book The Power Elite argued that individuals were essentially powerless subjects of manipulation by the military, corporate, and political establishments.    

 Yet for once, I think, Curtis does acknowledge the transformative power of collective action, and convincingly traces its decline in the face of mass consumerism and the behavioural psychology that was used to underline the West’s critique of Soviet-style collectivism. ‘It may be,’ Curtis argues towards the end of the series, sounding more like Naomi Klein than John Gray, ‘that we are far stronger than we think.’

It’s good too to see Curtis finally address China’s political and economic ascendance, focusing on Jiang Qing’s rise to power and her leading role in the Cultural Revolution, as well as foreground racism and whiteness as key determinants of the fate of individuals and post-colonial societies after the Second World War.      

I found the series’ more significant flaw to be the amount of explanatory power Curtis ascribes to conspiracy theories like those propagated by the anti-communist, pro-small government John Birch Society – a sort of prototypical QAnon – and Jim Garrison, the Democrat best known for his investigation into the assassination of JFK. It’s fascinating to think of these paranoid effluvia as harbingers of our own, conspiracy-saturated times, but are these really world-historical forces in the way the documentary seems to suggest? I’m not so sure. As Curtis makes clear elsewhere, it is the ‘true’ conspiracies, from the US’s pathological meddling in the democratic processes of dozens of countries to the almost complete selling out of the public good to the private interests of the banks and corporations, that have done the most to shape the modern world.   

I wondered, too, if Curtis might have found more to say about the climate crisis, one of several narrative strands he picks up only to let go of before reaching any kind of conclusion. Towards the end of his superb autofictional novel Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar wonders if climate change might ‘provide the necessary larger idea’ to inspire America to ‘a nobler idea than money’. ‘Change was coming to the system,’ he writes, ‘because it would have to.’ Now there’s a sentence I can hear in Curtis’ voice.

If nothing else, Can’t Get You Out of My Head – like all of Curtis’ documentaries – serves as a reminder of a time when the not inconsiderable resources of the BBC were routinely invested in genuinely challenging and somewhat experimental programming. The series may be confined to the broadcaster’s on-demand service, rather than shown primetime as it may once have been, but its existence testifies to, if not that the revolutionary dream still lives, at least that its death has not been forgotten.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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