Billed as ‘An Emotional History of the Modern World’, Adam Curtis’s new series of films CAN’T GET YOU OUT OF MY HEAD (2021) is his longest and most ambitious yet. The six-part, eight-hour series covers themes familiar to long-term followers of Curtis’s documentaries: the tensions between individualist and collective approaches to politics; and the paralysis and paranoia that came with the discrediting of twentieth-century ideologies, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as politicians ceased to offer a better future and instead became tribunes of unaccountable corporate interests, to whom they had outsourced many functions of their increasingly undemocratic states. Among the emotions Curtis explores are the feelings of impotence caused by this situation, the anger that motivates political action, the hope that comes with efforts to change the world, and the disappointment and sadness when those efforts fail.
As ever, Curtis populates his overarching narrative by cutting between the most significant political figures of the time – Thatcher and Blair, Nixon and Clinton, Putin and Trump, Bannon and Cummings – and a range of marginal or lesser-known individuals, the links between whom are often conceptual rather than concrete. Rather than fixating on shadowy male intellectuals or financiers, as in previous series such as THE CENTURY OF THE SELF (2002) or THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES (2004), CAN’T GET YOU OUT OF MY HEAD follows more women than usual, and several historical figures from minority backgrounds who were politically liberal or on the left. These include black radical and convicted murderer Michael X; trans woman Julia Grant, star of a BBC documentary about her transition in 1979–80; Black Panther activist Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac; and Mao Zedong’s fourth wife Jiang Qing, as part of a new focus on communist China.
Running parallel to these stories of people who tried to change the world is an exploration of conspiracy theories. Curtis takes us from Kerry Thornley’s invention of ‘Operation Mindfuck’ in 1968 – Thornley spread stories about how ‘the Illuminati’ were behind the civil unrest in the US in the 1960s; the intention was to show the absurdity of conspiracy theories, but the plan backfired and the stories were widely taken at face value – to the QAnon meta-conspiracy popular amongst Trump supporters, especially those who stormed Capitol Hill in 2021 (just in time for a cameo in the final episode). These theories drew oxygen as domestic and international politics became more opaque. Curtis points to the CIA’s fruitless domestic attempts to wipe people’s memories and change their personalities using drugs in the 1950s and 60s, and their successful foreign operations to overthrow Latin American and African governments who opposed US interests after the Second World War, as well as the barely comprehensible workings of the European Union, and the Anglo-American decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 on the flimsiest of pretexts. This has, argues Curtis, left ‘us’ frightened and disoriented, unable to meaningfully act in a world where the levers of power can barely be seen or understood, let alone accessed.
The son of English surrealist poet and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings’s cinematographer, Curtis began making documentaries for the BBC in the early 1980s, having previously worked on consumer affairs show THAT’S LIFE! (1973–1994). His BBC 2 series PANDORA’S BOX (1992), looking at attempts to rationalise politics in the UK, US, USSR and elsewhere, introduced his signature style of putting his own voice over a combination of BBC archive footage and clips from (often obscure) films, TV programmes and advertising, backed by modern composition, pop and electronic music. After his seventh series, ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE (broadcast on BBC4 in 2011), about how computers had ‘distorted and simplified our view of the world around us’, there was a considerable backlash from those who felt Curtis’s aesthetics and politics had become too predictable. A brief but biting parody, THE LOVING TRAP (2011), went viral on Twitter, describing his work as a ‘drunken late-night Wikipedia binge…to a soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails and Brian Eno’. Dan Hancox’s long OPEN DEMOCRACY article followed in 2015, criticising Curtis for portraying ‘ordinary people [as being] without agency or distinction’, and for the disjointed nature of his narratives; a year later, Chris Applegate’s ‘Adam Curtis bingo card’ touched a nerve with its pithy, well-observed list of the filmmaker’s visual, aural and intellectual tropes.
