“Culture is a smokescreen”: Adam Curtis on why art has lost its way

Curtis’s typically discursive, dizzyingly brilliant six-part BBC series Can’t Get You out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World sets out to chart the roots of our contemporary malaise of doubt and dismay. He tells us why individualism is a threat to democracy, why art has lost its way and why he loathes being described as a filmmaker.

28 March 2021

By Nick Bradshaw

Sight and Sound
Can't Get You Out of My Head (2021)

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▶ Can’t Get You out of my Head (six episodes) is available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

In December 2013 the BBC film journalist Adam Curtis posted an entry on his blog The Medium and the Message entitled ‘What the fluck! The point at which journalism fails and modern power begins’.

With Curtis’s typically wide-ranging historical erudition and love of genealogical connection, it casts the founder of Jimmy Choo shoes as the link between modern-day surveillance scandals, Diana Dors’s 1960 sex ‘confessions’ in the News of the World, and the ‘muckraking’, reformist American journalism that arose at the outset of the last century, inspired by Frank Norris’s 1901 parable of Gilded Age plutocracy The Octopus: A Story of California. Curtis singles out for praise McClure’s Magazine’s exposés of wholesale corruption across private monopolies and public office, and its argument that the institutions that were supposed to serve the public – from the police and politicians to the church and colleges – had been blindsided and overwhelmed by new systems of concentrated industrial power and the social transformations they wrought. Given that incapacity of a nation’s institutions, wrote the magazine’s editor Sam McClure, “There is no one left; none but all of us.”

In turn, in his conclusion, Curtis wrote: “I think there is an equally diffuse malaise today – waiting for a new kind of journalism to bring it into focus. Like with McClure’s it won’t be just a catalogue of shocking facts – it will be an imaginative leap that pulls all the scandals together and shows how they are part of some new system of power that we don’t fully comprehend.”

“The world is what we make it”: Adam Curtis in our April 2021 issue

In our April issue, Curtis tells us how we made our world, the better to try again. Plus Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, two new spy-thriller documentaries, a history of the ‘cursed film’, looking back at Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express – and forward to the future of Studio Ghibli.

Find out more an get a copy

Curtis’s new series Can’t Get You out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, all six episodes and eight hours of which are now on BBC iPlayer, is a big story about the end of big stories – an odyssey through the last century and more of global history and its tragedies, ironies and dead-ends that looks forward to an undetermined future.

Jiang Qing, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

It’s a series to get lost in, diving into Curtis’s characteristic wormholes and swimming in history’s crosscurrents; one which wants to put some solid ground beneath our feet, to situate what he sees as our contemporary mood of doubt and dismay. It charts the emotional undertow of history through the interplay of contemporary ideas as they entangle with characters and cultural legacies: Curtis’s crazy-quilt cast spans Jiang Qing, the Chinese actor turned revolutionary also known as ‘Madame Mao’; British Trinidadian underworld enforcer turned civil rights activist and revolutionary Michael de Freitas aka Michael X; Eduard Limonov, the Russian expat punk writer turned founder of the National Bolshevik and The Other Russia parties; US counterculture writer and wayfarer Kerry Thornley; Black Power activist Afeni Shakur and her rapper son Tupac; British trans pioneer Julia Grant; German police manhunter Horst Herold and extremist Horst Mahler; Médecins Sans Frontiéres founder Bernard Kouchner; Palestinian jihadist and Guantánamo torture victim Abu Zubaydah; and fallen Chinese Communist reformer Bo Xilai.

