Can’t Get You Out of My Head is both a six-part documentary film series by Adam Curtis, and the history lessons you never had. Subtitled ‘An Emotional History of the Modern World’, the films focus in on individuals from the 20th century whose decisions and influence have shaped our current reality. Each of these decisions are shown by Curtis to have been driven by emotions, particularly fear, revenge, anger, suspicion, and greed.
Underlying this emotional narrative is an examination of how we, as individuals, societies and nations, understand reality. We all live in ‘dreamworlds’: visions of the world that are comprehensible and that keep us safe. Conspiracy theories, Valium, psychology, idealised histories, propaganda and ideology are among the many ways Curtis demonstrates how we’re protecting ourselves from realities that we refuse to see.
Those realities for Curtis include a portrayal of global politics that isn’t taught in school. We learn of the British influence in the 1920s over how the Middle East was restructured after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: power was given to the sheikhs, local tribal leaders who reflected the British idealist memories of a simple, rural, feudal past. This led to chaos and instability, and was repeated 80 years later by American coalitions with Sunni tribes in the war against Iraq. Along similar narrative beats, the Ku Klux Klan was built on ideas from a film influenced by Scottish clans and an idyllic rural British feudalism. We’re also shown how British guilt around introducing opium into China, causing huge addiction problems, turned into Sinophobia through the creation of the villain Dr Fu Manchu, which has remained in the British consciousness ever since.
The films are pieced together from archived clips sourced from across the world. These clips range from shots of Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s wife) making impassioned speeches, to unexplained and eerie material, such as one clip that has stayed with me: five (possibly Russian) men, perhaps prisoners, pacing up and down a small room; they’re sometimes in sync, sometimes not, one giving a contented smirk, hands in pockets. Over the top of these clips Curtis overlays music, ranging from orchestral ballet to the Sex Pistols to 2Pac. Often more modern than the clips being shown, the soundtrack creates a jarring disconnect between what you’re seeing and hearing, heightened by clever syncing between visuals and music.
“Curtis’ series made me think and feel in a way I’ve never done before. It opened my eyes to a world of history that I didn’t even know existed; it’s made me question how I see the world.”
Curtis ties the fragments together with a deadpan voiceover; his neutral British accent guides us through interweaving narratives. These are loosely chronological within each episode, but with frequent flashbacks in time to tell a related story. Curtis’ web of narratives flits from individual to event to country to individual so frequently that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information.
By doing this, Curtis’ style demonstrates a fundamental 21st century disconnect: the way humans understand reality is not the same as how computers do. Humans understand the world through emotions and feelings, which we comprehend by telling ourselves stories: we are driven by fear, and so we find reasons for that fear (foreign threats, elite control, conspiracy theories). Computers are driven by the ability to find patterns in masses of data, and therefore human feelings and thoughts become irrelevant or are exploited.
The weakness of the series is that Curtis is telling us a very specific narrative. He makes sweeping statements that are sometimes reductive (e.g. that Putin was selected as Russian Premiere by the reigning oligarchs because he ‘believed in nothing’ – the reality is rather more complicated). When combined with juxtaposed clips, it raises questions as to whether what he’s saying is true or not. In the age of the internet, everything is both real and fake at the same time; Curtis is very aware of this, and he plays with that tension throughout the series. He expects us to make our own stories out of his narrative, and lets us choose what to believe, what to check, what to reject.
Curtis’ series made me think and feel in a way I’ve never done before. It opened my eyes to a world of history that I didn’t even know existed; it’s made me question how I see the world. As Joan Didion said, ‘we tell stories in order to live’: which stories are we telling, and why? Which stories are hidden? Which should be heard? And which are true?
Adam Curtis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head is available on BBC iPlayer.
Words by Anna Willis