I didn’t go along with this line of criticism until HYPERNORMALISATION came out in 2016. I found it sprawling as a single, 165-minute film, and thought it would have benefitted from being edited into separate episodes like his earlier series, and from the exploration of its big themes – how politicians, technocratic utopians and financiers had built a ‘fake world’ run by corporations and propped up by the media – through a tighter focus on a smaller number of stories. Those who criticised him for making strange connections and sweeping generalisations found plenty to cross off their bingo cards. For example, while arguing that the US counter-culture had failed to change the world because it had become too concerned with individual self-expression, Curtis makes a dubious link between Patti Smith, Martha Rosler and Donald Trump. On the basis that Trump was buying up property in a bankrupt New York at the same time as Smith and Rosler were making art, he implicitly blames the artists – both vocal critics of Trump – for his rise to the presidency. Happily, Curtis seems to have taken these criticisms on board. CAN’T GET YOU OUT OF MY HEAD builds on his well-established approach with a wider-ranging yet more coherent storyline, a broader sonic palette that brings in more hip-hop and post-punk, and deeper emotional sympathy with his expanded cast of characters.
With five 75-minute episodes and a two-hour conclusion, this series does not follow one set of characters from start to finish, but plenty of overarching narratives and stories run throughout. International plotlines criss-cross with national subplots, such as the stultifying impact of the Sackler family’s distribution of drugs – first Valium, then OxyContin – or the power struggles at the top of China’s Communist Party. Other strands flicker in and out, depending on which themes and periods Curtis covers. Some span several episodes, like the rise and fall of Jiang Qing, who called herself a ‘unit of one’, despite Mao’s demand for collective action, and used the Cultural Revolution to avenge people she felt had wronged her in her acting career, before Deng Xiaoping took power and condemned her as a traitor. Others feature only briefly, with varying levels of impact. The story of the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov is fleeting but memorable. Forced into space in a clearly unsafe rocket to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, Komarov insisted his body be publicly displayed if he died in the attempt, which he did. However, that of aristocrat, musician and author Robin Douglas-Home, who committed suicide in 1968, apparently because he couldn’t cope with his wife’s autonomy, is used unconvincingly by Curtis to illustrate the inability of the wider British establishment to deal with post-war social changes, and is quietly dropped.
Curtis deals with the material circumstances behind the emotions he examines. He looks at how individual actions run up against systems of power, and how mechanisation, the rise of oil over coal and the decline of trade unions have all contributed to the feelings of inertia and hopelessness he describes. Organised labour is portrayed more as crumbling rather than being crushed: he mentions the UK miners’ strike of 1984–85, but not how consent for it was eroded in part by the BBC, who notoriously reversed footage from the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 to make it look like the miners attacked the police first, rather than vice versa. To his credit, Curtis does not shy away from the fear and anxiety that came with the end of the British Empire, confronting viewers with the horrific suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s, and suggesting that racism was fuelled by white Britons’ anticipation of reprisals for colonial violence. In China, he argues, any democratisation of the political system or honesty about how it was established will bring it crashing down, as was the case with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist premiership of the USSR: fear and guilt are powerful forces in sustaining the status quo.
His exploration of the confusion and collapse of the US counter-culture works better here than in HYPERNORMALISATION, too. Curtis presents the case of the boats full of refugees leaving Vietnam after the war ended in 1975 – many of whom had been opposed to the communist regime and now had to leave – to show how these radicals struggled to support the oppressed after campaigning for the US government to let the country determine its own future. He uses a disagreement between Jane Fonda, who backed the North Vietnamese government, and Joan Baez, a pacifist but ‘not a leftist’ who spoke in support of the refugees, to indicate the wider tension between those who were advocates of socialist governments, whose actions were not always easy to defend, and those who saw themselves as apolitical humanitarians. He then leads onto Band Aid’s attempts to bypass politicians entirely and directly help Ethiopia during the famine of 1983–85, the failure of which showed the limits of cultural figures in the face of corrupt administrations, and fuelled a pervading sense of hopelessness that became all-consuming over the following decades.
Curtis shows the most generosity to two people who ‘beat the system’. One is Afeni Shakur, one of the 21 Black Panthers acquitted in May 1971 of conspiring to bomb police stations and other buildings in New York, in part because of Shakur’s skill in cross-examining an undercover agent. The agent had infiltrated her circle, and Shakur succeeded in getting him to admit that he had cooked up the plot to discredit the Panthers, and that he had also found the Panthers’s local community work important and inspirational. The other is Julia Grant, a former drag queen based in Manchester who began transitioning in the late 1970s, and allowed the BBC to film her at home, at work and at the Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital for a documentary called A CHANGE OF SEX, first aired in 1979.