Curtis’s helter-skelter storytelling, cross-cutting between characters and continents, recalls the modernist experiments of the novelist John Dos Passos, one of Curtis’s heroes. But if the films are dense, they are never abstruse: Curtis is proudly pop, using the BBC’s reach to address a mass audience, and when he is not voice-narrating his litanies of ideals and unforeseen consequences, the word ‘but’ resounding like a metronome, he cues up his signature found-footage montages to a series of pop songs from Phosphorescent (‘Song for Zula’) to Tenpole Tudor and the Sex Pistols (‘Who Killed Bambi?’) to Marlene Dietrich (‘Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind’/‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’), in wordless sequences that provide a kind of punctuation and distillation to the onrush of vocalised history. I haven’t seen a TV series offer so much dizzying food for thought while enjoying its freedom to disorient us since Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

Michael X, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

Curtis began his TV career with comic reports on singing dogs and the like for Esther Rantzen’s magazine show That’s Life!. He developed his signature style of metaphoric archive illustration in the 1990s, on the Bafta-winning documentary series Pandora’s Box (1992, about the conceits of modern technocracies) and The Mayfair Set (1999, a portrait of four entrepreneurs in post-war Britain, and the takeover of power from politicians by the markets, which also won a Bafta), as well as 1995’s The Living Dead, investigating the manipulation of historical memory by power. He then gave it fuller rein on two name-making series, The Century of the Self (2002), about the rise of individualism and its management by the public relations industry, and The Power of Nightmares (2004), asserting a mutual enmity between neoconservatives and jihadis.

Since those critical successes he has continued to essay through the archives’ hidden histories while breaking away with shorter inserts for Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe series and collaborations for the Manchester International Festival with Punchdrunk Theatre and Damon Albarn, and Massive Attack. He spoke to me on Zoom in a break from final edits on his series, a week before its launch.

“There’s a hunger for change.”

Adam Curtis

For all our political rancour, at least 2020 united us in our discontent. The Groundhog Days of lockdown have literalised our feeling of stuckness as well as separation: with the future veiled, we live in a confined eternal present. “A load of stasis, just sort of static-ness,” as Curtis puts it. Our bubbles cosset and isolate us – they make palpable the diminished aspirations and horizons, the draining of momentum or meaning that Curtis explored in his 2007 series The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom.

On the upside, the disruptions of crisis and the evidence made flagrant by Covid of our broken social contract have given us pause to dream of emerging into a world better than the old one. “There’s a great hunger for change, a yearning; you can feel it,” says Curtis. “But then no one seems to be coming up with any alternative visions of a future that really grabs you. Which is why I wanted to make these films, just to ask [why not].”

Of course, Curtis is hardly the first to level a charge of vacuity at our secular society; I came of age in the 1990s reading Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and his other portraits of a West that had sacrificed God and now, with nothing to look up to or forward to, was stuck navel-gazing, with no stories to tell. “It’s the downside of trying to create a society full of individuals who live in their own worlds and their own dreams,” says Curtis. “After a while you run out of steam. You know, that question of ‘What’s it all for?’ I had this idea, and I don’t think it’s nostalgic, that the old function of politics, as well as to manage and govern, was at least to give a framework of purpose. And in a funny way Mrs Thatcher was the last one who did that. She created the society that started to eat itself – but she knew what she wanted. I think it’s right what Coupland was asking: ‘Well then, what do you believe?’ I suppose you’re supposed to believe in yourself, really, and if you didn’t there are lots of psychological ideas that would help you. But that’s sort of run out of puff now.” As, indeed, Curtis argued in his most recent film, HyperNormalisation (2016), which compared the party-line ‘normality’ of off-the-rails late Soviet communism with the bluffs of our own technocratic elite.

Kerry Thornley and Gregory Hill, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

Can’t Get You out of My Head takes as its epigraph a quote from the late anthropologist David Graeber, an echo of Sam McClure: “I knew him a little bit, really liked him,” Curtis says. “He said: ‘The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.’” Was this argument Curtis’s starting point? Or the desire to compile an ‘emotional history’ from the myriad character sketches he collects? “No…” he says, pausing to consider. “I mean, I suppose because I’m basically a journalist rather than a historian – I tend to start with stories. I never, ever have a theory: that usually comes quite late.

