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Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Archivist documentarian Adam Curtis returns with ‘An Emotional History of the Modern World’, an attempt to chart how we came to be ruled by machine intelligences and blood-and-soil idiocies.

Cant get you out of my head film curtis still

About a third of the way through Can’t You Get Out of My Head, the new documentary series by the mastermind archival sampler Adam Curtis, I began to lose my patience.

I knew what to expect: uncanny and elegiac archive footage, needle drops from Burial and Aphex Twin, weird tales of power and conspiracy from the rubble of the twentieth century. This is exactly what I got, in a fashion no less impressive nor eerie than in Curtis’ earlier work.

But something began to grate. His calm-voiced narration seemed to skate a little too blithely from one topic to another: from Jiang Qing, the Chinese revolutionary and wife of Mao Zedong, to Eduard Limonov, the Russian novelist and fascist; from Black Power to the Opium Wars; from Tupac Shakur to the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The premise trying to tie all this together is contained in the series’ subtitle, An Emotional History of the Modern World. It’s an attempt to chart, through the latter half of the twentieth century, from Britain and the US to China and Russia, exactly how we became the paranoid and helpless creatures we are in 2021, ruled by machine intelligences and blood-and-soil idiocies. These are traditional Curtis themes, familiar from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, The Mayfair Set, The Trap and, most recently, HyperNormalisation.

It’s big stuff, even for someone who’s covered it extensively before. And for those who are determined to look for them, cracks show in Can’t Get You Out of My Head. When Curtis was dealing with things I knew a bit about, I found his accounts frustrating and schematic. That can only cast a pall over those many more stories about which I knew virtually nothing, even if his style of rapid cutting and unsettling juxtaposition still captivates. After two and a half hours, I began to think that maybe I had grown out of Curtis’s tricks.

But then, in his words, ‘something strange happened’.

As the series endures - and the whole thing is about eight hours long - the associative stream of examples begins to make a kind of emotional sense. The series’ broadest claim is that as collective power structures get too big and too stifling, we champion the individual; but when individuality triumphs we are left isolated, unhappy and unable to resist the repressive powers that, inevitably, were never really gone.

But this is not really a bloodless historical thesis. It’s an attempt by one paranoid and helpless creature to make sense of the bad and stupid world we’ve made. The big swings of the series that bothered me so much are reflective of a kind of hunting desperation to find a story that allows us to build something else. And what’s most impressive is that it succeeds in finding a little solace. Because if you’ve ever felt alone or vulnerable or oppressed, here is a series that feels it too.

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Can't Get You Out of My Head is available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

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