Adam Curtis’ Scared Old World

Luke Murphy
4 min readMar 4, 2021
The filmmaker Adam Curtis — Image from Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the many questions I would ask Adam Curtis, the filmmaker, if I were ever to meet him would be this. Having released the film ‘Hypernormalisation’, about one quarter of which tells the story of Donald Trump, just a month before the 2016 Presidential Election how did you feel the morning after his election with the knowledge that you were…right?

Although we know nothing really about Curtis’ personal political beliefs it is fair to assume from the stories he tells, his long association with the BBC and the podcasts to which he chooses to give interviews that he was no supporter of President-Elect Trump. But his discography of documentaries, stretching back to Pandora’s Box in 1992 which signalled the start of his unique narrated style, shows in ever more detailed ways, the interconnecting or random reasons that could lead to Trump, or someone like him, achieving political success. And so amid the shock or euphoria that took hold the morning after that election, Curtis must have known that his film would now live forever. If Hilary had won, ‘Hypernormalisation’ would not resonate so deeply. With Trump’s victory, it felt like a prophecy had been fulfilled.

Did Curtis smile back at the grinning Trump on his television? Or did he feel the same worry as many others who hoped he would not win? Or did he feel nothing, safe in the knowledge of what he now suggests, four years later, that Trump’s presidency was mostly defined by hysteria that did nothing to change real structures of power.

He could reply coyly as other filmmakers, journalists, historians or artists do, and say what he felt was irrelevant. But Curtis more than anyone knows that this isn’t true. The supremacy of what individuals feel is the premise (but not the conclusion) of his new work ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’.

If you have followed Curtis’ career then watching this new six-part series is satisfying. Criticism of his work is that the endless patchwork of subject matter, interviews and archival footage appear as exactly that; a random patchwork or incoherent stream of consciousness. But ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ reintroduces some of the same characters, interviews, footage and music we have seen in ‘The Living Dead’, ‘The Trap’ and others. We see now that what in the past may have been just interests of Curtis, connections he has made, or even repetition of some thesis, is in fact an arc. It may have seemed random but it isn’t. What Curtis is saying is the culmination of nearly thirty years of film making.

His earlier films, like the 1999 ‘The Mayfair Set’ which tells the story of how politicians in Britain and America gave away their power to business corrupting both in the process, were more traditional and focused. While 2015’s ‘Bitter Lake’, an examination of American foreign policy gone wrong in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is peak experimental. Thinking about this journey through another lens we can see ‘Hypernormalisation’ as the ‘Sgt. Peppers’ of his work. It brought together everything before it, be it traditional or experimental, and created a masterpiece. And ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ must be ‘The White Album’. Extra-long with extra stories and extra characters that goes beyond what we think a documentary should be. Each story is self-contained whilst adding to the whole. It contrasts jarringly and sprawls inevitably. The result is to reveal the artist in Curtis.

What elevates Curtis to the place where I am comfortable making comparisons with The Beatles is the combination of innovation, merit and relevancy. The subject matter of ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ is precisely relevant right now in 2021, both in the small details and the big picture. And like ‘Hypernormalisation’ this combination helps the film transcend the every day like few other contemporaries; even if we go on to disagree with some detail.

We already know Hypernormalisation’s endpoint. As the world grew more complex we, and especially the politicians, withdrew from this complexity into a simpler but imagined world. With its many different types of stories ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ goes beyond. It focuses on how decaying our modern world is, even in China which we may view as ‘new’. The forgetting of history that makes us feel bad and the reanimation of history that makes us feel good using the defibrillator of Nationalism is the only story politicians seem able to tell. The racism in the system, and the corruption and the inequality and the hypocrisy have been challenged by individuals at various points, and Curtis tells us these forgotten stories. But we, that mass of individuals few could label a society, accept it all because we are unwilling to challenge power and can imagine no alternative. We have numbed ourselves with prescription opiates like OxyContin and the dopamine that flows through the internet, leaving us incapable of knowing what is real and distrusting even basic truths and facts. We are an emotional and paranoid mess. It is Aldous Huxley’s medicated, euphoric and unfree world; if only it was brave and new.

Of himself, Curtis says he is a creature of his own time, an individualist. Ironic then that the matter of fact atmosphere of his work is reminiscent of the patrician style that used to define public institutions like the BBC and the government before falling away. Until we know more about the man, his career and work are open to further comparison. If he is a wit who captures the zeitgeist then he is Oscar Wilde. If he is a journalist then he is Edward R. Murrow. If he is a historian then he is Edward Gibbons. If he is an artist then he is Andy Warhol. However Curtis chooses to self-identify what is certain is that in search of meaning he is often right and, in his own words, a hero of our time.

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