Can’t Get You out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World (2021) is a six-part documentary series by British filmmaker Adam Curtis. It explores the challenges and adaptions of power structures from 1945 to the present day with a focus on Britain, the USA, Russia and China. Through extensive archival footage and a haunting soundtrack, Curtis explores how corruption, finance, conspiracy theories and behavioural psychology twist and defy individualism to uphold the interests of the powerful.
There are six episodes:
- Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain – covers growing frustration with the old power structures in the 1950s.
- Shooting and Fucking are the Same Thing – examines the failure of 1960s revolutionary movements like the Black Panthers and the Red Army Faction.
- Money Changes Everything – the effects of dropping the gold standard, and how money replaced the idealism of the 60s.
- But What if People Are Stupid – the alliance between business and politics in the West, China’s abandonment of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
- The Lordly Ones – how Britain made mythologies to obfuscate their bloody past.
- Are We Pigeon or Are We Dancer? – computers, technocracy and the creation of the world today.
Curtis presents a gloomy worldview. Idealists might seek to change the world, but power always wins in the end. Eerie sound production – reminiscent of 1980s science fiction and often bizarre or juxtaposed music conjures an unsettling atmosphere – the modern world is a dystopia where our leaders have no ideals or vision of the future and the masses shuffle about in a dull and meaningless existence.
Putin’s nationalism is a façade to shroud the corruption that defines post-Soviet Russia. What the CIA attempted in the West through MK Ultra is realised through the social programming of the internet. China abandoned Marxism in the 1980s and built a totalitarian state based on money, control and little else. As they instil helplessness and suspicion, conspiracy theories ultimately serve the interests of the powerful.
Can’t Get You out of My Head presents its ‘emotional history’ through intertwining narratives of individuals who tried, and often failed, to challenge the status quo. These include both politicians like Jiang Qing – wife to Mao Zedong, and lesser-known, but no less significant figures such as Michael X, Afeni Shakur, Abu Zubayda and Eduard Limonov. A key theme is the struggle of individualism against collective authority and how, in the end, the latter always wins.
It’s a lot to take in. But, despite everything, Curtis ends on an optimistic note. If we can get ourselves into this mess, we can get ourselves out. What we need is new ideas. The documentary’s strength lies in explaining the way the world is, through an untold narrative that is both unique and compelling. It is not, however, an easy viewing.