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All Eyez On Me: Adam Curtis's "Can’t Get You Out of My Head"

The latest collection of images from the archival provocateur explores our recent history on emotional terms.
Ryan Meehan
Earlier this month, the military seized power in Myanmar. Citing irregularities in their November elections, they detained the de facto head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other members of her governing party, the National Movement for Democracy. A one-year state of emergency was declared.
Like many Americans, peering out from behind the fog of our own transition of power, frightening and inane as it was, I had no idea what to make of these events. Intermittently, I reached for a base of understanding from the few paradoxical fragments I could recall. Aung San Suu Kyi had won a Nobel Peace Prize, I knew. She had also presided over the genocide of the country’s Muslim ethnic minority, the Rohingya—a genocide which was unique to the extent that it was the first of such atrocities to be incited to a significant degree via Facebook. But my reflection on this confusing horror was cut mercifully short (as it so often is) by a funny video on the internet.
On the morning of the coup, workout instructor Khing Hnin Wai had gone to a spot on the plaza outside the parliamentary complex in Naypayidaw to record the dance exercise routines she posts regularly online. What she captured instead, overlaid by bubbly gyrations and some pumping Indonesian EDM, was a swift and silent convoy of police vehicles rolling through the last checkpoint of an erstwhile civilian government. The effect was something like Die Walküre brought to you by Uber Black. Across the internet, there was consensus that Khing Hnin Wai had stumbled into one of a beloved British documentarian’s most recognizable archetypes: the Oblivious Dancer. The sign of Adam Curtis was rising again.
The video was only the most recent of Adam Curtis’ brushes with meme-ification. Even before he began distributing his works exclusively on the BBC’s online iPlayer platform, series like The Century of the Self (2002) and The Power of Nightmares (2004) had long since acquired samizdat status in the internet’s backchannels, where their counter-historical sprawl and critical misanthropy fed the gnawing, widespread dissidence of the Extremely Online. The works themselves, particularly since 2009’s It Felt Like a Kiss, hinge on an audio-visual turntablism whose shifting tones and narrative overload feels eerily close to what it’s like to use the internet at such an extreme. To the Millennial viewer, Curtis’s bold, multicolored Helvetica intertitles—just one of many nods to Godard—resemble nothing other than those earliest memes full of disembodied voices and Impact font. The motifs that recur throughout Adam Curtis works, too, are memes of a sort: aerial shots of curtain-glass skyscrapers are shorthand for a distant, inscrutable power; an urban riot shot in dusty 16 mm and doused in ominous synthesizers mean events are spinning out of control; a long, empty office corridor where plans foment and secrets disappear; But then, the voiceover goes, the strangest thing began to happen…
On social media, these faithfully recurring tropes lend themselves as much to homage as to caricature, but usually some ambiguous mixture of the two. Because to spend any length of time with the work of Adam Curtis is to see the world through his eyes and, however seriously one takes that world, it starts to turn up everywhere you look.
Part of this has to do with the prism through which it’s beheld: that is, through snatches of otherwise disconnected footage retrieved from the vast mileage of the BBC’s superlatively old television archive. Some amateur video aside, the overwhelming majority of images in the Adam Curtis oeuvre are sourced from this bastion of the post-war information regime (and his long-term employer). For those of us raised on it, the view of the world from a TV news camera—with its veneer of sober impartiality—has an irresistible aura of organic authority. It’s this authority that Curtis uses or abuses ruthlessly as he sees fit, weaving narratives of his own from its disaggregated strands, or using those strands consciously excised from the ‘official broadcast’ to rupture it altogether. Other motifs: leader reel, with clappers and lighting adjustments; more ominous, and possibly the sharpest tools in this regard, is the footage too hectic or gruesome for respectable airwaves. It’s in these ruptures in particular that Curtis draws us most deeply into the knowledge that these newscasts themselves are a kind of fiction, that they are stories about a world whose stability or peace is only momentarily in abeyance, and that in the cracks where these stories come apart, something real—if fleeting—exists.
