Adam Curtis Talks to Jacobin About Power, Politics, and His New Film

Adam Curtis

We talk to legendary filmmaker Adam Curtis about politics, power, music, and his new six-part documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival on September 6, 2015 in Telluride, Colorado. (Vivien Killilea / Getty Images)

Interview by
Miles Ellingham

Adam Curtis’s career feels like a series of glitches right at the heart of the BBC. His films stand entirely apart from the channel’s output. Episode one of his series The Trap (2007), which covers the rise of game theory in the wake of Cold War paranoia, opens with a chilling title card (“human beings will always betray you”) and aired on BBC Two directly after extended coverage of Crufts — an international dog pageant.

Nowadays, however, Curtis’s films are all democratically available online and wildly popular with young people. They’re ostensibly documentaries, but his approach is closer to poetry or video art than traditional narrative television. Curtis also gingerly avoids prescriptive political labels, sometimes delivering revolutionary Marxist critiques of capitalist instability, sometimes manifesting as a libertarian techno-utopian. A consistent through line, though, in his emotive soundtracks and his baroque visual style is Curtis’s unswerving romanticism. He wants to engender a feeling in the viewer — not to simply explain the world.

Curtis’s new series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, is a genuine epic, a six-part, eight-hour series that charts the ebb and flow of society as it moves from collectivism to individualism. His unrestricted access to the BBC archive equips each episode with a sort of all-seeing eye, one that Curtis uses to locate and explain power as it changes hands, uprooting the world.

It all begins with a quote from David Graeber in Curtis’s trademark all-caps Helvetica bold — THE ULTIMATE HIDDEN TRUTH OF THE WORLD IS THAT IT IS SOMETHING WE MAKE AND COULD JUST AS EASILY MAKE DIFFERENTLY. As it evolves, the series attempts to understand why this ultimate truth is indeed hidden and not blindingly obvious. Through each episode (the final one weighs in at 120 minutes), Curtis explores this question emotionally with stories of individuals trying to transform the modern world — from Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing to the Russian dissident Eduard Limonov to Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac and a former Black Panther.

From his West London apartment and with his house cats on patrol, Curtis sat down with me on Zoom to discuss the new series, the populist left, conspiracy theories, and his love of music.


ME

You have subtitled this new series: “An Emotional History of the Modern World.” Why “emotional”?

AC

I wanted to make an explanation as to why we feel so anxious about the future. We know that we’re disaffected by what we’ve got today. But no one wants to come up with an alternative. I wanted to explain that paralysis through the rise of individualism, which has left people feeling anxious and alone when it was meant to liberate them.

In the age of the individual, our feelings are given center stage, and we were taught that what we felt inside was the most important thing, and indeed consumerism responded to that. So, I wanted to chart an “emotional” history because I was interested in the idea that how you feel is relevant to the system you’re a part of — which is a forgotten idea, really.

ME

Your previous series have followed narrative conventions to some extent, but this one feels more like a collage where stories are woven together in a nonlinear way. Why did you choose to do that?

AC

Partly because I’m restless, and I want to try different things. But mainly because I wanted to make something that felt more like a novel, a multipart novel like they used to write in the nineteenth century.

ME

One of the characters you focus on is Abu Zubaydah, whose brain was reduced to random images by CIA torture. This series feels a bit like it’s told through the medium of Abu Zubaydah’s brain.

AC

Well, actually at one point, toward the end of the film, I had a line of narration where I said, “We’ve all become like Abu Zubaydah’s brain,” but I removed it because I thought it was trying too hard, and I should let people work things out for themselves. And I was right — you did work it out. The point about Zubaydah, however, is not the torture, but that he got a fragment of shell lodged in his brain in 1991, and it had this effect where none of his experiences made sense any longer. I argue we’ve all become like that.

ME

The series seems intentionally discombobulating and chaotic, but history is also discombobulating and chaotic. Is there a conflict between making a coherent narrative film and staying true to a chaotic depiction of history?

AC

I wanted to do both. I wanted to depict what it’s like to live through history in the age of individualism, where you’re on your own and trying to make sense of it all.

ME

You chart this era of the individual which boomed after the Second World War and supposedly liberated society, but now you say that it’s decaying, that it’s not fun to be an individual anymore. Can the genie be put back in the bottle?

AC

No — you can’t put it back. People were quite scared of the big, twentieth-century collective efforts to change the world, which often led to horror. The age of the individual came out of mass democracy as a reaction to that. But where it’s actually led — both in the UK, the US, and in places like Russia and China — is to disempowered individuals, all wanting something different, with no idea of how to get it. But I think something else is going to come along soon, a new kind of politics which allows you to be an expressive individual, but also part of something that’s bigger than yourself. If we could seize back control of the internet from the venture capital funds, then that’s a good place to start.

ME

You often speak about the transference of politics into the realm of culture, where radicalism just sits there making a lot of noise.