The British media’s coverage of trans and non-binary people has been so hateful recently that my hackles automatically rise whenever I see an outsider – especially someone older, whatever their politics – talking about the subject. Curtis treats Grant’s identity (and pronouns) with respect, siding with her against the unnamed and unseen psychiatrist who admonishes her for having breast implants without his permission, telling her that ‘I don’t like people who step out of line’, and implying he might block her treatment as a punishment. The clinician was John Randell, already notorious within the trans community for his zealous attitude towards his gatekeeping role. These scenes, first broadcast in 1980, terrified a generation of British trans people, including me when I saw them in 1994. In Curtis’s telling, Grant wins because she gets what she wants despite Randell’s seeming determination to stop her, or at least make it as difficult as possible for her to access the services.
However, a post-surgical prolapse meant Grant couldn’t have sex with her boyfriend, who then left her. (Thankfully, this is not typical for trans women. For months after my surgery, I had to spend ninety minutes per day holding Perspex dilators inside my ‘neo-vagina’ to stop it closing. I binged on Curtis films while I did this, and eventually discovered my clitoris worked while watching THE CENTURY OF THE SELF.) Typically, Curtis returns to a running theme: the emptiness that often follows a successful battle for personal freedom, concluding that Grant ‘ended up alone’. Like her, I documented my own transition, first for a blog series for the GUARDIAN called ‘A Transgender Journey’ (2010–12), and then in a book, TRANS: A MEMOIR (2015). I cannot speak for Grant, who sadly died in 2019, but I did this because I thought by telling my story, I might show editors there was an audience interested in trans and non-binary issues, and create space for others to discuss not just their own lives but our wider concerns. The first time I found any trans community was in Manchester’s gay village in 2001, at Manhattan’s, which had drag shows, and trans women working behind the bar. It was only in researching my book that I learned Grant had set it up. Her story had not ended in the loneliness of her break-up, as Curtis suggested, but in using the profile she made on the documentary to create a space for trans people, including myself, to feel like part of something bigger than themselves. This was a political act, and a wider conception of ‘the collective’ would doubtless have complicated, but ultimately strengthened, Curtis’s thesis.
As the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first century, the ‘system’ became even harder for individuals such as Grant or Afeni Shakur to beat, with ever more power ceded to unaccountable corporations. In his two-hour final episode, Curtis discusses how companies such as Google were able to become more important than national governments, who gave up on trying to persuade them to serve any idea of the public good. He explains how the Patriot Act that followed 9/11 removed barriers to data collection, allowing manufacturers to turn everyday objects from dolls to vibrators into means of surveillance, largely unopposed by a compliant public. He also revisits the Pokémon Go fad with its ‘persuasive gaming’ that sent people to ‘sponsored locations’ with ‘monetised checkpoints’ – an example of his astute ability to recall and integrate largely forgotten stories, vital in an age where events seem to move too fast for anyone to properly process them.
These corporations became far less inhibited after the collapse of the USSR and the attendant decline in socialist or progressive ideology throughout the 1990s – even in societies that still called themselves communist. Curtis explains how the Chinese regime survived, unlike its Soviet counterpart, by building up its manufacturing base but otherwise abandoning its principles just as much as Russia. He skilfully looks at nostalgia as a driving force in twentieth-century politics, concentrating on Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, who combined far-left and far-right imagery and ideology in their proposed antidote to atomisation. The National Bolsheviks were outlawed by the increasingly autocratic Putin, several years before the 2012 imprisonment of Pussy Riot – who appear briefly in his lengthy, yet sometimes quick fire, conclusion. As China became a threat to the US hegemony, Curtis shows how it became the new demon of the conservative imagination, at the same time that questions about the US’s role in the rise of ISIS became inconvenient. Meanwhile, Putin became the bogeyman of Anglo-American liberals, who blamed Trump and Brexit on Russian interference, putting their hopes in court cases and the Mueller investigation to overturn their defeats, having not noticed resentment of deindustrialisation and globalisation coalescing into domestic far-right movements over years, if not decades.
