William Burns

Legacies of Feeling

A review of Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Adam Curtis (BBC iPlayer, 2021)

Early film equipment

Montages of people dancing, either alone or in groups, are a recurring motif within Adam Curtis’ filmmaking, a body of work that has largely consisted of a series of unconventional documentaries produced for the BBC over the last thirty years. In the opening sequence to Bitter Lake (2015), roughly over the course of a minute, we see successively: a child dancing, then a ballroom, which seemingly grows more crowded with every shot, followed by two men, semi-encircled by a larger group, performing a folk dance to a guitar. Captions supply some basic details, labelling the first ‘Helmand Province Afghanistan 1953,’ the second ‘London The same time,’ and the third, simply, ‘Ukraine 1989,’ but this seems both too little and too much to go on. Unusual in a documentary, they seem not to want to tell us much at all. The temporal coincidence they indicate between the first two clips compels us to make a link between them that is then unsettled by the third, about which we might have our own doubts. The effect of all this is hard to describe, but strangely moving. Decontextualised, defamiliarising as these images are, the people in them are smiling; at odds with the melancholy overdubbed onto the sequence by its soundtrack, they seem to express a kind of basic human happiness, however prescribed by the figures they need to make.
            Bitter Lake begins with the declaration that ‘Increasingly, we live in a world in which nothing makes any sense’. This erosion, of what Hannah Arendt identified in her essay ‘Truth and Politics’ as ‘the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world,’ and its corollary, the increasingly incoherent world-picture we find ourselves living in, have been the primary concerns of Curtis’ recent work. Combining music and footage, mostly sourced from the BBC archives, with commentary written and tersely delivered by Curtis himself, the films position themselves as attempts to explain the chaotic texture of contemporary life by examining its genesis in the events and ideologies of the preceding century. Yet Bitter Lake, with its largely geopolitical focus on Afghanistan and the myths that arose out of Russian and Western interventions there, is something of an outlier within Curtis’ work as a whole. Since The Century of the Self (2002), its major preoccupation—while consistently eschewing the term ‘neoliberalism’—has been with the ways in which democracies following the Second World War gradually reshaped themselves around the needs and desires of the individual, in the process forsaking the communal institutions and values that had provided the impetus for mass democracy in the first place. Beginning with The Trap (2007) and reaching its apogee with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), the films’ recursive explorations of this subject have been supplemented by an attention to the ways in computing, and its subsequent proliferation in digital technology, have fundamentally changed how we view the world and, in turn, our own behaviour. Yet, in a sense, this dimension to the work had been there from the very beginning, as Curtis pointed out in a recent interview with Miles Ellingham for Jacobin:

If you chart my career, it’s been totally linked to the digitization of everything. When you start to digitize images, it’s easy to spin through them very quickly, which is what I spend my life doing. I’ve got thousands of hours of footage on lots of hard drives.

As products of this near-instant access to the world as recorded by BBC camera crews, the films are both an example and an invocation of how our perceptions of the past have been digitally altered, as their maker, mining the BBC rushes, produces rapid, bewildering montages that appear, as Paul Myerscough reviewing The Trap for the London Review of Books ably put it, ‘as if the medium itself was free-associating’. While Curtis’ narrations calmly propound, these sequences plunge the viewer into an overflow of disconnected, yet continuous visual data, juxtaposing a human memory of events—history—with an artificial memory of images. Consequently, they seem to bear as much responsibility for the films’ exposition as Curtis’ narrations, mainly in the way they subtly re-appropriate the imagery of our visually-oriented era to new purposes. Seen favourably, as Hans Ulrich Obrist writes, this method ‘break[s] down the divide between art and modern political reportage, opening up a dialogue between the two’. Clearly, however, it could also have its dangers. Elsewhere in his review, Myerscough invoked Lev Kuleshov’s experiments on audiences’ varying responses to different montages to express concern about the films’ persuasive effect. The surreal combinations of images they present could easily be disguising a slight truth-content or an unprovable hypothesis within the arguments themselves. More ominously, they might even be manipulating us into seeing connections and conspiracies that are not actually there.