Part of it, then, has to do with timing. Through 2015’s Bitter Lake, Curtis had seemed to play mostly with the middle-past, picking his mad scientist and mad philosopher protagonists from the historical milieu overripe with such individuals, the Cold War. When he approached the present day, it was usually only as a tantalizing end-run. That changed with his last film. Hypernormalisation was about many things—Henry Kissinger, the politics of austerity, the Assad family, the particularly Curtisean concept of “non-linear warfare”—but what it was really about, in hindsight, was Donald Trump. At the heart of this violent and shapeshifting fever dream was the long trajectory of corrupt enrichment and cultural theater that made his ascent to power seem not impossible (as most sensible commentators were then saying) but inevitable. Hypernormalisation was released in October 2016. A month later, the meme reached out and grabbed reality, and on November 9, America awoke to find it had been living in Adam Curtis’ world all along.
A little over four years and one president later, Curtis is back with a new series, released earlier this month and dutifully proliferated across non-UK ISPs shortly thereafter. Can’t Get You Out of My Head offers what Curtis calls an “emotional history” of our era, a labyrinthine account of fifty-plus years of ambitions and accidents in politics, science, and culture that transformed the world and brought us… here. By “here,” Curtis does not mean any local set of circumstances, but the analogous structures that have mirrored and metastasized across the developed world, structures of our collective present in which certain general truths are apparent. Social inequality and environmental catastrophe are immiserating large segments of the world’s population. Previously stable societies are increasingly overtaken by violent ideological conflict. Among the political class, the power to address these mounting catastrophes has disappeared, and dreams of an alternative future are everywhere strangled by this failing order’s cadaverous grip. At six episodes running just under a total of eight hours, it is Curtis’ longest project and—for its efforts to inhabit the present, and even, provisionally, to go beyond it—it is his most ambitious.
Before 2016, the view that there was something deeply wrong with society was not widely in the mainstream. Today, COVID-19 notwithstanding, it’s the nature of that wrong that drives mainstream debate—and even the aforementioned violent conflict—across the political spectrum. Curtis’ diagnosis is characteristically oblique. At the heart of this paralysis and despair, he claims, is individualism. In the long half-century of events that unfold in Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, Curtis will tell the story of this vague and superficially anodyne concept’s evolution from a tool of revolution to one of reaction, from a philosophy of liberation to one of oppression. Wielded by those in power, individualism legitimizes a baroque system of coercion and control; internalized by their subjects, it gives way to weakness, loneliness, and nihilism.
If all that sounds rather oddly put, that’s partially by design. Curtis’ theme is the attainment and administration of power, and on this matter he is unsentimental—not without judgment, but certainly without illusions. He knows that power assumes that rhetoric of right or left at its convenience, and so his own rhetoric is scrubbed of recognizable signifiers, and his narratives are a matter of guided attention rather than argumentation. This also means that he’s exceptionally plainspoken. Writing on Curtis for n+1, Owen Hatherley attributes this to his Reithianism—a tradition of mass audience accessibility handed down by the BBC’s founder, John Reith—but in a polarized climate, it can also be a disarming tool of estrangement. When dealing with familiar concepts, a language that brings otherwise dormant background features forward can establish a new, charged context in which subterranean continuities suddenly announce themselves and speak. It isn’t your imagination, he seems to say: elections really don’t change anything! Your devices are spying on you, and nobody cares! If his touting of the efforts of the United Mine Workers in the ‘20s and ‘30s wasn’t sufficient, the particular contempt Curtis holds for the economic policies of Clinton and Blair give him up as a left populist—but viewers access this perspective through anecdotes, rather than through direct address.
As a political category, “individualism” has many connotations, from the rugged individualism of the libertarian capitalist to the romantic self-expression of the counterculture; the personal customization of the consumer to the claustrophobic suspicions of the paranoid mind—even the pejorative "bourgeois individualism" of far-left critique. As the series progresses, Curtis will demonstrate that one (and sometimes more) of these, increasingly hypertrophied ethics operate at the heart of our contemporary mode of being—with, but more often without, our conscious consent.