AC

Well, I’m deeply skeptical about radicalism in art. When you had the rise of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s, the Left and liberals retreated into culture, thinking they could change things from there. But things didn’t change. I believe the role of art is to express its time beautifully. And in a funny way, how it’s doing that now is by beautifully expressing the paralysis of our age. Culture is a comfort blanket that radicals cling to so they can hide from the terrible fact that they don’t have any answers.

ME

Has COVID uprooted power?

AC

What COVID has shown quite brutally is that the closer you are to power, the less likely you are to die. That realization is shocking, and it’s going to run very deep, just as the financial crisis in 2008 ran very deep.

ME

Bernie Sanders — and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain — both led populist leftist campaigns that sought to reawaken traditional notions of collectivism, but they both failed. Why do you think that was?

AC

You have to distinguish between the two. Sanders possibly could have won the 2016 election. I remember he was speaking almost exactly the same words as Trump — talking to the white working class and saying how they’ve been betrayed by Washington think tanks. Though, in the 2020 primaries, his language had changed. He’d slightly given up talking to the people that the liberals had become very frightened of.

I don’t know enough about Corbyn really, but I remember talking to Labour activists during the 2019 election and what I was shocked by was their dismissiveness of Brexit voters. I didn’t vote for Brexit, but I get why people did — not just because of anger but because it was a tactical way of declaring your alienation from a mainstream politics of technocratic management. I know there were lots of gin-drinking colonels in Surrey who also voted Brexit, but the elephant in the room was that all these ex-Labour voters suddenly became stupid in the minds of liberal metropolitans.

You can’t dismiss these people, you have to take them seriously. You don’t have to agree with them or believe that their racism is right, but you have to take them seriously and understand their feelings. It’s the same in the US, where people dismissed Trump supporters as duped by Putin, leaving them to wallow with crumbling infrastructure and a booming opioid epidemic.

ME

It’s interesting you should bring up Putin. In the series, you compare the Russiagate story to QAnon as different ways of reacting to the stasis of Trump’s failed promises.

AC

When you’ve run out of stories — that’s when you get conspiracy theories. And there were lots of people who couldn’t face up to what was happening. People wouldn’t tell the story of how Trump was really elected by Americans not Russians, or that he was actually quite ineffective, not blocked by deep state pedophile Satanists. I think those conspiracy theories suited the New York Times, though, because it bumped up their readership, and it suited the intelligence agencies as they were suddenly lionized as part of the resistance to Trump.

ME

Going back to collectivism, what about the society envisioned by radical Islamism?

AC

The thing that we in the West don’t understand is that radical modern Islamism, which began in the late 1950s, had, by the mid-1990s, completely failed to bring the masses with it — maybe not in Iran, but in the Sunni world it had failed completely. The attacks on the World Trade Center were not the result of a strong movement but the apocalyptic lashing out of a failed movement. The Sunni masses had not risen up at that point — not in Egypt, nor in Algeria, either.

ME

Those tendencies were collectivist in thought, though?

AC

The problem of our time is this . . . how do you run a world of millions of individuals, millions of little squealing piglets — how do you herd them together? There is an argument that says it’s not the politicians’ fault that we got this desiccated managerialism — it was just a way of desperately trying to deal with us millions of little squealing piglets. We are little monsters. Seriously, we are.

ME

I’d like to ask you about ghosts. There’s a story by M. R. James called “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” which you’re influenced by

AC

The inscription on the whistle that the protagonist of that story finds on the beach — “What is this that is coming?” — was actually going to be the title of this series. But it’s not a silly thing. M. R. James was writing those stories in the 1890s, which I would argue is a similar time to now. The British Empire was collapsing, and there was this feeling of fear and guilt, that something was coming back to haunt you. I would argue that America has had that same feeling since the end of the Vietnam War.

ME

That’s a bit like what Mark Fisher wrote about — the ghosts of the past returning to blot out the future.

AC

I knew Mark. We used to meet regularly in a café by Liverpool Street station and have long conversations about all this. We appeared on stage together in Berlin, I think. But going back to this idea about ghosts, I use characters like Jiang Qing because they had this idea that you could force the ghosts out of people’s heads to produce a new kind of society. But the vital thing they forgot is the ghosts inside their own heads.

It’s the same with the Brexit people, who are haunted by a fictitious, idealized vision of Britain’s past. Dominic Cummings [Boris Johnson’s former adviser, who is credited as the Brexit campaign mastermind] accessed it through nationalism, which is something liberals are very scared of.

ME

Which is why Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, in Russia, was so symbolically powerful.

AC

Exactly. And Limonov was not a very nice man, but he did make an interesting point, which was that until the Left either uses nationalism or creates a new mythology that’s even more powerful, they won’t get enough people on their side.

ME

The final message of the series is potentially quite hopeful. It says, if we can become more confident then we can create a new vision of the future. This struck me as odd because it sounds like self-help, something you seem to despise?

