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A Dialog with Filmmaker Adam Curtis on Energy, Expertise and How Concepts Get Into Individuals’s Heads

A Conversation with Filmmaker Adam Curtis on Power, Technology and How Ideas Get Into People’s Heads


The British filmmaker Adam Curtis may go for the BBC, a bastion of the British elite, however over a decades-long profession, he has cemented himself as a cult favourite.

He’s greatest often known as the pioneer of a radical and distinctive model of filmmaking, combining reels of unseen archive footage, evocative music, and winding narratives to inform sweeping tales of 20th and 21st century historical past that problem the traditional knowledge. “I’ve by no means considered myself as a documentary maker,” he says. “I’m a journalist.”

On Feb. 11, Curtis dropped his newest epic: Can’t Get You Out of My Head, an eight hour historical past of individualism, break up up over six episodes. Subtitled “An emotional historical past of the fashionable world,” the objective of the sequence, Curtis says, was to unpack how we got here to dwell in a society designed across the particular person, however the place individuals more and more really feel anxious and unsure.

It’s an enormous query, and Curtis makes an attempt to reply it by taking us on a winding journey by way of the unfold of conspiracy theories in America, the rise of worldwide finance on the expense of state energy, the demise of organized labor, the evolution of Chinese language state capitalism, and the corruption of the utopian dream that the Web may set humanity free. If a sequence that traverses such huge territory sounds prefer it is perhaps jarring, Curtis marshals lucid argumentation, good tunes and a way of actual urgency to realize the alternative: a hypnotic viewing expertise that you just’ll wrestle to, effectively, get out of your head. It’s obtainable on the BBC’s iPlayer app within the U.Okay. however viewers within the U.S. can go to Curtis’s YouTube web page.

2015 Telluride Film Festival
Vivien Killilea/Getty PhotosCurtis on the Telluride Movie Competition on September 6, 2015.

TIME caught up with Curtis over Zoom. What follows is a transcript of the dialog, which has been edited for size and readability.

TIME: Can’t Get You Out of My Head is one in every of your greatest works, I assumed. Are you pleased with it?

Curtis: I imply, I’m by no means joyful. My drawback is I edit the movies myself. So I get very near them. All I knew is I needed to do one thing considerably completely different this time: make one thing extra emotionally involving, extra like a novel. This was extra concerning the interaction between concepts and what occurs after they get inside individuals’s heads, and the way they modify and morph into one thing else. I used to be nervous about that. However I feel it’s labored.

Numerous the characters, not all of them, however loads of them, are folks that your common individual might not have heard of. You may have Mao Zedong. However you even have Kerry Thornley, a countercultural creator who deliberately propagated conspiracy theories within the 1960s to point out their absurdity, however ended up believing a few of them.

Effectively once more, that’s like a novel. One of many issues with loads of historic journalism is it tends to go for the characters you already know, and since you already know them, even for those who’re being advised one thing completely different, you don’t actually discover it. It’s a bit like while you’re proven an image of the Mona Lisa, you go, yeah, that’s the Mona Lisa, and also you don’t take a look at it in any respect. So I have a tendency to decide on characters who’re recent and attention-grabbing, and in addition sophisticated, ambiguous. Numerous them will not be very good. However however, at sure factors of their lives, you may sympathize with them.

BBCMao and his spouse Jiang Qing, an actor and revolutionary propagandist who options prominently within the sequence

Once I heard about the truth that you have been making “an emotional historical past of the fashionable world,” I’ve to confess, my first response was: oh no, is he gonna do a reactionary tackle id politics? However no — having watched it, that isn’t the case.

I’ve no drawback with id politics. The left retreated from economics within the 1980s, as a result of the precise obtained into energy in every single place. And in response to that, the left did some extraordinary issues with id politics, which truly did liberate heaps and many individuals. I feel it’s a tremendous achievement. I feel my criticism, which I feel is obvious within the movies, is that they misplaced management of economics, and it ran uncontrolled, and cash took management.

Your documentaries are recognized for his or her evocative archive footage and music. And, I hope you don’t thoughts me saying, the meandering arguments. Is {that a} aware stylistic option to enchantment to individuals’s feelings, as a lot as their sense of cause?

Effectively I don’t assume it’s documentary. I’ve by no means considered myself as a documentary maker. I’m a journalist. And actually, all I do know is that we dwell in an age through which individuals’s feelings have been given primacy. Emotions have been given prominence within the society in a manner that in earlier societies they haven’t. Due to this fact, the journalism has to mirror that.

I grew up realizing that individuals didn’t validate one another by way of politics any longer. They did it by way of the music, they appreciated the movies they appreciated. And it was a manner of speaking emotionally: I’m like this.

All I did was understand that you possibly can take that into political journalism. And I’d argue that loads of political journalism by no means did that. It truly turned colonized by the assume tanks, who’re the alternative. They’re utterly utilitarian. They’re unemotional. And loads of political journalism strangled itself. As a result of it missed that trick of simply connecting emotionally with individuals.