The birth of a new order is always partially a decomposition of the old, and the first three episodes of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head concern themselves with the crises that brought the post-war order of the mid-twentieth century (social democracy in the West, state communism in the East) to its terminal state. In the East, this means the hardening dysfunction of Soviet communist party, and the Cultural Revolution in China. In the West, it means the political and economic turmoil of the Vietnam War, as well as radical movements from Black Power in the US to the Baader-Meinhof Group in West Germany.
The latter three address the world once this old order has subsided: an era of free-flowing capital and post-radical politics, of petro-diplomacy, global computer networks, and pharmaceutical opioids. East and West are now locked in a dynamic and terrifying economic cycle, liberal democracy reveals itself as a new form of imperialism, and the oil that lubricates the world system is revealed to be the thing that will also destroy it.
The series has something for everyone: coal miners and coup d’états, Glastonbury and Coachella, Deng Xiaoping and Vladimir Putin, Tupac Shakur and Joan Baez, the Opium Wars and Oxycontin, QAnon and JFK, a Saddam Hussein biopic by the director of Dr. No, and no fewer than three generations of the illustrious Boole clan. What Curtis means by “emotional history” is partially a subversion of material history. From materiality, it seems, comes the extractive, imperialist logic of eugenicists and free market economics. Instead, while stories remain relatively linear at the local level—whether the fortunes of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, China or California—Curtis’ cross-cutting between these stories is abrupt and frequently disorienting. His associative leaps capture the emotional resonances this large complex of individualism holds across time and space—resonances it would have been impossible to recognize in real time, as technology, capital, and carbon waged a combined and uneven war against, first the ancient regimes of the nineteenth century, and then the industrial bureaucracies of the twentieth. Even as the narrative begins to incorporate meta-narratives about the world’s own inascertainability—like chaos theory, and the existential quietism behind the pattern recognition of neural networks—Curtis steels his courage: the world is neither a rigid system of logical switches, nor a jumble of disconnected fragments, but an interface in which people labor to make themselves understood. Some of those people are more interesting than others, and some hold keys to larger truths they cannot see for themselves.  What do the vor v zakone of the Russian prison system have to do with Betty Ford? What do neural networks have to do with the John Birch Society? Each exemplifies a local development in the disparate emotional response to a system that will take on global proportions. And anyway, don’t you want to find out for yourself?
Emotions themselves will become the major vector of this system’s control. Alongside and interwoven with the grand and grotesque events of the world system are the discoveries in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and finally artificial intelligence, that provide state and corporate apparatuses with a scientific theory of the individual. What they deliver, where political and financial interests are concerned, is an actionable model of the human mind as transparent, divided, and susceptible to manipulation, as vulnerable to over-policing by an aggressive security state as they are to erotically suggestive advertising for a new variety of infused seltzer. Meanwhile, the functions of state—once the purview of hard-won mass democracy—slip behind the curtain glass of economism, austerity, and neutral expertise.
That the responsibility (in part, anyway) for this system ought to be laid at the feet of unelected managers at the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, and their enablers in think tanks and research institutes, should come as no surprise. Opposition to this elite might be the single area in which there is a so-called "horseshoe" bend of far right towards far left. But there is a grim, undeniable thrill in watching the incremental, seemingly stochastic zig-zagging of accident and intention assemble itself into our recognizable present, specifically: the twin Babylonian architectures of technological surveillance that define our moment—the micro-oppressive social credit system in China, and the narcissistic singularity of Facebook in the United States.
Both, Curtis argues, have sprung up to fill the void where politics failed to intervene, a void carved out by rogue capital pools, harnessed or unleashed by ruling cliques desperate to maintain (and above all maintain the appearance) of control over larger and larger swaths of an unpredictable world. And both have a critical weakness: their short-term rewards and punishments, and empty promises of safety and satisfaction, are no match for strong narratives of social belief—narratives that in the past have come from nationalist movements, and more recently seem to be coming from conspiracy theories, in QAnon on the right and, in a particularly damning sequence, Russiagate on the left.