“Here I started with two things,” he continues. “One was a series of stories of people I was just rather fascinated by, because they were complicated. A lot of journalism these days divides people, characters, into goodies and baddies; they’re either innocents being bullied by dictators and horrible bankers or they are dictators and horrible bankers. I just think people aren’t like that, and I’ve always rather liked ambiguous characters. So here we have Jiang Qing, whose anger and frustration you sort of sympathise with: she was an ambitious person who’d been scorned and put down by the men in the Shanghai studios and then in the revolutionary camp, but when she got power it came out in a vengeful way. That’s really interesting, because it’s exactly what we’ve been talking about: how ideas go into someone’s head, get mixed up with ghosts from their own pasts – in Britain, the deference, the snobbery, the class anger, the dreams of and melancholy about the empire – and come out in strange, malformed ways. It tells you how difficult it is to change the world and if you do want to, you’ve got to understand the complexity of having to do it with people who feel and think and have their own histories. One of the fundamental mistakes people made in the age of the individual was to think that you could simply change things without taking into account what is inside people’s heads. That’s what progressive movements will have to do in the future.

Tupac Shakur, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“And the other thing was that, 18 months into the regimes of Brexit and Donald Trump, I began to puzzle over why so many of the people who didn’t like them were not coming up with an alternative vision of the world to persuade those people who had voted for Trump and for Brexit to vote for something different. They were retreating into what I think are conspiracy theories about how Vladimir Putin or Cambridge Analytica had manipulated those people. You would expect, given the shock and fury, for people to come out with alternatives. So I was puzzled; I wanted to try and explain that, that’s all. It’s only towards the end that I come up with a big theory about why – once I’ve done all the work on the stories.”

“Culture is suffused with pessimism.”

“I’ll tell you what was lurking in the back of my mind and still lurks in the back of my mind throughout all this,” he adds, warming to his theme. “What we are living through is a generation of liberal progressives who are feeling that power is moving away from them, and they don’t have any alternative, because they’ve run out of steam. Their roots lie in a radical culture back in the 1960s and 70s, and they retreated into culture in the 80s because politics went to the right. And they lived in that world of radical culture for quite a long time, still thinking they were powerful. And what Brexit and Trump showed them is that actually large chunks of the working class don’t care about their visions any longer. They’re angry and they want something else – not that benign paternalism which we saw with the Clintons and Blairs and their technocracy.

“I mean, I’m doing lots of other things in these films, but I am charting a class beginning to feel power slipping away from them. It’s a cultural story as well as a political one – that culture became this place where a lot of progressives went to in the face of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and then the marketisation of everything in the 1990s. And they thought that was a way of keeping the radicalism pure, but actually it left them high and dry.”

Julia Grant, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

Curtis is preaching against the choir now – in an interview with Sight & Sound especially – as well he knows. Indeed he’s turned our interview requests away on previous occasions, presumably on the logic that we would bog him down in talk of film art.

For all that many cinephiles venerate his films, not least the fireworks of found-footage montages he sends up from the film archives, the admiration isn’t often returned. I still chuckle over his sweeping dismissal of avant-garde artists as “boring, chilly and rather nasty people”. His collaborative experiments with artists such as Punchdrunk Theatre and Damon Albarn (on 2009’s It Felt Like a Kiss, a featurette turned immersive installation about being on the end of American soft and hard power in the 1960s) and Massive Attack (Everything Is Going According to Plan, 2013, the band’s cover versions underscoring Curtis’s giant images of state and corporate mind control) do not seem to soften his attack.

Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“I think we’re living through a very interesting moment, because the other thing, which I didn’t really do in the films, because I’d get into such trouble if I say it,” he continues, “is that maybe the whole idea that culture can be radical just isn’t true; that actually it’s not only a retreat, it’s a smokescreen to disguise the fact that you don’t really have an alternative political vision of the world and how to tackle entrenched power.

“Those who retreat into culture haven’t got the answer. They dance to the radical music and say the radical things and go and see the radical films – but maybe the power is moving away from them. It’s a very difficult thing to face up to; people wrote great big novels in the 19th century, Buddenbrooks [Thomas Mann’s 1901 multi-generational chronicle of Hanseatic merchants] and things like that about a class beginning to decline.”