That is your first movie in virtually 5 years. Is there any particular occasion or any pattern since 2016 that caught in your thoughts while you determined to make a historical past of individualism?

The factor that basically obtained in my head was not a lot Trump or Brexit, however that the individuals who hated Trump and hated Brexit weren’t actually coping with the elephant within the room, which was that every one these individuals voted as a result of they have been indignant.

I simply thought to myself, if I ran an opposition occasion instantly after Trump, I’d be going on the market saying: in a manner, you’re proper. However you voted for the incorrect individual. He’s going to con you, which Trump did. As a result of truly the reality of the final 4 years is that Trump utterly failed. He didn’t do any of what he stated he was going to do domestically. He stated he was going to eliminate the corruption in Washington. It unfold. He stated he was going to rebuild the infrastructure of America. He did nothing and it’s nonetheless falling aside. He stated he was going to convey the factories again dwelling. He didn’t. And the opioid disaster elevated. He stated he was going to finish the futile wars overseas. He didn’t. By any measure, he was a complete failure. And in a manner, he’s one other of those examples of those individuals arising with this nice wave of anger behind them. As a result of there are lots of people who’re very indignant. And you’ll nonetheless see from the voting patterns in the newest presidential election, in 2020, that they’re nonetheless there. But, nothing truly modified. What I used to be astonished by was that there was this sound and fury. However truly, nobody was doing something.

The one one that did, apparently sufficient, proper after Trump was first elected was Bernie Sanders. He went off and talked to these individuals. I do assume he might need gained in 2016. I actually do, if he’d been the candidate, as a result of that anger was so uncooked. So, as a result of nothing was taking place, it prompted me to look at how we obtained to this frozen state, the place everyone seems to be hysterical, however truly nothing was taking place.

How a lot of this may be ascribed to the actual fact we’re now residing in an consideration financial system? Individuals’s consideration is now scarce, however there may be an abundance of data searching for to enchantment to that focus. I’m wondering, to what extent do you assume that has modified the circulate of concepts?

I’m a bit suspicious about this. I do know that social media firms like what they name excessive arousal feelings, as a result of it retains individuals on-line longer. However for those who return to the collapse of journalism, it occurred manner earlier than the Web got here alongside as an enormous presence. The readership for newspapers started to break down within the early ‘90s. Which is the purpose at which journalism turned very boring, as a result of it had nothing else to say. It didn’t have any dramatic narratives. The left and proper have been mixing collectively. However the attention-grabbing factor, somebody from Hollywood advised me this: within the 1990s, because the so-called consideration financial system was rising up, the typical size of Hollywood motion pictures went up by a 3rd. Take a look at the size of the superhero movies, they’re usually three hours lengthy. Individuals don’t get tired of that.

Within the fourth of the movies, I quote this political scientist referred to as Peter Mayer, who I feel is basically attention-grabbing. He argued that within the early 90s, politics gave up being mass democracy. The thought of mass democracy was that you’d inform individuals a narrative about the place we’re going, and they might then unite behind you and provide the collective energy to problem the unelected teams of energy in society. By the early 90s, individuals such as you and me have been arch individualists. We didn’t need to be part of political events. We didn’t need to be in commerce unions. We needed to be autonomous items of 1. And within the face of that, mass democracy misplaced its essential factor, which is its collective energy to problem these unelected powers.

At which level, Mayer says, politicians switched, they only actually went 180 levels, and have become the representatives of the unelected powers, who then handle you to make society work. And, he says, who can blame them? It’s our fault as a lot as it’s the politicians’.


Individualism is born out of mass democracy. It’s a pure consequence of it. However sooner or later, individualism started to eat away at mass democracy, it started to strangle the very factor that had produced it, as a result of it removes collective energy. What politicians are desperately looking for in the mean time — and also you see it in Trump and also you see it in Occupy — is a manner of permitting individuals to nonetheless really feel like people, but on the similar time, be a collective. Nobody’s actually obtained there. What we’re ready for is a politician who comes together with a extremely highly effective story. And except the left is cautious, it’s going to be a not very good nationalism.

But there are actions now which might be drawing energy from the collective — I’m pondering specifically of the Black Lives Matter motion that was galvanized within the wake of George Floyd’s demise. Is what we’re seeing right here one way or the other completely different to what we’ve seen earlier than, in that on the core of the motion, there may be an acknowledgement of structural financial inequalities, too?

Black Lives Matter is nice as a result of it’s the primary motion that comes alongside and says, that is structural, that is about energy. As a result of within the age of individualism, the phrase energy has disappeared. You’re presupposed to be empowered, your self. What’s reemerging is that outdated thought that really, it’s about altering the construction. That’s what Black Lives Matter is saying, and it gained’t go away. And it’s very attention-grabbing that it took a gaggle which has been excluded from that system to return smashing by way of to the mainstream, and convey that debate into the mainstream. I feel it’s nice. I feel, in boring phrases, it’s the return of sociology. It says that really, the explanation you are feeling shit doesn’t simply come from inside you, it isn’t your failure, which is what loads of fashionable optimistic psychology says. What Black Lives Matter says, and the broader motion which they’re a part of says, is not any: loads of the explanation you are feeling shit is since you dwell in a shit society, or the place you might be within the energy construction is horrible and unequal, and it’s not your fault.

