‘History,’ wrote Edward Gibbon, ‘is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.’ In this respect, though, history has nothing on the work of Adam Curtis, whose latest documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head has now arrived on BBC iPlayer — all six episodes and eight and a half hours of it.
Anybody who’s seen Curtis’s previous series (including The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap) will know what to expect. Once again, he mixes terrific news footage, short clips of more or less anything, mood-inducing songs and a lordly commentary to remind us just how hopeless — in both senses — human beings are. (Admittedly, only four episodes were available in advance, but I’m guessing the series won’t end on a note of good cheer.)
There’s also a less welcome feature of his more recent work: he ranges so widely that you might well struggle not just to follow the central argument, but to locate it. In the first part of the first episode alone, Curtis brought us the rise of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, the divorce of Robin Douglas-Home from the 1960s model (and future Mrs Michael Howard) Sandra Paul, the British black-power leader Michael X and the influence of the Irish novelist Ethel Boole on the Russian Revolution.
Curtis began, as he tends to do, with some brook-no-argument generalisations about ‘all of us’ (a favourite formulation of his) having been filled with anxiety and fear for decades at how terrible everything is — together with a paralysing inability to imagine it ever being any different. To explain why, he then rounded up the usual suspects, with the rise of individualism, politicians handing over power to global corporations, consumerism as a dream-like refuge from reality and the CIA’s brainwashing experiments all present and correct.
The rather windy historical framework is familiar too. Once — at a time wisely left unspecified — politicians were representatives of the people against the establishment elites. Then, with the rise of individualism, the people ‘withdrew into themselves’, concerned only with their own desires — until new psychological discoveries about the irrationality of those desires caused ‘individuals to lose confidence in themselves’.
Well, maybe — although one individual who seems to have escaped this fate is Adam Curtis, who makes his assertions with such patrician certainty that it takes a while for us to stop nodding along sagely and go instead for an inward cry of ‘But hold on a minute…’ Is it really true, for example, that Jiang Qing, architect of the cultural revolution, was an advocate of individualism? Or that the rise and fall of the clearly disturbed Michael X symbolises our collective loss of political faith? Or even that the past 40-odd years have seen ‘all of us’ suffering from anxiety in a manner unknown to our apparently tranquil forebears.
One storyline, which allowed Curtis to demonstrate his skill at making characters reappear in wildly surprising ways, explored the growth of conspiracy theories through the life of Kerry Thornley. A pre-assassination friend of Lee Harvey Oswald, Thornley was so scornful of conspiracy theories that in 1969 he made up one of his own just to show how ridiculous they are: that America’s secret rulers were a 18th-century Bavarian organisation called the Illuminati. Ten years and two episodes later, he’d become such a conspiracy theorist himself that he believed the CIA had manipulated him into opposing conspiracy theories.
Back when he did oppose them, though, he reserved particular contempt for Jim Garrison (as played in the film JFK by Kevin Costner), who argued that the only method for working out what the powerful were up to was noticing coincidences and making links between them to reveal the sinister underlying pattern. It was a contempt that Curtis appeared to share, as he noted how this mad conspiracy-spotting process now dominates the internet. And yet — to make a point that feels bizarrely obvious — the same coincidence-noting and link-making is pretty much his entire modus operandi.
Curtis has plenty of great, hidden stories to tell here. Some of his connections are both intriguing and persuasive: for instance, that the ‘one world’ impulse behind Live Aid also led to the invasion of Iraq. Even so, unless the next two episodes pull off an astonishing feat of synthesis, they seem unlikely to add up to a single narrative. Which mightn’t matter so much, except for Curtis pretending so hard that they do.
His earlier, shorter and more coherent series appeared on BBC2. In interviews he’s welcomed the move to iPlayer on the true-auteur grounds that there’s less editorial interference. Unfortunately, Can’t Get You Out of My Head prompts the heretical thought that some people in suits asking, ‘But what are you trying to say here?’ might be exactly what Curtis now needs.