Cannot Get You Out Of My Head
On Adam Curtis, sad cows, and conflicting feelings about my favorite documentary of the decade so far
Is Adam Curtis's 2021 documentary Can't Get You Out of My Head the best documentary of the decade so far? The best documentary of the 21st century? Or is it pretentious MFA art school garbage released onto an upper middle class public so desperate to summarize and simplify a massive change in society that is accelerating into something we've come to hate? Is this Tony Judt's Postwar or a college sophomore who just discovered Howard Zinn posting "We live in a society" TikToks?
It might depend on how you feel about Adam Curtis. I had never heard of him before my friend PJ introduced me to this specific documentary. (Thank you again, PJ.) He's an English documentary filmmaker who's been divisive with his subject matters for the BBC. He's also known for his distinct style of overlaying modern, and most melancholy, music over old footage collages, which has the effect of making you feel like what you're watching is very important. At its most silly, it's sad cows galloping along to Aphex Twin. It's surprising how consistently effective it ends up being.
Can't Get You Out of My Head won't change your mind about Curtis or his thesis on the history of the modern world. To drive his point forward, the opening title card of the first episode quotes David Graeber, the late anthropologist and pubic figure also beloved and hated in equal measure. (I think of him as a sort of modern day Kurt Vonnegut if he didn't write surrealist novels and stuck with anthropology; he conveyed a rare sense of prickly empathy in his writings and I admire his argument in "Bullshit Jobs," both his original 2013 article and his book further fleshing out that article's thesis.) Graeber's quote - "The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently" - is an appropriate introduction to the overall aim of Curtis's doc. The pull-quote from the BBC is so:
"The films trace different forces across the world that have led to now, not just in the West, but in China and Russia as well. It covers a wide range - including the strange roots of modern conspiracy theories, the history of China, opium and opiods [sic], the history of Artificial Intelligence, melancholy over the loss of empire and, love and power. And explores whether modern culture, despite its radicalism, is really just part of the new system of power."
The documentary itself is long. It's six parts, each nearly two-hours long. Each part runs mostly in order of time and events but are fast and loose with grouping some ideas together. The focus is on Britain, the United States, China, and Russia, as if the rest of world never existed. Six parts of a documentary are not enough to display and explain all the contradictions and nuances of every major world event, of course. The BBC perspective makes me, an American viewer, more mindful of my limited knowledge of U.K. and Chinese history. Curtis's dry summaries of American quirks made me laugh too; he's always blunt, and he's often right. If Curtis really is the U.K.'s Ken Burns, then both artists create documentaries that are compelling works of art that are less successful as containers of facts and figures upon scrutiny.
I still think about Can't Get You Out of My Head nearly a year after I've seen it. I'm surprised by how often I still think about it. It's unlocked some inner feelings in my head that I've never really considered before, as if those feelings were waiting for me to stumble upon them all these years. Like Graeber, there's a sense of empathy here that I rarely see in most art these days. If you've read my old newsletter and recent blog posts, you know that when it comes to art, I'm all about the big swings that have interesting failures. I think Can't Get You Out of My Head is a flawed documentary that is trying to say something vital. I think it's a big swing worth your time.
In the end, I think the key to the documentary's success is in its subtitle: "An Emotional History of the Modern World." An "emotional" history. That distinction is important. "Emotional history" hints at what art is at its best. As a container of historical facts and figures, art is useless and debatable. As a container of historical emotions and feelings, art is unbeatable. This is why I love music so much; the manipulation of sound waves to try to connect with one another - one of humanity's great tools. This is why Can't Get You Out of My Head stands out to me: it's choosing to not tell typical history but an emotional history of how we got there, and thus its original goal is achieved more successfully. I want more documentaries like this.
And yeah, the music. The Aphex Twin cow bit aside, Curtis's soundtrack for Can't Get You Out of My Head is one of the best soundtracks I've heard in a long time. If nothing else, put this on in the background and enjoy.
Watch the first episode of Can't Get You Out of My Head for free on YouTube.