During the last 70 years, social justice actions have gained extra rights for racial minorities, girls, and LGBTQ individuals, but wealth inequality has truly elevated massively. I suppose the final side of id that can not be co-opted by capitalism is class. Have we reached a degree now the place the intersection between class and different types of id is simply too nice to disregard?

I feel that’s true. I feel the COVID pandemic has proven, brutally, that the additional you might be away from the system of energy, the extra probably you might be to fall in poor health and die. Whereas the upper you might be up the hierarchy of energy, the safer you might be. I feel, simply as a lot because the austerity after the banking disaster went very deep, I feel that is going to go very deep. They usually’re each class. The rationale you bought Brexit and the explanation you bought Trump was due to the response to the banking disaster in 2008. And in each America and Britain, individuals realized that these decrease down the chain have been being requested to pay for the wealthy’s corruption and criminality. That went very deep. The individuals who should drive a bus with a purpose to make society work usually tend to die than those that run a hedge fund. I feel that’s going to go very deep, I actually do. So there are good issues to this pandemic. It’s shone a really highly effective searchlight on precisely what we’re speaking about: social class and energy.

However one of many structural issues is the unaccountable energy that many firms have — particularly the social media corporations. Their algorithms have a tendency to provide primacy to damaging feelings like worry and hatred, which affect our wider politics. So what occurs when you’ve a motion that will depend on the merchandise of enormous firms to unfold its message, but in addition needs to dismantle or no less than considerably change these firms?

I see the paradox, however I’d argue that really what may occur is that we are able to take energy again from these individuals who have skewed the Web into that very slim type of simply concentrating on you with adverts, and make it real — a collective factor that additionally lets you categorical your self as a person. It’s what I used to be saying to you earlier on: the brand new politics goes to be the one which squares that circle.

So sure, social media is a extremely good, highly effective power. It’s additionally a draining power, as a result of they construct up these large money piles, and don’t truly make something. That doesn’t imply there will not be good issues sitting in there, that for those who may truly take energy, you possibly can take them again. I feel there’s an enormous motion beginning, particularly in Europe, to take energy again from these corporations, as a result of truly, they could possibly be opened up and used for genuinely good social functions. At which level, you may get a brand new form of politics. So I see the paradox, however I feel it’s fairly hopeful, truly.

You introduced up Cambridge Analytica within the sequence briefly, however primarily for example the purpose that in reality, this firm that supposedly manipulated individuals into voting for Trump didn’t have as a lot sway because it stated it had. They have been principally utilizing a mannequin that’s used throughout the promoting business in addition to the political affect business. And but Fb and Google’s multibillion greenback worth is based on the truth that these data-based promoting fashions work.

I do know. Why do you assume I really feel that the panic concerning the Web might die away fairly quickly? Lots of people in promoting are starting to query whether or not Google’s magic skill to focus on individuals and predict how they as people behave will not be true. There’s an incredible story which I threw out of the movie, as a result of it’s simply too sophisticated. An economist working for eBay a few years in the past was very suspicious about this. He persuaded the advertising and marketing division of eBay to surrender promoting on Google for a 3rd of the North American continent for 3 months. And the advertising and marketing firm went, this can be a catastrophe. However nothing occurred. They tried it for an additional three months. The gross sales remained precisely the identical. And the economist stated: what Google may actually be as much as is the pizza leaflet factor. In the event you and I are each promoting pizzas, and also you exit on the streets and hand out leaflets, however I am going to the foyer of a pizza pickup joint, it seems like I’ve obtained a 100% success price, however they’re already coming there to purchase the pizzas. I couldn’t put it within the movies. However this horrible factor is that basically, you’re simply concentrating on someone with one thing they’re already going to purchase.


And what they’ve completed within the course of is destroy journalism. Simply eaten it away. Not that it wasn’t dying earlier than, as a result of it was so boring. I feel journalism will reinvent itself. It at all times does. It did, funnily sufficient, at a time similar to this, while you had these items referred to as the robber barons, on the finish of the 19th century in America. They have been actually a bit like tech corporations at present, they have been skewing every little thing. So the railroads may destroy a city by saying we’re not going to place a station there. Out of that got here a brand new form of journalism, which defined what’s taking place to individuals. I feel the identical factor will occur now. I think that what we’re ready for is a brand new form of narrative to return alongside, and one way or the other seize you and make sense of this.

Somebody who takes the brand new understanding of how energy works in a society, and turns it into one thing dramatic. I simply assume individuals will begin writing about energy. However it’s obtained to be completed in an imaginative manner. For the time being, it’s a bit “Elon Musk stroking a cat in a cave.” Which, in a manner, the social media firms play as much as. As a result of it makes them really feel stronger and extra highly effective, when possibly they’re not.