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

The journalistic vagueries of Adam Curtis’s archive-trawling six-part series provoke further research but lack conclusiveness and rigour.

29 March 2021

By Hannah McGill

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

▶ All six episodes of Can’t Get You out of My Head are available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

Among the snatches of historical anecdotes that populate Adam Curtis’s latest meditation on political and social power is one about Kerry Thornley, who in 1969 placed a letter in Playboy magazine asking whether all political assassinations were in fact being conducted by the Illuminati. The intention, Curtis tells us, was “to try to break the spell of conspiracy theories by making people see the ridiculousness of believing them.” Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s hard to resist the parallel with what Curtis himself does with political analysis: takes it to such a preposterous extreme that the very concept is rendered hollow, and all efforts to practice it thrust into suspicion.

Like one of those neural networks that goes viral by producing amusingly empty poetry, recipes or sitcom scripts, Curtis practices journalism absent the qualities that give it credibility: specificity, precision, corroboration, consistency. Instead, he serves up a soup of interesting, oddball historical anecdotes, accompanied by a voiceover heavily favouring giant, blurry assertions about how “we” interact with “those in power” during the “strange days” in which we live. Who are “we”? English speakers? Men? BBC viewers? People who watch Adam Curtis documentaries? All people deemed not to be “in power”? What does “in power” mean? What does “strange” mean in a historical context, and when did the days that were not strange end?

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

These are questions one must quickly shake off in order to allow Curtis’s smooth pseudo-profundities to march unimpeded towards his vague conclusions. Less avoidable is the matter of whether one considers him to be a serious analyst of contemporary politics, or largely a satirist, engaged by the creation of sprawling historical mind-maps but fully aware of the absurdity of many of his links and assertions. It’s certainly a stretch that he would sincerely expect his viewers not to question sentences as baggy and loaded with assumptions as “Even in America, where there is now hope with the new President, there are also fears that despite the growing crisis, the system will just return to normal”. Whose hope? Whose system? Which crisis? Whose normal?

A series in six parts, Can’t Get You out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World follows the blueprint established in such previous Curtis works as Hypernormalisation (2016) and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011): archive clips of human activity either obviously historically significant or obviously trivial; a cool, doomy post-rock score; that schoolteacherish voiceover.

As the subtitle indicates, Curtis’s supposed underlying interest this time is in how socio-political shifts are fed by people’s feelings – or, in his frequent construction, what is “inside their heads”. He describes these films as “an emotional history of what went on inside the heads of all kinds of people” and “what happened when those hopes, dreams and uncertainties inside people’s minds met the much older forces of power.”

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

Since Adam Curtis doesn’t know what’s inside anyone’s head other than his own, and we can be fairly sure that hopes, dreams and uncertainties existed prior to “forces of power”, the premise is highly peculiar from the outset, and isn’t really brought into more satisfying focus. This is partly because Curtis evinces little interest in emotion, in the sense of what makes us sad or happy or gives our lives subjective meaning (the raising of children, for instance, which registers for most people who do it as pretty forceful evidence that objective reality exists, that both love and individual human worth are part of it, and that “systems” are neither necessarily malign nor what we get out of bed for). His preoccupation remains what it has been in previous films: the idea that “we” are living in some sort of manipulated simulacrum of reality.

While there are manifestations of authentic feeling – examples offered include the love of English aristocrat Robin Douglas-Home for his wife Sandra Paul, the opposition of members of the Black Panther organisation to racism in America, and an individual’s desire to change legal sex – these get swiftly co-opted to serve an invisible “system” dedicated to maintaining false ideas of things. The more supine and trusting we are, the more we let the system get away with its dastardly plans; but the more individualistic and self-seeking we are, the more we give it ideas on how to better use us.

For some, of course, the swoopy vagueness of Curtis’s worldview (often illustrated by footage of people dancing – they’re moving to a beat, you see, the malleable creatures!) is its very appeal. The stories he chooses to illuminate, meanwhile, are compelling, and will doubtless provide jumping-off points for viewers’ own future research and learning. As to whether such efforts to alter what’s “inside their heads” will help them against the eternal machinations of that naughty old “system”, though… your guess is as good as mine.

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