It’s on this last point that the work of Adam Curtis seems to have achieved sentience. The charge that Curtis himself is a conspiracy theorist was always half-assed, the type of claim lobbed with one eye on the phone. But it’s more difficult to refute that his appetite for deep history, for the unassuming spread of ideas, and for the rapid-eye flickering of events between absurdity and order, scratches a similar itch to that of the conspiratorial brain. In this he shares an affinity with Kerry Thornley, one of the series major, lesser-known protagonists. In the late sixties, Thornley’s “Operation Mindfuck” was a pranksterish, culture-jamming campaign to propagate a conspiracy theory in order to demonstrate its ridiculousness. It is just this kind of deprogramming that one suspects inspires Curtis as well. That his efforts only made belief in the Illuminati more prevalent is as much a statement about the vulnerability of the American mind as it is about its appetite for amusing pseudo-trivia. But conspiracy was not done with Thornley. The mounting coincidences between his own life and a much more traumatic set of circumstances around the Kennedy assassination see Thornley give in to the mind virus that JFK-monger Jim Garrison evangelizes as “Time & Propinquity,” an investigative paranoia that leaves Thornley fearful and adrift. The deprogramming that Curtis is hinting at, it seems, cannot be accomplished alone.
Thornley is only one of a host of tragic heroes who manifest some novel evolution in the history of individualism in its course towards the dystopian present. There’s Edward Limonov, the Soviet exile who returns to Russia in the ‘90s to create a fusion of fascism and communism. There’s Abu Zubaydah, the disaffected jihadi with memories fragmented by a shrapnel wound to the skull, tortured and detained by the CIA to this very day for crimes he only imagined at the threshold of pain. And there’s Afeni Shakur, the Harlem Black Panther who mounted a solitary courtroom defense of her entire chapter against the COINTELPRO agents who had infiltrated them, and won—and whose son Tupac would appropriate his mother’s radicalism to more ambiguous (and ultimately self-destructive ends).
Some of the series’ closest attention is devoted to black radicals, in whom Curtis glimpses the most proactively revolutionary ethics—Black Power as an optimistic vision and a concrete political program, something greater than oneself in which to believe. The white radicals of the counterculture, by contrast, are little more than dogmatists and gentrifiers—theirs is the truce with consumerism and statistical management that will sound the death knell for working class politics in the West. Meanwhile there is a melancholic empathy even for a borderline malignant figure like Michael X who, caught between identities as a radical and a gangster, allows one to overcome and destroy the other. Kwame Ture f.k.a. Stokeley Carmichael commands the series’ fiery radical heart with his oratory on the discipline of guerilla struggle—perhaps the sole triumphal figure of the series.
These inclusions are some of the most major signs that Curtis has acknowledged another, albeit more substantial criticism: that his grand narratives have typically omitted the struggles of marginalized groups. In Artforum, Tobi Haslett observed that the Oblivious Dancer—generally a signifier of the West’s idle pleasure-seeking—was reliably a woman which, once it’s been pointed out, is difficult to un-see. Suffice it to say that the critical (read: satirical) deployment of the male gaze, extracted no doubt from countless frames of similar, similarly male-coded footage, remains only at best a half-convincing alibi. That Curtis looks through the archive and sees what he sees, alas, seems beyond reconstruction. Paternalism also creeps in with the appearance of one of Britain’s first operative transgender women, Julia Grant—praising her bravery in the face of the medical and psychiatric establishment, Curtis can’t help but add that hers was a form of individualism which had ‘given up on changing society.’ A charitable defense of this faux pas is that he’s reaching for intersectionality, the unity of all marginalized groups that challenge the structure of power along class lines. But even if this is so, the failure to recognize Grant’s personal struggle as a step of its own in that direction is shortsighted at best, and insensitive at worst.
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head also features possibly the most central role for a woman in any of his works. The inclusion of Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing is hardly a token to some corrective politics of representation. Jiang’s is an under-told story of the Cultural Revolution—of the radically singular will that helped to set it into motion, and the frankly Trumpian tactics she deployed in order to cling to power. Like the best of Curtis’ characters, Jiang’s rise and fall is thrilling and complicated, and sits uneasily in prefab paradigms of feminism or Maoism. Though put to desperate, and sometimes merely wicked ends, the energies of these fallen people—Jiang, Shakur, Thornley, X—transcends the series’ local context; its echoes reverberate forwards and backwards to reinhabit the machinery of counter-revolution that prevails over the present historiographical moment, through the technology of image-making itself.
