IT IS MORE THAN I DARE TO THINK ABOUT
February 18, 2021
Filmmaker Adam Curtis takes us on an emotional exploration of the current global condition along a winding road to nowhere.
Just a week ago, BBC Film released the British documentary maker Adam Curtis’s latest effort, I Can’t Get You Out of My Head. While not technically a cinematic offering (it can only be viewed on the BBC’s streaming platform, iPlayer), it carries a cinematic monumentality regarding both the number of subjects it covers and its length. The combined six episodes will keep you glued to the screen for more than seven hours and take you on a journey from the Chinese Revolution to artificial intelligence laboratories, the Black Panthers, neuroscience research centers, the origins of conspiracy theories, Guianan jungles, Brexit, and dozens more, ending with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Curtis is known for his montage technique and virtuosic use of music, both of which once again feature strongly. His last film, HyperNormalisation (2016), was made between the 2016 Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as US president—a time that, without a doubt, seemed already full of material for a skeptical if not downright depressing outlook on civilization’s future. Little did Curtis know what would ensue in the following four years, the affliction that would befall our world. Part of his appeal is that he does not draw strict conclusions from the material he researches and presents. His films carry a confident ambiguity that seems to come more naturally to the visual arts, as opposed to the news media’s aura of assumed certainty. Indeed, his work is somewhat unclassifiable, operating somewhere between documentary, filmic artwork, philosophy, and sociology.
While seeing the six parts back to back, one cannot help thinking of the rapid editing of Bruce Conner, the profound historical observations of David Halberstam, the essayistic grace of Michael Taussig, and Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films, with their high-speed jump cuts, voice-over narration, and extensive use of found footage. Curtis is epic in his investigations of psychology, history, and politics, bringing things together in a clear-cut yet suspenseful style. The films are like a high-speed slalom down Corbet’s Couloir—one of the world’s most challenging and dangerous ski slopes. Never in a straight line, it is twist after twist after twist all the way.
While Curtis’s films always touch upon myriad subjects, one could argue that HyperNormalisation essentially investigates the history of so-called fake news, concluding that it’s anything but a recent phenomenon. And The Power of Nightmares (2004) is largely a speculation on global terrorism and fear in the aftermath of 9/11. Yet to put it that way seems incredibly reductive given the endless array of subjects Curtis touches upon in both. Likewise, to write about his latest effort with any brevity requires omitting 90 percent of its content. Curtis seems to speak simultaneously about very particular stories (for instance the rise and fall of the notorious Michael X, an ambiguous figure who was part civil rights leader, part slumlord, part drug dealer; or Jiang Qing, the last wife of Mao Zedong and a key political figure during China’s Cultural Revolution) while in fact talking about literally everything all the time. His films are history lessons moving forward along what seems at first odd and seemingly negligible historical occurrences and figures, only to synthesize it all into profound contemplations about the very core of our existence.
While some parts of I Can’t Get You Out of My Head feel drawn-out such that they risk blandness, especially in episode 3, Curtis is still at these moments reaching impressively far into the human mind’s relationship to the world. He essentially tells us that we cannot control our lives, either individually or collectively. We have created a mental safety shield that does not allow us to see what reality is truly about. As a result, we are stuck in a dream world, whether it is based on capitalist individualism or a collective cause for social justice such as communism. The destiny of the world is beyond comprehension and hence outside our control.
Two phenomena that illustrate this, in Curtis’s opinion, are the rise of conspiracy theories—paranoid ideas about other, higher powers we don’t know that secretly govern the affairs of the planet—and the COVID-19 pandemic, which was somewhat foreseeable but too inconvenient to do anything proactive about until it was too late. Despite all the hopeful talk about how we plan to change our individual ways of life post-pandemic and become more mindful about travel, consumerism, pollution, and the food we eat, we will most likely revert to precisely the same place we were at the end of 2019, partly because we want to overcome the trauma of the virus and yearn for the familiar that we understand as safe, and partly because we do not have a realistic or even conceivable plan for the future. This absence of an alternative and the crisis of both dictatorships and democracies are at the heart of his film. Nothing seems to work, and angry, violent mobs on what were once called the left and the right want actual change without fathoming what that would actually look like.
At one point during the later part of the film, Curtis states, “What postwar generations took from fascism and communism was that grand ideas of change lead to horror. So we stopped having them. And now when we need them, our imaginations have failed. So everything operates like HR. Personnel changes, but no one says, ‘Actually, the company is in the wrong business.’” Yet for all the apparent doom and gloom, Curtis conveys his stories in a calm and reassuring manner with his legendary soothing voice and intonation. There is no anger, no blame, no judgment in his reflections. Things are the way they are for a multitude of reasons. Black and white don’t exist. Everything is just one solid tone of gray.
Ellen Thornhill studied chemical engineering at Glasgow Caledonian University before taking over her family’s car repair shop. For the last two decades, she has coproduced various documentary films on German medieval humor, Japanese folk dance, and Scotland’s fourth industrialization at the start of the twenty-first century. Thornhill is based in Dumfries, Scotland.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World is a six-part documentary television series created by Adam Curtis, released on BBC iPlayer on February 11, 2021.