Adam Curtis: Critics praise new docuseries as dazzling, but incoherent

Adam Curtis: Critics praise new docuseries as dazzling, but incoherent

A new BBC documentary series from Bafta-winning filmmaker Adam Curtis has been broadly welcomed by critics.

Several hailed the six-part series as “dazzling” and “terrifying”, but others said it was “incoherent” and left them confused.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head was released in full on iPlayer last week.

Curtis has described it as an “emotional history of the modern world”. It chronicles growing anxieties in the western world, China and Russia.

The film series centres around the tales of interconnected historical political activists, such as Michael X, Jiang Qing and Afeni Shakur.

As with his previous efforts, including 2016’s HyperNormalisation and Bitter Lake from the year before, it uses off-beat archive footage and music to help explain the roots of modern conspiracy theories, prescription drugs, and artificial intelligence.

“These strange days did not just happen,” notes journalist and filmmaker Curtis. “We – and those in power – created them together.”

The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan gave the series five stars, describing it as “dazzling” and “a triumph” – not only for Curtis, “but also for publicly funded broadcasting”.

“Whether you are convinced or not by the working hypothesis, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a rush,” she wrote.

“It is vanishingly rare to be confronted by work so dense, so widely searching and ambitious in scope, so intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence, too.

“It is rare, also, to watch a project over which one person has evidently been given complete creative freedom and control without any sense of self-indulgence creeping in.”

The i paper’s Sarah Carson also awarded top marks, declaring the collection to be both “a masterpiece” and “terrifying” at the same time.

“This sprawling eight-hour documentary explores in urgent, exciting, expansive detail the meaning of power in post-war civilisation,” she wrote.

“What makes it so effective – so comprehensible and informative rather than merely sensational – is how seamlessly pivotal periods of history, complex political ideologies, and popular culture are woven together.”

The Spectator’s James Walton praised the series, but also felt it was “incoherent”.

“Curtis has plenty of great, hidden stories to tell here,” wrote Walton, who viewed the first four episodes. “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.”

But, he added: “In interviews, [Curits] has 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.”

The Telegraph’s Ed Power dished out three stars, writing: “This may not have been his intention but Curtis has stitched together a wildly entertaining ghost train-ride of a documentary that is addictive even when it doesn’t make sense (which is often).”

But, he added: “For all the gorgeous rhetoric and the cracking pop music, the ultimate question is whether Can’t Get You Out Of My Head presents a rational argument about why things are as they are. This it never quite achieves. Instead, Curtis falls into the trap of merely railing against the boring old status quo.”

Speaking to BBC Radio 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne on Thursday, music-lover Curtis confirmed that his aim was to “try to explain why we have this rather strange uncertain time, where lots of people are uncertain, anxious and have no picture of the future”.

“One of the central things in it, I traced what happened to that dream of individualism – I think the thing that marks out our time is that what we feel as people, as individuals, is the most important thing,” said the 65-year-old, who was awarded Baftas for his earlier works; 1993’s Pandora’s Box, and later The Mayfair Set, and The Power of Nightmares.

“It’s what a lot of consumerism is organised around, it’s what all the focus groups in politics are organised around.”

He added: “What I wanted to answer is, why did we go from this idea of confident empowered individuals who would move through the world as autonomous confident creatures, to millions and millions of us being anxious and uncertain and I’m frightened of the future? At the same time, almost frozen without any idea of what an alternative future could be.

“And if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to tell a history of what went on in inside people’s heads, as much as what went on outside. And what’s the relationship between the two: what happens when all sorts of ideas, from power and politics, get into our heads in an age driven by feelings.”

Writing in The Times, Hugo Rifkind opined that while the series was informative, he was left a tad bewildered by it all.

“Curtis is trying to explain why we all feel so trapped and helpless in the modern world and why our political leaders seem to feel that way too,” wrote Rifkind.

“In totality his answer seems to be, ‘because of everything’, which I feel personally is rather too big an answer to be all that useful. Still, at least he’s crammed it all in. I feel I learnt a lot. I’m just not sure what it was.”

But The Independent’s Ed Cumming awarded the series five stars, writing: “His case studies are extraordinarily varied and would all make fascinating films in their own right.

“You emerge from Can’t Get You Out of My Head not with the clean satisfaction of rational combat, but the sense of having been carpet bombed out of your old worldview.”

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