Coming to the present, Curtis casts Covid-19 as the first extraneous crisis of the twenty-first century. While it may not have been directly caused by political circumstances, he acknowledges that years of under-investment in public services have certainly exacerbated its effects. He talks about how neither the notionally democratic US and UK, the managed democracy in Russia nor China’s dictatorship can offer any compelling vision of the future, and are equally reliant on surveillance for their survival as their institutions continue to decay. In this void, conspiracy theories have run wild, and reactionary nationalists have positioned themselves as the only plausible alternatives to liberal elites. Surprisingly, he gives an optimistic conclusion, suggesting that if individuals regain confidence and organise, and develop a strong story about the problems with modern politics and how to address them, we could find a way out of this impasse. He ends by quoting the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, who said, ‘The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.’
Curtis also quotes political scientist Peter Mair’s book RULING THE VOID (2013), about the hollowing out of Western democracies. Mair cited the European Union and the UK Labour Party as prime examples of institutions that maintained a veneer of accountability, but whose ruling elites had effectively discouraged their publics from political participation, resulting not just in diminished party membership but also plummeting electoral turnouts, and seized control of any mechanisms to change them from within. Mair died suddenly in 2011, meaning he didn’t see Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise ascension to the leadership, backed by an influx of members who made Labour the largest party in Europe, nor the 2017 election in which Labour stood on a transformative manifesto and put their vote share up by nearly 10 per cent on 2015. Graeber also died suddenly, last year, but survived to write one of the best pieces on Labour’s 2019 catastrophe, ‘The Centre Blows Itself Up’. Graeber argued that the morally and intellectually bankrupt Labour establishment, already furious about losing two leadership elections in what felt like (and was) a repudiation of their public-private partnerships and interventionist foreign policy, deliberately sabotaged their own party to defeat a paradigm shift against them. They did this mainly by casting themselves as supporters of the EU, without questioning the EU’s migration policies or imposition of austerity on Greece and elsewhere, and using Corbyn’s refusal to disregard the EU referendum result as a ‘wedge issue’ to divide his base, hoping to demobilise his young supporters and peel away the liberal end of his voter coalition. In the process, many of Labour’s ‘centrist’ MPs lost what were once safe seats in Leave-voting constituencies and handed a thumping majority to one of the most right-wing governments in British history, who immediately voted through the hardest possible Brexit.
This is where Curtis’s selective focus on who holds power and what they do with it becomes a problem. His failure to explore the relationship between legacy media outlets and left-wing challenges to the social order constitute an acute absence. Curtis mentions how social media profits from paranoia and fury, noting the type of emotions generated didn’t matter as long as they fuelled engagement. He talks about how broadsheet newspapers with declining readerships stoked similar feelings to restore their relevance, casting themselves as ‘The Resistance’ to Trump and Brexit. However, he doesn’t mention THE OBSERVER’s closeness to Alastair Campbell, who used his contacts at the paper while working as Tony Blair’s spokesman to persuade it to support the Iraq War, and then, fifteen years later, to back his ‘grassroots’ (but actually corporate-backed) People’s Vote campaign for a second EU referendum, which was then wound up almost immediately after the 2019 UK general election. He doesn’t bring up GCHQ smashing up the GUARDIAN’s hard drives after they published leaked documents from the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden in 2013, having previously covered Wikileaks, and the ‘spy cops’ scandal in which British government agents infiltrated radical and environmental groups and routinely broke the law.
Having covered it elsewhere, Curtis doesn’t spend time on the Leveson Inquiry into systemic malpractice within the British media, which looked at Rupert Murdoch’s corrosive relationship with Conservative and Labour governments. There is nothing about the Chinese government imprisoning young Marxists who felt the Party had lost its way in 2018–19; nothing on Bernie Sanders; and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn. In these instances, instead of talking about how ‘we’ lack new ideas – whenever I went to The World Transformed, a four-day festival of political discussions put on by the left-wing Momentum group at the same time as Labour’s annual conference, it was brimming with them – Curtis might have talked about which systems of power exist to block them, and how they react when seriously challenged from the left.
Curtis’s position at the BBC is largely an asset. His archive footage is often incredible, and the freedom to use whatever music he wishes, due to the BBC’s blanket license agreement with the Performing Rights Society, lets him bring genuine poetry to what is often bleak subject matter. Given a high level of creative freedom after so long within the organisation, Curtis serves as its institutional memory. This is crucial within a media landscape that barely seems to recall what happened a week ago, rarely examines the long-term effects of the War on Terror or post-crash austerity, the crushing of the unions or Blair’s detachment of Labour MPs from the party base, and which has no principles beyond doing whatever it takes to maintain the status quo.
