Can’t Get You Out of My Head review: Adam Curtis’s emotional history is fascinating and disorienting

Two years in the making, this six-part, eight-hour series broadly aims to show how radical movements, emerging after the Second World War, were neutralised and co-opted by an establishment determined to maintain the status quo

Ed Cumming
Thursday 11 February 2021 13:25 GMT
Can't Get You Out of My Head trailer

Forty years into his career, Adam Curtis finds himself in the curious position of being, like the comedian Stewart Lee, a superstar cult figure. This contradictory situation suits everyone. Curtis, the Oxbridge, public-school, BBC lifer gets to keep approaching the establishment with an outsider’s suspicion, while his thousands of devotees can cling on to the feeling of discovery. The BBC gets many hours of highbrow filmmaking for the price of a salary, a key to its archive and a few Aphex Twin licences. 

At 65, Curtis has reached a phase of life where other filmmakers might start to become more experimental. Instead, Can’t Get You Out of My Head takes his familiar hobby horses and exercises them more vigorously than ever. Two years in the making, this six-part, eight-hour series aims to tell an entire emotional history of the postwar period, of how we got to where we are. As ever with Curtis, the film resists précis, but it broadly aims to show how radical movements, emerging after the Second World War, were neutralised and co-opted by an establishment determined to maintain the status quo. These decades that prioritised the individual, mainly as a consumer, have become a dead end for politics and culture. 

His case studies are extraordinarily varied and would all make fascinating films in their own right. There’s Michael de Freitas, one of London's most notorious gangsters but also a civil rights activist who persuaded Yoko and John Lennon to cut off their hair for him; Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao, who clung to her thwarted dreams of acting as she rose to be the most powerful woman in China; Afeni Shakur, the Black Panther and mother of the rapper Tupac. For someone who professes to side with “the people”, Curtis has a Nietzschean fascination with thugs and strongmen. Their stories are told via detours to Dominic Cummings, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Illuminati and MK Ultra, among others. 

Curtis has tended to reject being described as an “artist”, preferring to be thought of as a journalist or historian. When he is criticised, it is usually in journalistic terms. He is accused of incoherence, presenting assertions as fact, or using his hyperactive collage to dazzle rather than inform. (For an entertaining distillation of these concerns, look up Ben Woodhams' The Loving Trap, a three-minute, tone-perfect spoof from 2011.) 

The feeling of watching Curtis’s best work has more in common with an encounter with a piece of art than it does a piece of history or a more traditional documentary. You emerge from Can’t Get You Out of My Head not with the clean satisfaction of rational combat, but the sense of having been carpet bombed out of your old worldview. In his book about film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, the Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch makes a comparison between editing and bees. Bees can handle their hive being moved two inches or two miles; it’s a two-yard dislocation that is fatally disorienting. Curtis moves his hive around like a Tardis, flinging it through time and space, illuminating his serious points with pop music and comic non-sequiturs. 

Adam Curtis at the Tribeca Film Festival (Getty Images)

There is a kind of logic in the method. In the second film, Curtis examines the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who was made famous by his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Curtis explains that Kahneman’s research found that our brains mostly experience the world as “an ongoing chaotic rush of biochemical data that flashes up and fades away, and what humans think of as their 'self' is actually an accessory that tries to make sense of this chaotic mass of incoming data. But to do that it has to simplify and turn the data into stories.” It’s a description of thought, but it’s close to a description of a Curtis film, too. Our brains are not ordered chronologies with well-groomed talking heads, but junkyards of ephemera that occasionally coalesce into a fleeting illusion of order. The joy of Curtis is in the things he doesn’t say, and the faith he shows in the viewer’s intelligence to pick their own route through the material. Can't Get You Out of My Head should probably be deducted marks for shagginess, but there is enough richness in the history to make up for it.

Until episode six, the films make surprisingly little reference to coronavirus. Right at the end, Curtis addresses the implications of a disease that has disproportionately affected the poor. He concedes that it may be possible that from this "grim uncertainty" we may once again be able to imagine other futures. Whether we return the bad old ways or hasten towards a China-style surveillance dystopia, in which individualism vanishes, the likely outcomes are depressing.

Man wears a mask while walking in the street in Wuhan, China (Getty Images)

A more optimistic outlook, however, hinted at in the closing moments, is that the past year has given a glimpse of a more hopeful future. For millions of people, the pandemic has been an unprecedented experiment in new ways of living. In 12 months, furloughed populations have had a taste of something close to universal basic income, widespread liberation from offices and a world of limited consumerism where the shops are shut, and travel is banned. It took a virus rather than a radical movement, but large majorities around the world have made and supported personal sacrifices to protect their fellow man. Most are itching to return to how things were before. Getting people to try out ways of being is one thing; getting them to like it is another.

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