This reverberation is a meme as well, a kind of emotion built into Curtis’ style, chiefly in the swooning montage that can overtake the series’ episodes at its bookends, and in longueurs between segments, where his signature voiceover recedes, and raw psychedelia takes hold. These sequences reintroduce new images alongside old ones in sharp, poetic counterpoint—a dreamy dancing couple, a child on a bicycle, a face (maybe Julia Grant’s) and a police riot. It’s in the soundtracks of these sequences—whether in the anarchic punk of the Mekons or the narcotized romance of This Mortal Coil —that Curtis reveals himself every bit the sentimental showman. For all that his work resembles a Situationist’s critique of the society of the spectacle (and footage of hundreds of Chinese children singing Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart” at the 1997 Hong Kong handover ceremony is significantly funnier than the slyest détournement) Curtis retains a modernist’s sense of film’s integrity as a delivery system for information, and possibly even a program for action, that does not cling to the didacticism of neoliberal aesthetics. In these moments, his montage unfolds with an intoxicating ambiguity—as if the mixture of good and evil, past and future, dream and reality, and the concomitant sense of danger, not just to oneself but to one’s movement, is the feeling that one must necessarily pass through in order to reach another kind of world. The late theorist Mark Fisher described this feeling, elicited by consciously re-framed sounds and images of the past, as hauntology. He called the world he was searching for acid communism and, like Curtis, he dove the wreckage of the mid-century revolutions in search of a lost future. Like Curtis, Fisher admired the work of dubstep artist Burial—a stalwart of Curtis’ soundtracks—whose eerie analogic rhythms can sometimes feel like the vapor trail of a vanishing soul. The images from this world to come, which all three have searched for, cannot be found in an archive, but in moments like these we can almost hear its beating heart behind the screen.
Whether Curtis himself knows what this world looks like or not, his Reithianism—or something else—prevents him from sharing too much. Whether because Marxism’s economic determinism is too ironclad and unfeeling, or because of the loss of its credibility in the Eastern bloc, an explicit socialist alternative is not forthcoming. Unlike Fisher, Curtis is unconcerned with its aesthetics, only its politics, and so he turns naturally to another late theorist—this time of political economy—David Graeber, and his utopian-horizontalist assertion that, it is we (read: not I) who make the world, and we who can make it differently. “If we can regain our confidence,” Curtis says, “we will find that we have the power to influence that future.” It’s a statement that might well be valedictory, from a man who—after hunting ceaselessly through history—is desperate for something new. In this world of ours, individualism, too, seems to be running its course.  One need only look to the societal response to the pandemic in the United States, in which the responsibility and blame for the contagion fell overwhelmingly on the supposedly sovereign consumer-citizen; in which, in lieu of guidance or leadership from political institutions, we hoarded toilet paper, scolded one another over mask etiquette, and died en masse. And with the disastrous consequences of climate change escalating, it seems now that these recent absurdities may only have been an early warning of things to come. If only we listen this time, Curtis seems to say, maybe life will stop trying to climb into his movies.
This plea for confidence can feel like an abrupt, even uncharacteristic response to the overwhelming mass of information in Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, and to the long odds that seem to face down the very positive intervention Curits wants to encourage. The mass democracies shored up by victories of the labor movement that Curtis touts, in Appalachia and industrial Britain, as the paradigm of revolutionary change seem, today, like a thing of the past. And yet, as Curtis points out, the workers on the front line of COVID-19 have extraordinary power they have not yet used. Confidence, like individualism, can mean many things—but one thing it can mean is knowing what you’re worth. 
Today, in Bessmer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse workers are taking their first confident step towards unionization, and away from the wages, working conditions, and surveillance that strip them of their humanity. If successful, it would mean Amazon’s first unionized warehouse, and the greatest blow yet struck in the belly of this capitalist behemoth. 
In Myanmar, too, widespread strikes are threatening to topple the military junta only weeks into its reign. One could be forgiven for thinking that if these collective dreams found a common struggle, the transformation Curtis and others have spoken about might all at once take a bold step towards reality. And then the images would follow.


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