AC

No, it’s the opposite of self-help. It’s “stop imagining what you can do to yourself, and start imagining what we can do to transform the world.” Self-help starts with the idea that you can transform yourself to transform society, but what we’ve ended up with is a society full of anxious people. I want people to get out of that self-help thing. That’s why I quoted David Graeber.

ME

Your films reach a very broad audience and are viewed by lots of disaffected young people. What would you like to say to a confused, depressed sixteen-year-old?

AC

Nothing. The last thing they’d want is me telling them what to do. I know I’ve got that audience, but I don’t know why. When I made All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, I was hearing that kids were breaking into squats in Croydon and holding all-night parties to watch my films. It was quite odd, and that’s when I realized I’d cut through.

ME

Your films can also be quite silly.

AC

Yes, I can be quite silly. But you have to do it deadpan. You can’t let people know that you’re trying to be funny, because that’s not funny. But going back to the original question, I also have old people who like my work, too. The people who seem to consistently dislike it are the political journalists. They’re not interested at all. They can’t understand why I put music in it.

ME

It’s about time we got to music. Why do you select tracks rather than using original scores?

AC

Basically, I’m trying to create a mood. But it’s not cynical. It’s always music I like. For a while, I’d decided to end this series with “Zombie” by The Cranberries, because it seemed appropriate. But the terrible truth was I don’t like that song. And right before the series was going to air, I was lying in bed and couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I ended up replacing it with “’Til I Gain Control Again” by This Mortal Coil.

ME

Why did you choose that?

AC

Because it made me cry.

Adam Curtis at the Tribeca Grand Hotel on April 28, 2005 in New York City. (Scott Gries / Getty Images)
ME

Does the music ever come first? Do you ever change what you’re going to write because you want to use a certain song?

AC

Not on a gross level. I tend to be using images, and I’ll run a piece of music against it and then sometimes tweak things to fit the song. It’s an organic process, but sometimes they just work. In Bitter Lake [Curtis’s 2015 film on the United States and Islamism], there’s a song by David Bowie called “The Bewlay Brothers,” and I put it in and it just works. I’m never literal, you see, I’m emotional. Another example is in the first film of the new series, I use a German version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” by Marlene Dietrich, where originally I had it by Donovan.

ME

You also use “Forgive” by Burial, who’s a regular in your soundtracks.

AC

Yes, that song’s lovely. But “Come Down to Us” is the best one. It’s one of the great works of our time. There’s a lot of Burial that I don’t love, though, because it’s too dubstep.

ME

I liked your use of “Do Nothing” by The Specials. That song is cheerful but also quite nihilistic. As is the Sex Pistols’ “Who Killed Bambi” from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

AC

I wanted to put in skinheads, you see. I’ve always thought that skinheads get a bad rap. I used to be a skinhead when I was young because I loved reggae and ragga music. Skinheads are ambiguous characters, and I’m attracted to ambiguous characters.

ME

To be honest, a lot of this music — when I hear it back, it sounds like “Adam Curtis Music.”

AC

[Laughs] Well, I think we all have certainties and uncertainties about our personalities. I’m really uncertain about the way I write. I’m really bad at writing, and I agonize over it. But I’m very certain about my musical taste.

ME

Can you tell me a bit about your editing process? The image in my head is of you — one man — sat in front of a giant control pad gradually racking up copyright invoices. Is that true to life?

AC

As opposed to what?

ME

Well, with the snap of your fingers you could have an army of student volunteers rifling through the BBC archive for you. But you don’t do that.

AC

What would be the point? 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.

ME

How do you arrange your drives? Are they labeled stuff like “dark train footage” or “cityscapes at night?”

AC

[Laughs] No. I read the other day that Amazon fulfillment centers store items at random because it’s more efficient. My stuff is also very randomized. I have a coding system, but I also have a visual patterning memory, so I always know where everything is. My main rule is that if it makes me cry, or makes me want to dance, then it works.

ME

Going back to your use of language, something I love is how you speak in these grand ways — you put the world into epic, historical terms.

AC

Do you remember Marianne Williamson in the US Democratic primaries? I loved her because she talked in epic, historical terms. I got in a lot of trouble with my liberal American friends for saying that. And to go back to M. R. James and “What is it that is coming” — that’s what’s coming — someone who puts this uncertainty and confusion into big, historical dimensions. Britain needs the same thing, I mean, the discourse of the Labour Party right now just makes me want to cry.

ME

Why is that? 

AC

Because it’s talking in utilitarian terms set by the think tanks. Politics needs to thrill people. It could be exciting because it can tell a powerful story. We yearn for that story, that excitement.

Yes, it’s true a lot of attempts at revolution based on grand ideas have led to horror. That’s unquestionably true, and it’s gone very deep in the consciousness. But it’s also true that lots of other things based on grand ideas and revolutions resulted in amazing things: things like America, for example, or mass democracy or the welfare state. These were all born out of grand ideas. So, we’re in this pessimistic world, and we seize on those examples of where it all went to shit and say that means you can never change the world. But what I’m trying to say with David Graeber is: yes, we all made the shit things, but we also made the great things.