An early computer, such as those Adam Curtis asserts revolutionise the process of the self in Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Yet we can also see this kind of critique, one which has persisted in discussions of Curtis’ work, as reproducing a dynamic of suspicion and paranoia that the documentaries themselves have actually sought to address. It is with these dominant moods of the last few years that Curtis opens his latest film, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, released directly onto iPlayer on 11 February 2021 (hereafter abbreviated to CGYOMH). As indicated by the film’s subtitle, these moods serve as the main point of access for the director’s latest attempt to grasp the contemporary ideology of the self, with the documentary arguing in its opening minutes that, in a society where individual feeling and expression have been prioritised, and forces from outside have been internalised as states of mind, emotions possess a unique explanatory value for understanding where we are now. As if in response to criticism concerning Curtis’ own joining of the dots, conspiracy theory forms one of the film’s recurring subjects, as it takes us from the Illuminati-themed squibs of Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill, against the backdrop of the actual scandal of MK Ultra, to the former’s re-emergence in celebrity iconography alongside the more recent intrigues of QAnon and Russian interference. The devices employed by such theories for making patterns out of disparate experiences and events in this way form a counterpart to the film’s own mode of storytelling, as it pieces together innumerable fragments of footage and narrative to document once more the precarious place of the modern individual. As such, CGYOMH is a kind of summa of Curtis’ previous efforts, an ingeniously interwoven and wide-ranging narrative that progresses and digresses through subjects including the rise and fall of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing; the invention of Valium; divorce laws in the 1960s; the Voynich manuscript; the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the life of the nineteenth-century mathematician and philosopher George Boole, whose algebra would go on to form the binary systems used in modern computing. Fitting all this together cannot have been an easy task, and it means that we should not take Curtis’ modesty regarding what he described, in a recent interview with The Quietus, as his ‘functional’ scripts as opposed to his films’ ‘wild visual sense’ at face value; instead, we should see the film’s intertwined narrative strands as the macro-equivalent to the latter’s dizzying juxtapositions. 
            CGYOMH also seems to follow Bitter Lake’s investigation of neo-colonial foreign policy in its treatment of imperialist legacies. The film addresses among other subjects the all-too-easily concealed history of the Opium Wars and the Mau-Mau ‘uprising’, arguing that, with the dissolution of the British Empire, horrors committed abroad came back to haunt the post-war society founded in its wake. It is thus as concerned with the decay of this post-war consensus as it is with the subsequent formation of the society of the individual. Consequently, what most distinguishes CGYOMH from previous films is that it has recognisable protagonists, in figures including the Birmingham Six, the Black Panther Afeni Shakur, and the British transgender activist Julia Grant. The film’s portrayal of their struggles against discrimination and coercion as they were—and remain—embodied in institutions of political, judicial, and medical authority, comes to significantly complicate the narrative of its predecessors, by showing how the freedom they managed to obtain was something as much achieved through individual actions and collective organisation as a paradigm imposed from above. Put on trial as one of the Panther 21 in 1969, Shakur defended herself in court, in the process revealing the crimes for which she was accused to have been manufactured by an undercover police officer. As with the courtroom drama at the centre of Steve McQueen’s recent Mangrove (2020), this episode is both a celebration of the creativity with which individuals resisted police oppression in the past, and a prism through which to see the continued necessity of such actions in our own time.
            In the narrative of Julia Grant, CGYOMH comes up against this old order in its most paternalist guise, documenting her struggle to undertake gender reassignment as she is obstructed by an NHS psychiatrist (always out of shot) who declares her identity to be purely ‘a matter of anatomy’, and sharply criticises her for ‘stepping out of line’. Curtis takes Grant’s story (and its accompanying footage) from the documentary A Change of Sex, directed by David Pearson, which began as an episode of Inside Story premiering on BBC2 in 1979, and continued intermittently as a series until its final instalment in 1999. Chiefly through its depiction of the psychiatrist, the series is in part a powerful study of the paternalist culture in which the BBC itself originated, and Curtis’ use of it is one instance among many (The Century of the Self features a brief, satirical segue to the title card of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation) where the films display an ambivalence about their own relationship to its original, Reithian mission of ‘educating the masses’. Nonetheless, this seems something they find much easier to depict than to directly address.


Illustrations from ‘The Ladies Home Journal’, a publication for the paranoid suburban housewives who act as a motif in the documentary

