The late anthropologist David Graeber said, “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” This quote was placed directly at the beginning of Adam Curtis’ new documentary series called Can’t Get You Out of My Head. In these six hour-and-bit long documentaries, Curtis delves into recent modern history to reveal how we reached the strange, fearful, and confusing times we currently find ourselves in.
When Curtis announced the release of the series out of the blue in February, he described it simply as an emotional history of the modern world. From the very beginning, it was clear exactly what the overarching theme of the documentaries were going to be. The idea of how the power dynamic shifts, hides, and is used to shape the reality upon which we live under. It immediately felt like plunge back into many of the concerns explored in his most recent 2016 film HyperNormalisation.
After finishing the last episode, the two words I would use to describe this latest release would be dazzlingly incoherent. As with every Curtis documentary, the documentaries jumped from storyline to storyline, but it broadly set to illustrate how radical movements of the 20th century have been neutralised and weakened by elites striving to maintain the status quo. Essentially, any attempt to change the world for the better has been struck down by the forces of politics and economics with the help of new technology to create a world without any meaning.
The case studies Curtis uses to make his argument are as ever fascinating and varied. The history of modern China is explored through focus on the rise of Chairman Mao’s psychotic and paranoid fourth wife, Jiang Qing after the Cultural Revolution. He then moves swiftly onto exploring the development of leftist radical movements in the West and how they had ultimately become as corrupted as the power they sought to confront. And finally, how the seeds of paranoia in America and the West are built upon a fear of former colonial subjects seeking revenge on them, specifically the ‘yellow peril’ which framed East Asian people as a threat to the West. Curtis expertly uses these stories among many others to make the persuasive argument that those in power have cunningly and malevolently created the individualistic society of today.
In the world of documentary filmmaking, it is very rare to come across a filmmaker whose stories are as dense and intriguing as those of Curtis. It is also refreshing to see the BBC, a public broadcaster, give one person complete creative freedom and control over their work without any editorial interference. Luckily for you, Adam Curtis’ latest release and indeed all his films can be found easily on the BBC iPlayer or YouTube. So if you have never seen an Adam Curtis film or even heard of him before I would strongly encourage you to pursue his work.
Image: Steve Rhodes via Flickr