Likewise the art of the last Gilded Age, the late 19th century in America: “What art did then was dramatise that extraordinary wealth and power so people could see it,” he argues. “What art is brilliant at, because it’s so close to money – the artists are allowed into the inner sanctums of money in a way that people like you and I are not – is to tell us what power is like in a dramatic way, so we understand it. But I do think that art lost its way through self-expression.

Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“One of the things I’m trying to say in these films is that individualism, whilst being a product of mass democracy, began to eat away at mass democracy in all sorts of ways. And one of those ways is that art got possessed by the idea of self-expression, and gave up on trying to tell us about the realities of power, which is its real job in society. At which point – which I think is one of the fundamental truths of our time – power became invisible. It just disappeared; we don’t know where it is. There isn’t an art that tells us about it now, dramatises it. The closest, funnily enough, is Damien Hirst, who got in there.”

Is there a danger in proffering so many thumbnail portraits of reformers and radicals who’ve lost their way, whose ideas failed – so many unforeseen consequences and historical dead-ends? A resulting sense that the difficulty of changing the world starts to seem an impossibility?

Curtis shoots back: “Can I say that I think what you’re doing is projecting a pessimistic ideology that you feel on to my films? I think I make it pretty clear that there is a great desire to change the world. Let’s look back at why past attempts to do that failed. One of the fundamental reasons is that the mistake people made in the age of the individual was to think that you could change things without taking account of what is inside people’s heads – the old ideas they’ve inherited from the corrupt world that you’re trying to change, yes? I don’t think they’re pessimistic, I think they are trying to confront these issues which the left and the progressive movement have shied away from, and retreated into an individualism, because they couldn’t think of the answer to it.

Mao Zedong, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“Culture is suffused with that pessimism. It’s one of the great agents of this ‘Shit happens’ mood – it’s not even an ideology. It’s part of ‘Oh Dearism’ [a term Curtis coined in two short polemics for Newswipe in 2009 and 2014, describing a shouldershrugging passivity in the face of disjointed bad news], that ‘it always goes wrong’. The dominant mood of our time, amongst lots of the very well-heeled and very clever, and especially amongst those who are big in culture, is of an inevitability, that there’s nothing we can do to change anything, it’s just going to happen.

“I heard a wonderful phrase, ‘bourgeois eschatology’, which I had to look up. It’s that religious idea that the world is about to end, and [the bourgeois variant] is that sense that, in a narcissistic age, when problems happen, you project your anxiety on to the world. ‘It’s not me that’s going to die, it’s the world.’ And I’m saying if you do want to change the world, you’ve got to face up to these facts, but you can change the world. I have chosen stories where things went wrong to try and learn from them. It’s true that lots of the attempts to change the world in the 20th century left horror, but to confront where things go wrong is not pessimism: in a funny way it’s optimistic. I’m saying it doesn’t have to be like this.”

“My job is to provoke people.”

If artists are failing to raise their sights, Curtis also has a quarrel with the perspective of the documentary world. He had previously signalled as much in email correspondence, and I was hoping to open up his thinking, which I managed to do accidentally with a loose question about whether there might be a tension between the ambiguities of his structure and footage and the didacticism of his voiceover – the latter not being in great fashion in modern cinema.

Eduard Limonov, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“At the risk of being rude,” he retorts, “you sound a bit like a film writer wanting me to be a filmmaker, whereas in fact what I am is a journalist, and I don’t see why you can’t have both. You can have both ambiguity in the characters, as you say, and have me as another character in the film, telling you what I think. Because my real job is not to make movies, my job – what the BBC asked me to do – is to try and provoke people to look again, pull back and think again about the time they’ve lived through.

“So much of our journalism is having to do it day by day, whereas I get the time to go back and look at the stories that have led to now. What I’m trying to do [in Can’t Get You out of My Head], because I’ve got the length and time, and because of the subject matter as well, is put ambiguity in. But I don’t see why I can’t say what I think. I don’t make cinema, I’m not even a documentary maker; I’m a journalist, and I go out and find and tell stories and draw conclusions from them and tell you. If people then say, ‘He’s not like modern cinema,’ I just think they have tried to put me in a category that I never really wanted to be in in the first place.