And this is why the absence of Corbyn in particular from the narrative feels so jarring. In 2017, the BBC broadly respected the electoral rules around impartiality, despite concerns about their coverage of Corbyn from the start of his leadership. The result was Corbyn getting the largest rise in personal opinion ratings ever recorded over a campaign and an unexpectedly good result. The BBC’s behaviour in 2019 was entirely different: a series of incidents that look innocuous, even petty on their own (as pointed out in this The Iain Duncan Smiths video that parodies Curtis’s aesthetic) but which, taken together, show an unmistakable bias towards the Conservatives.
These ranged from producing Instagram stories discouraging young people from registering to vote and editing public criticism of Boris Johnson out of footage, to inventing stories about Labour activists attacking the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. On the day Corbyn held a press conference about the Tories’ plan for post-Brexit privatisation of the NHS, swiftly dismissed by journalists as part of a Russian disinformation campaign, BBC News ran an item about how Johnson eats his scones – something I would expect to get laughed out of North Korea. Would the BBC allow Curtis to tell this story? Can we accept a history of the hollowing out of democracy, and the decline of collective politics, that doesn’t look at what was lined up against a mass movement that aimed, above all, to restore trust in democratic institutions – including the BBC?
It’s this criticism that concerns me more than the others usually levelled against Curtis. Some of the connections he makes are difficult to quantify, but he’s an intellectual historian and links between political ideas and events are harder to evidence than, for example, between economic developments and government policies. I’m not too interested in complaints about Curtis’s style, either. You could just as easily criticise Alfred Hitchcock or Werner Herzog for regularly returning to the same themes or formal devices, and by this point, you either like Curtis’s use of voiceover, montage and music or you don’t, and I love it. (They’re infinitely preferable to the glut of documentaries in which the presenter is going ‘on a journey’ with numerous costume changes, in my opinion.)
It would be churlish, too, to attack Curtis for not sharing my ideological position. I don’t expect him to support movements like those behind Corbyn or Sanders, but given his long-term interests in the decay of social democracy, his failure to assess them is notable. That said, there would be less pressure on Curtis’s documentaries, and less concern from the left about their more reactionary elements, if they were part of a more intellectual broadcasting landscape, as when he started out. A look at BBC2 in the first week of June 1992, when PANDORA’S BOX was first broadcast, shows an OPEN SPACE strand where the public could make programmes; documentaries on the failure of the Green Revolution in India, post-Communist Czechoslovakia and the assassination of high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich; Toni Morrison on THE LATE SHOW; a set of films on culture and identity from a black perspective; a dance film by Anthony Minghella; a showcase for new filmmakers; a documentary on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, written by poet Damian Gorman, and another on Frida Kahlo, narrated by Helen Chadwick in Mexico; films directed by Alex Cox and Karel Reisz; a political drama made in Colombia; and daily Open University content.
Who now is being allowed to make the kind of arguments, or take the kinds of aesthetic risks, that currently seem limited to Adam Curtis and the even older Jonathan Meades, both allowed only on iPlayer rather than their former prime-time BBC2 slots? (Just as Curtis no longer has a budget for interviews, one of the best aspects of his work, Meades seems to film mostly with green screens rather than travelling for his documentaries.) In an interview for Novara Media with James Butler in 2020, ‘How We Might Live: Architecture and Culture’, TRIBUNE culture editor Owen Hatherley said he had spoken to the BBC about a series where he would take Humphrey Jennings’s PANDAEMONIUM (1985), a book of contemporary observations about the impact of the Industrial Revolution, as the basis for a history of British modernist culture. Hatherley suggested using archive footage and site visits in a similar vein to Curtis, Meades or architecture critic and TV presenter Ian Nairn, only for the head of BBC Four to dismiss him as ‘a Trot’ and throw out the proposal. This would have made for a great, and not especially expensive piece of television – as would Butler’s hour-long talk about the nature and limits of the British constitution, given at The World Transformed in 2019. 30 years ago, the BBC might well have commissioned both, but not now, and there’s a link between the stupidity of ‘anti-elitist’ broadcasting and the intellectual poverty of our politics. For all its boldness and beauty, this is a link that CAN’T GET YOU OUT OF MY HEAD is not quite able to make. In that, Curtis reveals more about how individuals run up against systems of power than he perhaps intended.