One of the many arguments for public service broadcasting is the ability to commission and broadcast a long-form polemical documentary, composed almost entirely of stock footage, telling a huge and difficult story, with the guarantee that it will be watched by a small but highly engaged audience and, because of the rights for the stock footage, cannot be issued on home video. It is entirely the sort of project in which the BBC is expected to invest, but it is also the signature form of Adam Curtis, whose latest series “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” was unveiled on the BBC iPlayer in February 2021.
Curtis specialises in densely-packed stories about how power is structured, from how memory and history is manipulated by politicians in 1995’s “The Living Dead,” through the exploration of concepts of freedom in 2007’s “The Trap,” to how computers distorted our view of the world in 2011’s “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” From the feature film-length “Bitter Lake” (2015), which looked at the failure of the political good-versus-evil narrative, Curtis’s work was freed of the constrictions of TV schedules, free to flourish on the BBC iPlayer, telling stories bigger still: “HyperNormalisation” (2016) was a two hour, forty-minute film about how we reached where we are as a society today, and why we don’t know where to go next.
These series and films mix sociology, politics, psychology, philosophy, along with eclectic uses of music and stock footage to support the narrative: Curtis has explained that his signature use of the latter, starting from 1992’s “Pandora’s Box,” came from trying to find a way of illustrating the concepts of rationalism and systems analysis found in that series, compounded by the twin threats to a filmmaker of desperation and deadlines. Watching films by Curtis can be intoxicating in the conviction with which his narratives are told, and with the inspiration in the visuals chosen, but you can also see how his work inspired similar videos on various subjects on YouTube and other video services, as stock footage libraries and professional video editing become ever more accessible.
Lasting seven hours over six parts, the last running for two hours, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is billed as an emotional history of our times, about how power shifted from the old ruling classes and elites towards individuals, and how this shift created its own set of problems. The lives of individuals like Jiang Qing, the single-minded Chinese actress who became wife of Mao Zedong and chief of Chinese propaganda; Michael X, an enforcer for a London slumlord who became a Black revolutionary; and Julia Grant, a transgender woman whose transition challenged the medical gatekeeping of her time. Good or bad, they were out on their own by necessity, and despite the system.
Watching all six parts of the series is overwhelming – I am supposed to be sceptical of grand narratives like the one weaved by Curtis through these episodes, building a picture of a world that has lost its way, but the central premise of the series is that it is not clear where we are going, so having Curtis attempt to untangle the threads, building on both the themes and the weight of his previous work, is welcome. I get the feeling that the final two-hour episode was originally envisaged to be the whole story, but you realise the magnitude of events being weaved together required the previous five hours of explanation first. My takeaway from it was that revolution is not possible because the world has been made too complex to understand in a predictable way, and that while using computers made the complexity more manageable, it rendered consciousness essentially useless – you can see the world how you want, but it won’t make any difference. This is where populism and social media could then exploit “high-arousal” emotions in people, like outrage and suspicion. Anything can be made to be anything, and societies have become exhausted.
I was grateful for two examples of human gullibility, excavated and woven into the narrative, that I should have framed: “Operation Mindfuck,” the thought experiment that placed a fake letter in “Playboy” magazine about the conspiracy theory of the Illuminati, because an 18th century Austrian society being in charge of the world today was supposed to be transparently a silly thing to believe; and that the imagery of the Ku Klux Klan was not only a fictional creation from the novel on which the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was based, but that the novels of Sir Walter Scott that inspired that imagery was itself fictional.
It is hard to expect a documentary series to provide answers for how we should get out of the hole that has been described, but “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” makes clear that whatever comes next, especially after the catastrophe of Covid-19, will be something we have to think about, and whether individualism is something stays or melts back into society, we may have more reason to be confident about making those decisions than we thought.
The series is a towering achievement for Adam Curtis, not least because of its size and ambition, but also because it feels like the climax of the stories he has told across the last three decades. It is also telling that BBC Three, the online channel for which the series was nominally made, has been chosen to return as a regular over-the-air TV channel from January 2022, as if the stories told for it need to be seen as widely as possible. I suspect Curtis is already looking for what that next story will be.
The series ends with the line chosen to begin it, written in Curtis’s customary bold Arial font, from the anthropologist David Graeber, from his book “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”: “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.” I have a copy of that book, so I should perhaps read it again.