George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“I have a slightly deeper criticism of that,” he continues, “which is that, really, the fashion for having no commentary at all pretends to be an aesthetic choice, but really it’s that they’ve run out of anything to say or any idea of what they’re doing. A lot of modern culture, especially modern cinema, doesn’t say what it thinks because it doesn’t know.

OK, this is brutal: there is a sense of entitlement that you feel in a lot of those commentaryless movies. It’s sort of like, ‘I can just watch, as if I’m on a horse, riding through the village, watching.’ Frankly, that’s why the working class turned round and bit you in the bum with Brexit, because they got fed up with that. And none of these We Watch the People filmmakers – in fact none of the middle classes – saw it coming…

“What I think journalism should do is get down in there, find out stuff, come back, tell the people; if it’s wrong then the people should tell the politicians to change things. That’s a great noble profession, and I’m really proud to be part of it. What I don’t want to be part of is just pointing a camera and watching the people. It’s patronising; and you can accuse my films of all sorts of things, but I don’t think they’re patronising. There’s an enthusiasm in trying to tell you about what’s going on. ‘Look, I found this out: did you know that hippies gave you modern consumer capitalism? Isn’t that shocking?’ That’s where I come from. I’m a hack, basically, who’s discovered you can do it in an entertaining way, by stealing some ideas from art and bringing them into the mainstream.”

Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

One definition of art, I point out, is about shaking people out of their preconceptions and safe zones and making them see the world as strange and new – much as his work, not least Can’t Get You out of My Head, tries to unsettle and reset our understandings of history.

“You’re absolutely right – there is a lot of cinema I really admire which, completely differently from what I do, also tries to make you look at the world in a new way,” he says. “Tarkovsky tried to do that, and Stalker [1979] is an amazing film; it makes you look at the world differently. The Safdie brothers do that; Joanna Hogg does that. What I’m slagging off is the people who just go and observe the working classes.”

“How do you illustrate finance?”

One of the richest seams in Can’t Get You out of My Head is its inventory of so many ways in which we are blinkered from reality and dissuaded from agency – from ignorance to prejudice to misdirection. Folk myths entrance with myths of natural orders; psychiatry models our submission to subconscious dictates; opiates sedate unjoined Americans where once they subjugated the Chinese.

Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

In a more linear narrative, Valium marketeer Arthur Sackler and his family might figure larger as svengalis like Edward Bernays, the godfather of public relations, and the Freud family in The Century of the Self, but perhaps we now know that story – Curtis lets it float. One of his major saws today (going back to 2011’s All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace) is how we’ve handed control to computers – chaos theory persuaded our politicians that planning was futile; complexity theory told us computer engineers could manage better.

But Can’t Get You out of My Head draws fascinating – and timely – parallels between the judgement-free processing of data by computers and the similarly sense-free link-making of conspiracy theorists, who have followed the nerds out into the open. We watch as Kerry Thornley, the counterculture writer and acquaintance of Lee Harvey Oswald, aims to satirise the credulousness of conspiracy theorists with a letter to Playboy magazine positing the Bavarian Illuminati at the heart of American power, only for the notion to spread like crack, mixing with revelations of actual conspiracies in the era of Nixonian paranoia to the point where Thornley himself was no longer sure of his bearings. The key figure is New Orleans DA and Kennedy assassination conspiracist Jim Garrison, who preached that truth was so impossibly hidden that all you could do was connect coincidences of “time and propinquity” and draw your own conclusions; today the internet empowers us all to leap down rabbit holes, and share our bricolage findings via the omnivorous algorithm.

Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

Curtis meanwhile has the run of the BBC archive to conjure his stories. I don’t mean to suggest an equivalence with the logic of time-and-propinquity, except that his eddies of story and argument feel like the perfect form for this information wilderness. And, just maybe, there are instincts beyond pure journalism for some of his constructions.

