Adam Curtis, the critically acclaimed documentary maker, says he began his new film, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, for two separate reasons that came together perfectly. The first was aesthetic. Where his last film, Hypernormalisation, was about ideas – really, one overarching idea, that elites had given up managing the complex “real world” and built a simpler “fake world” – this time he was keen to make a film about people, closer to a dramatic work, “like the great multipart novels that go back to the 19th century”, he says. It would not be a work of fiction, but a work of reality. Its fractured style would mirror our fractured world.
The second reason was recent history. Not the obvious stuff, like Brexit or Donald Trump, not quite – it was the reaction to these events by people “who would describe themselves as progressive or radical,” he says. To Curtis, these people had come unmoored from the real world. He heard them ask: how have these “nice working-class people – who should respect them – turned around and bitten them”. World-changing events were happening – chaos under heaven – and all this lot could do was doom monger and hate. “They hated Brexit; they hated Trump. And they hated the world that was going to be created as a result of that,” he says. But they seemed to have no interest in thinking about the political grievances that had gotten us all here, or offering an alternative – they just went on hating.
“Since 2001, we’ve had a series of big catastrophes,” he says. “But instead of saying, okay, we’ve got climate change, or, okay, we’ve got inequality, these are really bad, but we should do something about it, we can try this, the progressives retreated into ‘Oh, my God, the world is going to die. And I was just puzzled by that.’”
He wanted to know why the progressive ideas of our time seem to manifest in doom mongering and inaction. What was wrong with these people? Where was the optimism? Where, above all, was their imagination?
These two ideas combine in a film that tries to smash this liberal fantasy; to get away from the “goodies and baddies” that modern television journalism has retreated into, and to show a world of ambiguous characters, “whose actions and whose lives expressed some of the ambiguities of our time”.
The result, after four years, is Can’t Get You Out of My Head, which is airing on BBC iPlayer. It is an eight-hour epic covering what feels like hundreds of characters, spread out across the world and the 20th century, from the landlord Peter Rackman to Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, to the life, death and digital resurrection of Tupac Shakur. Curtis investigates conspiracy theories, artificial intelligence, melancholy about empire, the seductions of nationalism, and individualism’s rise at collectivism’s expense. He tries to explain how certain ideas got in people’s heads and made them act crazy – “an emotional history”. And to find out why, he explains, the idea of the world as something humans could change has disappeared.
Curtis is a highly imaginative filmmaker, which is either a compliment or a criticism, depending on your perspective. His documentaries resemble someone pointing out the constellations. His fans commend his prescience and his global perspective; his detractors – “the rationalists who hate me” – say that he makes connections that aren’t there: that his work can be a bit ‘galaxy brain’. Everyone agrees his films are beautiful – Curtis has a sixth sense for combining image and sound in a way that heightens both. In Bitter Lake, for instance, the bloody bombed out cities of Afghanistan meld with mournful synths; a “drug-like experience” he says. “You feel it’s in front of your eyes, but you reach out and it’s something else, it’s not there”; a place we expected to be one way, but turned out another.
The new doc retains his loyalty to archive footage, as well as the music of Burial and Aphex Twin. But it is different. As he intended, characters come and go and return, often without explanation; he wanted this to feel like the ties of friendship, he explains, where close companions stick with you, and acquaintances fade away. We skip continents and eras – gun-toting individualism flourishes in 1950s America; later we are following the life of Eduard Limonov, a Russian poet and political dissident. Curtis offers no vantage point from which to view all these characters. Still, it is possible to discern a pattern in the chaos. Each individual has a revelation, and rides to power on the back of that idea. That idea then escapes their control, destroying them or mutating beyond them, and messing things up for us – the future generation.
Take Brexit. Curtis outlines a fascinating history of a man named Cecil Sharp, a key leader in the English folk-song revival back in the early 1900s. Sharp travelled through England learning old rural dances; black and white footage shows Sharp and his companions prancing from leg to leg like fauns, the kind of ye olde English country dancing parodied by Julia Davis in her black comedy Hunderby.
“Sharp sort of invented the idea of folk music,” says Curtis. “And that’s not to say people didn’t sing songs. But this idea that there was this thing called the music of the folk, he sort of invented that, and he did it with this country dancing, and it’s so recent. And it was really a myth of England.”
Curtis deepens his analysis. Sharp drew on the volk of German nationalism. His aim was more ambitious, and sinister – responding to a fear of industrialised mass society, and the corruption of ascendant financial institutions, he intended to manufacture a new nationalism for the middle classes – a natural order extracted from England’s rolling hills. In other words, the impulse is Brexit: a retreat into a mythical version of the past. At that episode’s conclusion, Nigel Farage emerges from a tundra of blue, Brexit Party glow sticks.
