Socialist Worker

Adam Curtis mixes stunning images with dodgy politics

Can’t Get You Out of My Head looks far more interesting than many things on TV, but it puts the blame on ordinary people, says Charlie Kimber

Issue No. 2743

Adam Curtis stitches together an array of extraordinary archive film footage in Cant Get You Out of My Head

Adam Curtis stitches together an array of extraordinary archive film footage in Can't Get You Out of My Head


Adam Curtis might be hugely contemptuous of Socialist Worker reviewing his work—so that’s one good reason to do it.

Curtis’s six-part television series Can’t Get You Out of My Head is an extraordinary assemblage of stitched‑together snippets of film, music and archive news.

One minute you are watching a ­section on Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong. Then you leap to the tortured history of the British model Sandra Paul, then you learn about Black Power activist Michael de Freitas.

You find about the tragic life and death of writer Edgar Mittelholzer. Then you’re off to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and then the Acton branch of the International Socialists.

Throughout Curtis intones a ­commentary on the particular events and produces general patterns inside the confusion.

It is initially mesmerising. It seems far more interesting than most of what appears on television.

But Curtis’s politics increasingly undermines the power of the images.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of the programmes where there ought to be the hope of people’s own actions.

The series begins with a quotation from the recently deceased anarchist anthropologist David Graeber.

It reads, “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently.”

It’s the very powerlessness of the vast majority that pushes them towards consent. Curtis adds, “What’s astonishing is how the left here has completely failed

That sound liberating. Certainly Graeber meant it as a call to look beyond the apparent inevitability of what’s around us and insert human agency into the construction of society. For Curtis it’s used to include the culpability of ordinary people in the construction of modern society. For him they are, in the main, seduced into inaction and acceptance of capitalism.

Bought off and influenced by television, drugs and the internet the horrors of society continue unopposed.

We can point at the wreckage and failings everywhere, but who is to blame?

As Curtis puts it, “These strange days did not just happen. We—and those in power—created them together.” But that’s nonsense.

The fact that billions of people go along with the system most of the time doesn’t imply they have the same responsibility as the politicians and the corporate executives.

It’s the very powerlessness of the vast majority that pushes them towards consent.

Curtis adds, “What’s astonishing in our time is how the left here has completely failed to come up with any alternatives.” He suggests apparently radical moments are either irrelevant—Socialist Worker sellers being ignored by the masses—or are absorbed into the system itself.

Curtis says he tends towards ­“something very close to a neoconservative position” and that he is “fond of a libertarian view”.

That’s not just an external factor. It permeates how these amazing images are used.

All episodes are on BBC iPlayer

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Reviews
Fri 19 Feb 2021, 15:11 GMT
Issue No. 2743
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