“What I always try to do in my films is put in things that make me feel like it’s real life,” he says. “You know how, in your own life, you might have five or six lifelong friends, and then lots of other people swim in and out of view all the time. Every now and then, in my films, I put in just little bits. Like, in the first film in this series, I put in the fact that a woman called Ethel Bull has inherited a manuscript called the Voynich Manuscript, which no one has ever managed to decipher. I never mention it again, it’s quite silly and odd, but it also feels a bit like life. The humour is silly and affectionate – remember, I started my career with trash television. In the last film I’ve got a lovely shot of a cat dressed in a shark costume on top of an automatic hoover.

Michael X being given hair by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“It’s partly because I make films for iPlayer now, and I’ve worked out if you make films for people watching online you can let things run, not necessarily longer but just more complicated,” he says. “They watch with a different sensibility than on transmission television. Partly they can be much more vicious, but they’re also, in a funny way, more permissive. So in Bitter Lake [his 2015 series about colonialist blowback in the Arab world], I run a shot for three minutes with a soldier holding a bird in his hand, with an Afghan pop song I really like, which I thought was very beautiful. Some people loathed it and some absolutely loved it, but you couldn’t do that on old television.”

There’s a longing to know how Curtis finds all this stuff – does he know what he’s digging for? And is he now moving beyond just the BBC footage, as described in a recent New Yorker profile?

Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“No; 98 per cent of what is in my films is BBC archive, which is probably the biggest recorded archive of film in the world, and I can use it for free,” he says. “So I do what a lot of my colleagues can’t be arsed to do, which is spend a lot of time watching a load of rubbish, and every now and then finding something rather good. But what has made my life a lot happier was the rise of digitisation, which means you can watch video files very quickly. And actually, if I’d had to spool through lots and lots of film or videotape all the time, I’d have given this up a long time ago; that would send me mad. But it’s like internet shopping: you just watch for stuff that you think is good and write it down.

“You say people are fascinated by that process. What I realised early on is that if you’re doing journalism like this, you don’t have to illustrate things literally. You can be talking about something deeply political, and have a shot that has nothing to do with it in logical terms but emotionally just suits it. I go through a lot of chopping and changing because you can easily get it wrong and make it look stupid, but I find if the story I’m telling creates a particular mood in me, because I think I’m quite normal, it’ll probably create the same mood in other people.

Richard Nixon, as seen in Can't Get You out of My Head (2021)

“And it’s born out of the fact that a lot of the modern world – computers, finance, modern management theory, think-tank stuff – is completely unvisual. How do you illustrate finance? They won’t let you in, and even if they do it’s so boring – men and women sitting in glass offices on their keyboards, and in the process moving billions of dollars around the world. That’s really powerful, and impossible to illustrate. So I’m often forced into being imaginative, out of sheer necessity.”

Does this bring us back to the deficiencies of contemporary journalism – that it sticks to clichés?

“I have the time to find those images, that’s all,” he says. “And so many of my colleagues are really up against it, and are forced by default into a literalism. I’m given the space to let my imagination run and combine that with journalism. You talk about the cinema people: I combine that visual sensibility with journalism, which most people don’t. Most journalists I know – this is not a criticism – don’t really have a visual sense. They think in terms of facts and narratives, and they’re very good at it, but they don’t think visually. A lot of visual people aren’t very interested in politics – probably quite rightly, because it’s actually incredibly boring – and they want to deal with emotions and tell stories about people. And I’ve just literally hybridised the two, and made my own little corner out of it.”

Further reading

The great game: Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake

By Jason Burke

The great game: Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake

Can’t Get You out of My Head gets lost in its own thoughts

By Hannah McGill

Can’t Get You out of My Head gets lost in its own thoughts

Adam Curtis picks 10 films that capture the mood of their times

By Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis picks 10 films that capture the mood of their times

Adam Curtis versus Joshua Oppenheimer, or art times journalism

By Robert Greene

Adam Curtis versus Joshua Oppenheimer, or art times journalism

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