As soon as the creepy music comes in with the titles in that graceless font — all caps, no serifs — you know you’re watching an Adam Curtis documentary. There’s nothing like it: an incomparably original blend of film, journalism and political philosophy. Whether or not you like Adam Curtis’s aesthetics, or share his ideas, he does have a knack for making you think. More importantly, he makes you feel what you’re thinking.
The title of his latest six-part documentary film, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, sums up that unique skill of his: conveying the emotional impact of political ideas. He does this, quite explicitly, through art. Because Curtis is, above all, an artist.
His medium is primarily film, specifically archival footage. For most of his career the 65-year-old Englishman has been producing documentaries for the BBC and he has become extremely deft at scouring the broadcaster’s seemingly inexhaustible video archive. Then there’s the eerie electronic music, or the songs with lyrics that are poignantly congruous or subtly comical. Yet ultimately, what raises his films above the level of mere video collage is the narrative thread – in his own rather proper English intonation — creating a sort of cross-current with the other, more visceral elements.
To sum up his politics in terms of left or right would not do justice to his rather mercurial ideas. It’s exactly his ability to defy such categories that makes you scratch your head, or say “Aha, that’s it!” After which he proceeds to undermine the very insight he insinuated into your mind. To condense his theses would also undermine the power of his films. And that power is the ability to incite strange, seemingly irrational, reactions to very rational attempts at exposition. You can always feel a riptide of unconscious and/or subliminal messages embedded in his attempts to unearth any given layer of pre-existing unconscious and/or subliminal relics.
What can be said for certain is that Curtis devotes much of his focus to the notion of individualism. He explores how individualism appeared to blossom in the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and how it subsequently metastasized in the ’70s and ’80s — co-opted by a consumer culture that fed the relentless generation of desire necessary to keep the “systems of power,” as he refers to them, functioning. What happened along the way, however, was that individualism became an undemocratic force. At least that’s what Curtis wants to drive into us.
In his exploration of individualism and its relationship to systems of power, he spans the globe, concentrating on late 20th-century developments in the United States, his native United Kingdom, the Soviet Union (subsequently Russia), and China. His narrative technique owes a lot to the USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos, in terms of projecting a dominant voice broken up by heterogeneous counterpoints. Curtis captivates the viewer with several ostensibly incongruous stories, then weaves them with the weft of meaning into a plush narrative fabric. But his political ideas always come across as intentionally amorphous. You might detect the influence of Max Weber, Kropotkin perhaps, or the Existentialists. And yet, he often refers to strains of behavioral psychology, which serve as ballast to any ideology that might risk soaring away from the very palpable human condition of “me, the individual, sealed up in a sack of skin with a mind that is constantly being assailed by the media to which I have become a symbiont.”
With respect to his craft as filmmaker, his choice of music is notable. He has a fine ear for pop zeitgeist, and is clearly indebted to Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who can be heard in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or any number of David Lynch films. The visual aesthetics are film analogs of Robert Rauschenberg’s multimedia approach to painting. But the general sensibility recalls in some strange way the horror movies and episodes of The Twilight Zone that informed his generation, which grew up with the TV as babysitter. It’s easy to hear Curtis’s words with Rod Serling’s voice: “Imagine a world in which all your noblest desires for humanity have been co-opted, appropriated by a desiring machine, a body without organs feeding on the emotions triggered by conspiracy theories…”
Inevitably, Can’t Get You Out of My Head plunges into that postmodern realm of relativity, of no valid overarching meta-narrative to hang on to. But it does so reluctantly. It seems that Curtis is hoping – against the illusion of hope – that “the people” will take back “the power” they assumed was theirs. That’s a very noble assumption. And that’s my problem with Curtis. Whether he is exploring the individual vis-à-vis systems of power, or behavioral psychology, or collective change in society, it seems he has locked himself into what might be described as a humanist trap. He refrains from exploring any possible transcendent element (apart from the causal effect of ideologies and cultural fashions) to the evolution of societies.
In the last scene (spoiler alert), Curtis offers us a quote in those hallmark capital letters from the anthropologist and activist David Graeber, who died last year. Curtis opines about how thrilling it would be if we could only regain our confidence and rediscover this one forgotten idea: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
And that’s the problem. I find it hard, after six-plus hours of what could be described as a genealogy of contemporary narcissism and human hubris, to invest even a modicum of hope in any purely human endeavor – particularly one so self-consciously amputated from the divine, so stalwartly dismissive of the transcendental ends of beauty, truth and good as mere consolations, and so immersed in the exalted morass of subconscious urges for material well-being and the veneer of happiness it affords. As the outro song – This Mortal Coil’s “Till I Gain Control” – prepares us for the final credits, Curtis’s wishful thinking strikes me as a recipe, if not for disaster, then for more of the same treadmill existence he so masterfully unveils.
Photo: a cadre from “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World” (2021).