‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’: Adam Curtis follows up in fine style

Adam Curtis’ documentaries combine collages of archival footage, ambient music and polemical narration so distinctively they have been parodied in various videos and memefied on bingo cards.

An on-the-nose spoof titled ‘The Loving Trap’ describes Curtis’s creations as “the televisual equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge” as if that’s a bad thing. In fact, I am glad to confirm that all eight hours of Curtis’s new iPlayer series are indeed just as intoxicating and revelatory as going down an internet rabbit hole after several pints and/or spliffs. ‘Can’t Get
You Out of My Head’ takes the viewer on a truly mind-expanding trip, even if some of its weaker arguments fade in the cold light of day.

Compared to Curtis’s earlier work, this series is far more focused on human stories. It recounts the lives of strange individuals such as Kerry Thornley (the only person to write a book about Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination of JFK), Michael X (a convicted murderer who fancied himself as Britain’s answer to Malcolm X) and Jiang Qing (the inaugural First Lady of China and leader of the ill-fated Gang of Four), to name just three.

Stylish filmmaking aside, the way Curtis singles out interesting historical threads and traces them through time is his greatest strength. Although the basic outlines of major historical events such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Dissolution of the Soviet Union are common knowledge, Curtis uniquely illuminates the bizarre backstories of those who pulled
the strings.

Curtis’ narration lets his programs down, however, as he attempts to join these disparate threads together with clumsy seques and false equivalences. Although the narratives he presents are fascinating, the conclusions he draws from them aren’t always convincing and the way he often excludes relevant social factors from his arguments is downright ahistorical.

For example, the scenes of trans activist Julia Grant (lifted from several documentaries the BBC made about her from 1979 to 1999) say more about British society’s transphobia than its shift from paternalism to individualism, and for Curtis to pretend otherwise is in poor taste.

Part of me feels that anyone vaguely interesting and intelligent could do Curtis’ job just as well if they too had free rein over the BBC’s archives. But the lack of good video essays on YouTube (most of which pale in comparison to Curtis’ mindblower-a-minute output) suggests this is not the case.

Curtis’ points aren’t always lucid, and he’s preaching to the converted in that his documentaries are far more likely to be seen by those who are already deeply rattled than by conservatives and centrists and anyone else with far too much faith in the system. However, he has succeeded in making eight of the most interesting hours of television ever produced. Five
stars for that!

Featured image via BBC.