“There’s a melancholy about the loss of the Empire, but really the roots of Brexit are in that sort of mythical, nostalgic idea of England, that was invented in those years, and then comes back up again in the Second World War,” Curtis says. “And it’s still there. You know, lots of my middle class friends have that nostalgia, you can see it.”
Followers of Curtis’s work will recognise one theme – he tries again to square the circle individual and the collective. In Curtis’s eyes, this is pretty much the definitive theme of the 20th century. Individualism, he argues, began as a utopian ideal: freedom through self-expression. Then it morphed into consumerist enslavement. In other words, Curtis hates hippies. “The great big shift, which is the root of our age, is that somewhere in the late 1960s, the radical left who talked in terms of power, society, overthrowing the power structure – all that rhetoric – gave up. And instead, encouraged by radical psychotherapy, they went for an alternative idea which said, ‘Okay, if you can’t change the world, in terms of power structure, what you do is change yourself.’”
When this culture of narcissism didn’t bring the Me Generation the nirvana they hoped for, corporations stepped into this emotional void. They offered these people other ways of pacifying their emptiness, like products to buy and pills to swallow – Robert Sackler, the developer of OxyContin, enters stage left – while the ideology that was actually generating this pain mushroomed. Fast forward to now, narcissism remains a generational diagnosis and the enemy of collective action.
“You can’t just blame the elites,” says Curtis. “It’s you, it’s us, who are as much at fault for doing this. It’s not what the left or the right wants to hear. But it’s sort of true. If you have a society full of individuals, it’s like herding squealing piglets; you can’t collect them together into a mass group.”
None of this is particularly new. But Curtis brings a new perspective in his discussion of conspiracy theories. Here he makes a more abstract point – that we have begun to think like Google’s neural networks. Rather than pursuing deeper meaning, we hunt out patterns in masses of data; we are aroused instead of thoughtful – putty for conspiracy theorists.
“There’s a way of thinking that the internet has pushed in people’s minds,” Curtis says. “If you notice how people now think and behave, and you could also argue, how people like me make films, it’s through a great collage of patterns of images and stories, which is very much like the way what machine learning works. You’re not looking for meaning for logical meaning any longer. You’re looking for patterns, connections, which is how conspiracy theories work.”
Of course, just as TV wasn’t the source of all the seventies’ problems, neither is the internet now. “You’ve got Brexit and Trump because we’ve actually run out of all stories,” he says. “The world was just being run by a group of technocrats who just wanted to keep the world stable. It was fine for them. But it wasn’t very good for anyone else.”
In Curtis’s mind, the retreat into conspiracy goes both ways. Several times, bespectacled upper-middles are shown dancing lamely to the music of the people they’ve exploited, their gawky limbs juxtaposed to the zombie-like gait of opioid-stunned Americans. The right, Curtis tells me, has Hillary Clinton drinking blood, but technocrats hold their own delusions. “That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of people who are completely stupid and believe in QAnon, but there are lots of people who, I would argue, are pretty stupid to believe Vladimir Putin gave you Donald Trump,” he says.
Even if you recoil at this parallel, conspiracy theories offer an imaginative compulsion that politics, currently, does not. Grand narratives are dead; Yoga influencers pursue QAnon theories. Curtis begins and ends the films with a quote from David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist who died this year: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently”. The films also brought to mind the academic Mark Fisher, who argued that capitalism has delimited our political imagination. Curtis tells me he was influenced by “one of the great works of art of our time” – South Park’s ‘Imaginationland’ trilogy. He sees three futures – a return to management by benign elites like Biden; the death of individualism via algorithmic surveillance, a la China; or a third way, a world where we “regain our confidence” and try to imagine a new future.
“The other way of looking at recent history is you have a succession of groups of people coming from different sources, who constantly promised to change the world, and always fail,” he says. “Occupy and Obama, Trump, Brexit, Cummings, they all failed. Why are they failing? They fail because their imagination isn’t strong enough.”
While researching the film, Curtis interviewed conspiracy theorists in Birmingham, people who believed in “one of the great dream worlds of our time,” the idea that the CIA, Walt Disney and the Illuminati brainwash and control all the major stars. He soon learned that, when pressed, these people didn’t really believe the story. They just loved its epic magical dimensions – an alternative to this “dull, desiccated, grim, utilitarian world.” Their imaginations had taken them somewhere.
“Isn’t it about time the left started recognising that imagination is central to this, that somehow, if you’re going to take people with you, you’ve got to imagine something,” he says. “Sitting in those conspiracy theories, however mad they are, is a sort of truth for a lot of radicals in that you’ve just got to imagine an epic world. And, if you do, people are fascinated, really.”
Will Bedingfield is a culture writer at WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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