Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: The BRWC Review. By Ray Lobo.
Adam Curtis has made a career out of making documentaries that track how systems of power manage masses and how individuals sometimes disrupt the smooth management of those systems. Whether it is a system of power formed from a fusion of psychoanalysis and consumerism (The Century of the Self) or systems colliding against each other (neoconservatism versus radical Islamic terrorism in The Power of Nightmares), Curtis is masterly in his ability to merge visuals and audio as a way of tracking power’s many metamorphoses. Curtis’s latest, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, rewards the viewer with over seven hours of the most visually seductive yet intellectually stimulating theses that connect historic events, individuals, and ideologies.
Fans of Curtis’s work know what to expect: a history of ideas told via haunting BBC footage and cleverly selected music pieces that either enhance the old BBC footage or purposefully create dichotomies between sound and image. For the uninitiated, some disclosure: Those accustomed to detailed micro-empirical narratives will be dizzied by Curtis’s macroscopic survey of the historical forces operating beneath the surface of our societies. Can’t Get You Out of My Head finds Curtis equipped with his widest-angle lens.
He is interested in the forces that have shaped some of the current superpowers—The US, China, England, and Russia—and how those superpowers maintain their stability in the international stage while managing their domestic fragilities. Curtis connects dots in The US ranging from The KKK, to The Tulsa Race Massacre, to The John Birch Society, to Project MK-Ultra, to isolation in sterile suburbias, to Valium, to conspiracy theories, to Operation Mindfuck, to The Black Panthers, to police brutality, to neoliberalism, to climate change, to 9/11, to the deterioration of Appalachian coal mining communities, to Oxycontin, to rightwing populism. Curtis traces a line from English Industrialization, to colonialism in Kenya and Iraq, to anti-immigrant sentiment amongst English whites, to Live Aid, to Brexit.
Curtis’s previous narratives gave China and Russia a mere supporting status. Can’t Get You Out of My Head gives them leading roles. Curtis launches a crash course in Chinese history ranging from the trauma of The Opium Wars, to the communist victory, to the power maneuverings within Mao’s inner circle, to The Cultural Revolution and The Red Guards, to China’s opening up to capital, to concerns over Chinese citizens becoming one-dimensional consumerists and capitalists. Curtis unearths gripping footage of Russia’s convulsive recent history. Curtis’s interweaves events and individuals ranging from Soyuz 1’s doomed space mission, to Soviet dissidents, to the breakdown of Russian society in the Shock Therapy 90s, to the rise of Putin, to a period of non-ideology in a consumerist Russia and the subsequent rise in Russian nationalism.
The cast of historical characters is encyclopedic even when compared to Curtis’s previous works. Entire documentaries can be devoted to each of these historical figures; however, the brilliance in Curtis’s craft lies in the thematic connections running through each of these figures. Michael X, Jiang Qing, Sandra Paul, George Boole, Kerry Thornley, Arthur Sackler, Eduard Limonov, Julia Grant, B.F. Skinner, Abu Zubaydah, and even Afeni and Tupac Shakur are but a sampling of the components propelling Curtis’s narrative. Curtis coalesces visual and narrative unlike any other documentarian. He intersperses footage of individuals dancing throughout the narrative. It is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the message he is trying to convey—if the passage of time is a dance between the individual and historical forces, sometimes the individual takes the lead, sometimes the historical forces dictate the steps in the dance.
It is not a fruitful exercise trying to pinpoint a singular theme in Can’t Get You Out of My Head. What the viewer obtains in over seven hours of footage are crisscrossing themes acting as tributaries and feeding into Curtis’s narrative flow. In many of his documentaries Curtis notices a tension in the twentieth and twenty-first century between collective managerialism and individualism. Can’t Get You Out of My Head introduces a regime of isms born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—colonialism, communism, nationalism, fascism. These isms, however clumsily and brutally, attempted to create compelling stories that would set order for masses of people.
The violence unleashed by these isms led to worldwide revolutionary movements in the post-World War II era. Some of these revolutionary movements, in the build-up to and after their victories, pushed their ideologies onto the masses and dispensed violence on dissidents both real and suspected. The failure of revolutionary and leftist inspired protest movements led many to discard ideology altogether and retreat into individualism. The thinking was that if utopias, social empowerment movements, and visions of a better future inevitably ended in failure; then freedom could at least be found within the individual, within the individual’s mind, in your “self-actualization.”
Individualism and self-actualization morphed into consumerism and political apathy. Curtis brilliantly chooses the figure of Tupac Shakur to illustrate this descent from idealism to crass individualism. The social problem shifted. It was no longer about controlling masses but about controlling a mass of individuals who no longer trusted political systems and were torn apart by neoliberal economics. Neoliberalism’s answer was allowing majority white factory towns to waste away, and worse, mass incarceration for people of color. The failures of individualism and neoliberal economics led to scary mutations in the form of more elaborate systems of management and surveillance. Management of individuals was now in the hands of police forces backed by “algorithmic governance” technologies—facial recognition, behavior predictors, etc. Added to this witches’ brew was an alarming mass revival of nationalism and neofascism.
As if all this were not enough, Curtis includes contemporary phenomena that were not given full attention in his previous documentaries. Climate change and the pains of economic austerity, to mention but two phenomena, aggravated whatever problems were already being felt by the poorest in many societies. In addition, the death of grand ideological narratives made individual freedom the default anchoring for most people, and that personal freedom became a lonely, anxiety provoking inner cell. Right on time came a new opium for the masses in the form of Valium and later Oxycontin to dull that anxiety. In a world without grand narratives, patterns of data without meaning were all that were left. Again, right on time came ludicrous rightwing conspiracy theories that gave meaning to those patterns.
It is all pretty bleak material told in Curtis’s inimitable style—a standout scene beautifully exemplifying Curtis’s craftmanship tells the story of Abu Zubaydah while footage plays of Peshwari Mujahadeen fighters backed by the Chris de Burgh song “Lady in Red.” Curtis adroitly notes the fork in the road upon which most leaders came upon: either change economic and political systems to meet the challenges of the future or create global surveillance systems that maintain a fantasy of stability. Many leaders and unelected technocrats chose the latter.
The wonderful world we are left with is one where individuals are seduced into a consumerist and social media fantasy that covers up a violent realism that tramples the unfortunate. In the US, after four long years of conspiracy theories, Trumpist absurdity, and fantasies of a return to a greatness that never existed for many, some feel relief in the shift away from the horrible Trump years and toward a return to the “normal” bad-old-days of neoliberalism and benign elite leadership in the figure of Biden. In the end, we all seem trapped in the same neoliberal and capitalist cycle. The philosopher Fredric Jameson captured this hopelessness when he said, “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Surprisingly, after more than seven hours describing what seems like an inescapable maze out of The Shining, Curtis does offer some hope for positive change in, of all things, the Covid pandemic. Historically speaking, it must be said, pandemics have reset societies.
It cannot be stressed enough how exhilarating a ride Can’t Get You Out of My Head is for the viewer, the most exhilarating of Curtis’s career. After finishing all six episodes, I found myself trying to catch my breath, but ready to get on the ride again. This intellectual epic deserves to be re-watched. There is a lingering question, however, that does not dissipate even after hearing Curtis’s hopeful message. It is a question that may not dissipate even after a re-watch: Will the pandemic, after all the death and despair it has unleashed, finally be the spark that creates a better vision for the future, or will we continue to mindlessly sing along with Kylie Minogue, “La la la, la la la la la,” as the world burns?
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: The BRWC Review
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