Both the films and Curtis himself, with his frequent invocations of journalistic ‘service’ in interviews and received pronunciation voice-overs, may appear anachronistically of a piece with this legacy. But, as Phil Harrison suggested, in his review of Hypernormalisation (2016), this may be part of the point: that because the films are ‘patchworks of the past’, they are necessarily also about ‘broadcasting’s past […] the BBC’s past’. Another dimension to Curtis’ use of the archives is the kind of obscure curation that it leads to, both highlighting the BBC’s remarkable achievement in presenting the world, while also weirdly defamiliarising the corporation’s imagery. Clips, detached from their parent source, recur from one film to another; certain shots, such as those of a pensive housewife, taken from John Mossman’s documentary America: Democracy on Trial (1968), seemingly appear in all of them. Much as their production can be characterised by this unique combination of analogue footage and digital editing software, the films’ distribution has been similarly hybrid, as Curtis has broken with formal BBC policy to also establish a significant audience for his films online, one farther afield than that permitted by iPlayer. The conflict, then, that drives CGYOMH’s narrative, between an old paternalism, and the new society of the individual, can be seen also in its unique place within the broadcasting landscape, suspended between the vanishing public model represented by the BBC, and the consumer-driven streaming platforms of Netflix and YouTube (where most of Curtis’ work continues to reside). That CGYOMH ends without really offering an idea of what the future might look like may be tied to an awareness that its own mode of broadcasting may soon become obsolete.
            Yet while these questions remain unanswered, we can also see a more constructive aspect to the films’ affiliation with public broadcasting. Interestingly, Curtis’ father was the lead cameraman for the polymathic director Humphrey Jennings, who, in addition to being a founding member of Mass Observation, and a surrealist poet and artist, produced propaganda films during the Second World War for the Crown Film Unit. As a filmmaker, Jennings utilised the techniques he had learnt from Surrealism to document people’s lives during the Blitz and the Home-Front, as the ruptures and uncanny disturbances of war imposed themselves upon the continuities of the everyday. In films such as London Can Take It! (1940) and Listen to Britain (1942), the director’s use of montage captured this sense of two realities juxtaposed, in the latter film intercutting scenes of schoolyards and spitfires, marching bands and tank factories, while allowing their associated sounds to bleed through from one discrete scene to another. While Curtis has been dismissive of this ‘observational documentary tradition’ in interviews, nonetheless a certain affinity emerges when the montages of his own films are paralleled with Jennings’ work, as analogous attempts to make sense of a reality rendered increasingly senseless. Jennings was also interested in capturing emotions in his films, believing the function of art and image-making to lie in their ability to disclose ‘legacies of feeling’ within the collective consciousness: which is more than a little reminiscent of the avowed aim of CGYOMH. Recent commentators such as Ben Highmore and Thomas S. Davis, however, have been drawn to another side of the emotional element in Jennings’ work, chiefly its function as propaganda to ameliorate the affective stress of wartime, whereby the films, as Highmore writes in Cultural Politics: Mood, Mediation, and Cultural Politics (2017), serve as a ‘phenomenal pedagogy, demonstrating the kind of attention required to avoid morbid attitudes’. Despite Curtis’ uneasiness about his authoritative position within the BBC, we can see CGYOMH as fulfilling a similar function during our own time of crisis, reflecting if not resolving our collective anxieties of isolation and arrested time, as the pandemic continues to reshape the contours of everyday life.

The iconic BBC-Marconi Type A microphone

This explicit emotional focus, moreover, reflects a change in Curtis’ filmmaking that has taken place over the last decade or so, and began with It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), which (much like Listen to Britain) dispensed entirely with commentary to depict American paranoia in the 1950s using only footage and music recorded from that time. As Curtis said in an interview for Film Comment, this was a departure insofar as it was ‘an experiment just to make a film which was […] analytical, but was also about how emotions are very important in all this’. Subsequent films followed this experiment not only in terms of focus but also of technique. They gradually dispensed with the sit-down interviews that had previously punctuated the montages, which in turn sped up, becoming less directly legible in terms of Curtis’ words; meanwhile, a largely ironising soundtrack composed of Bernard Herrmann and John Carpenter film scores was exchanged for the more abstracted, atmospheric compositions of Burial and Aphex Twin. The films now both paid attention to emotion in a new way, and themselves generated moods.
            With this affective turn, a previous emphasis on ‘showing’ that occasionally alarmed critics has largely been replaced by an approach which favours impressionistic visual storytelling and individual witness. But in CGYOMH this amounts to a deeper level of argument, beyond that explicitly given by the film, about emotions themselves. If the film in one respect documents the various ways in which past events have been internalised as states of mind, it is also a testament to the fact that these need not, in Highmore’s words, be ‘locked into the personal and biographical’; that, in fact, emotion ‘ranges across collective and social experience,’ and, coexistent with—while often being subordinated to—rationality, is the medium through which the individual self interacts with the world, and the collective, of which it is a part. Linking the medicalisations of anxiety represented by Purdue Pharma’s invention of Valium, and its later role in the American opioid epidemic, with the creation of content designed to elicit ‘high-arousal emotions’ by online media companies, in order to generate what Shoshanna Zuboff conceptualised as ‘Behavioural Surplus’ sold for ad revenue, Curtis indicts contemporary society for reducing its members’ cognitive and affective ways of being to the status of disorders and commodities. By setting its own procedures of intuiting and representing emotions in contrast to the Information Age’s exploitation of them, CGYOMH is a powerful argument for their importance.
            Bookending the film, seemingly as both an epigraph and a dedication, is a quote from the late anthropologist and political theorist David Graeber: ‘The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently’. Given this ending, some viewers may feel cheated at the film’s unwillingness to offer a firmer indication of what this change should actually consist in; it may be that Curtis’ increasingly free-form diagnoses of Individualism can only take us so far. This response, however, might miss what it is that the film has managed to achieve. During a time that has undoubtedly taxed the emotions of us all, though not equally, and in differing ways, we might see the work the film does as primarily an emotional one, representing and contextualising this affective stress as it renders it equitable with the isolated lives we have increasingly begun to live. With this, we might have been given an idea of the course any collective desire for change will have to take if it wants to succeed: the emotional work that the film performs in disclosing the world we live in will have to be a necessary component in any effort to change it.