We’re living in an era where history is being written in real time. As a result, we’re anxious, fearful, shocked and furious on a daily basis. Whether it's watching the news or doom-scrolling through Twitter, a heightened emotional state is now just our default emotional state. We’re burned out just from living day to day. So how do we make sense of these chaotic times now? And where do we go from here?
Cue British journalist and documentary maker, Adam Curtis, and his new six-part BBC documentary series, Can't Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History Of The Modern World.
Two years in the making, Curtis is still making final edits to the series when we speak with him, and working down to the wire in lockdown is proving to be even more of a challenge. "What I'm finding in this third lockdown," he says, "is that it's very interesting how the mood is incredibly fluid. The feeling in yourself changes day by day, and it’s quite an interesting experience trying to finish a set of films that explain how we got to now, in a mood like this. It’s odd and scary."
"Odd” and “scary" are perhaps the defining adjectives of the past 18 months. But the Bafta-winning Curtis, now 65, is one of the first filmmakers to examine how events of the recent past have led us to this troubled point. He does so in his signature style – as recognisable as any Ken Burns pan – pasting together rare, mesmerising footage, often from the BBC archives, backed by an obscure Eighties post-punk band, or an ambient Aphex Twin tune. In doing so, Curtis eschews the linear narratives the most documentaries follow to create a multi-layered narrative, using stories from all over the world to explain vast geo-political concepts. It’s his particular genius that makes something so conceptual into always-engaging entertainment.
With his previous work, he’s explained far-reaching subjects like the global economic collapse of 2008 in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace; America’s involvement in the Middle East (Bitter Lake) and how psychology has been co-opted by capitalism (The Century of The Self).
In his new epic series, Curtis pulls together such disparate threads as Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, the stoner duo who created the Illuminati conspiracy theory, Tupac Shakur, and Dominic Cummings. Through these personal histories – and many, many, more – the six-part film picks apart the rise of individualism, the fall of democracy, failed revolutions and corrupt systems of power, the addictive nature of social media and the combined psychological impact all of that has had on us.
If that particular synopsis makes it sound like the whole world is burning, while we sit helplessly and watch, Curtis wants you to know that is not his intention at all. While there are several points in the documentary that have quite nihilistic undertones, he directs me to the opening quote in the first film, by anthropologist David Graeber: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is just something we make, and could just as easily make something different.”
This struck a chord with Curtis. "I have a sort of optimistic progressive view of the world," he says, "and, yes, I understand that feeling of helplessness washing over people right now, but I don’t think it’s true for the whole world. I believe that if we made this, then we can make it different."
Curtis – who describes himself as “having no fixed political beliefs” – has previously pointed out that those who voted for Brexit or Trump were led to it by personal circumstances that pushed them into pressing a "big ‘fuck off’ button". But rather than examine what led people to do this in the UK – a decade of government austerity, or the shilling of post-colonial myths of a return to “sunlit uplands” – and then engaging with them to fix it, Curtis argues that left-leaning liberals have instead vilified these voters. In reality, they were duped by the real “metropolitan elite”. "A lot of the nice, well-thinking people I know have spent the last four years trying to avoid facing up to that,” he says.
He makes the point that if we really want to change the world, we're going to have to do more than just post on social media about it. The Black Lives Matter marches of last year were a step in the right direction, he says, but we must all work harder if we want to make any sort of meaningful progress. For a start, we’re going to need somebody to dare to dream up something other than two-party politics, and an alternative to capitalism, which he believes is in its death throes.
My friend Adam Curtis has made this trail for his imminent new series 'Can't Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World.' The trail is exclusive to this tweet and will exist nowhere else! I love the series and its wild range of stories. pic.twitter.com/jCe8FqM8H6
— jon ronson (@jonronson) January 24, 2021
“What’s disappeared is imagination,” Curtis says. “The idea you could imagine something different has gone off the agenda. There are no politicians who think in that broader concept. Look around, there is no one imagining a different world. There are a few people trying to say, ‘hey we can live in different types of communities’, things like that, but putting forward an idea of a different kind of future has disappeared.
“It’s completely outside of the political agenda, so it’s going to have to come from somewhere else.”
In Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Curtis suggests the future will take shape in one of three ways: we all continue to live inside our own, individual bubbles, increasingly surveilled by the state. Or maybe things go back to how they used to be – centrist politics with no one truly tackling the wealth divide or racism. Or, perhaps – finally – somebody will map out a new system we’ve never even considered.
“We’re almost at that brace position that you’re told to take in an aircraft emergency,” he says. “You don’t dare look out the window because the wing is flapping up and down; we’re terrified of the future. But you can’t live forever in a static world, and you can’t live forever in a world where you're nostalgic for a world that never really existed in the past. So we might as well engage in building a different type of future rather than just letting it happen. We should own the future, is what I’m trying to say.”
Timely, then, as we all find ourselves under another stay-at-home order. Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a hefty, phones-down watch, but it also serves as a welcome counterpoint to much of the middle-of-the-road content pushed by streaming services over the past year; and has a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure ending for how the next decade might play out. Curtis explains that his narrative is by no means the definitive guide to the future: “It’s a history of the world where you can make up your own mind. I’m telling you lots of things, and every now and again I stop and tell you what I think, except at the end with the possible options for the future, I’m allowing you to explore more. Having been through lockdown, I thought people might like that.”
Meanwhile, popular culture is coming to its own impasse, Curtis feels. In fact, he’s toying with the idea of taking his scalpel to it in his future work. While in his leisure time he loves watching Korean thrillers like Netflix’s Tunnel, and was blown away by Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (“I had absolutely no idea where it was going to go next...it was absolutely brilliant”), he hasn’t got time for much else in the art and entertainment worlds. “My problem with modern culture is that it’s become dead,” he says, citing the continual trend for film and TV reboots and remakes, and sample culture in music. “The whole idea of self-expression has become a rigid thing which people play out, but they aren’t really self-expressive at all. They’re doing what they think is self expression. Does that make culture valuable?” he questions. “Maybe it’s not?”
He’s bemused by Emily In Paris (“She gives the French long lectures about the male gaze and a third wave feminist argument, yet at the same time, she’s dismissing them, like a colonialist administrator”) and Bridgerton is just as perplexing to him (“its blindcasting, yet at the same time it refuses to acknowledge at that period, it was the height of slavery in the British Empire, which would have been funding all those estates. It was just weird”).
Despite avoiding social media – unsurprisingly, he says, “I don’t like being watched” – there is one form of which Curtis is a champion. “I love TikTok, it’s got this chaotic inventiveness.” He was in talks with the company to create a documentary that used TikTok stories to tell a wider story about power in the world, but after Trump banned the network, “it all got very complicated,” he says.
As for his own films, his distinctive, detached voice soundtracks everything on screen – he says he’s recognised by voice alone by fans in pubs – and his prolific output is so uniquely stylised, there has even been a parody video of his work, accusing him of style over substance (“I thought that was great,” says Curtis. “It really made me giggle – he really got the voice”).
However, he’s recently begun to ponder his own role in pop culture: “If I’m truthful, I think that people like me are part of the problem,” he says. “If I’m pointing the finger at forces that are preventing us from moving forward into the future, you could argue that cutting out bits of archive from the past and putting them back in different forms is part of the problem.”
He ends, though, in archetypal Curtis fashion: “It may be that the very thing we don’t question is the thing we should question.”
Can't Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History Of The Modern World is streaming on BBC iPlayer from Thursday 11 February
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