The reviews are in. Adam Curtis’s latest documentary series, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, has been described as “dazzling” and “overwhelming” (in a good way), as well as “dazzling” and “incoherent” (in a bad way). Apart from the occasional lukewarm review, however, the critical reception has been very positive. But, as anyone on Twitter will have noticed, beyond the column inches of cultural critics, there is a curious development. Many have developed a pronounced distaste for Curtis and his style of documentary. The emergent question is, “why?”
In his latest series, which he describes as an “emotional history” of the twentieth century, Curtis tells a convincing story. He bounces around the world in a disorientating series of tales and vignettes that nonetheless, over the course of five hours, are transformed from frayed threads into a formidable rope. Indeed, there is no denying that his exploration of our peculiar misery, from the end of empires to the end of histories, is a striking tapestry of maligned battles, failures and victories from around the world, of the sort that are rarely given any oxygen in public discourse.
These stories are told with his characteristic charm and editorial prowess, and the questions they provoke resonate with our current shellshock, following the downfall of Trump. What happened to us? How did we become so trapped in this stagnant world that nonetheless fizzes and flails in its attempts to produce new spectacles? If Obama was a new era, and Trump was a new era, why does everything just feel the same? The upheaval we have experienced is nothing compared to the previous century, of course, but then how come we’re all so tired? Is it precisely the long arm of the twentieth century that has us so fatigued? Are we troubled by some sort of transhistorical PTSD?
These are urgent questions, and they’ve been urgent for some time. In fact, I’d argue Curtis has asked these questions before, each time in response to a new moment of friction, but always with the same approach. Nevertheless, his persistent has paid off. Only now does it feel like these questions are making an appearance in a more mainstream discourse. Whether we are discussing his own work or the work of others, Curtis is, in part, to thank for that. But if that’s true, why are we now so cynical about his efforts?
To anyone who has followed his career to date, the trajectory is clear. He has been transformed from the frequently-pirated BBC bad boy of the 2000s — I still have my unofficial DVD copy of his five 2000s films somewhere, bought off some dodgy eBay seller in 2009 — to unsung critical darling of the 2010s. In the 2020s, however, he seems to have become a BBC cliché — a judgement in part bolstered by his appearances on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and, by proxy, his association with Brooker’s other creations. (Does the cynicism around Curtis’s latest film not echo the attitude towards the most recent series of Black Mirror?) These critical evaluations of the zeitgeist, put together with an increasingly rare irreverence and intelligence, are few and far between these days. But, together, Brooker and Curtis have cornered the market. It’s not hard to see why. They’re irreverent recombinant attitudes are a form of good postmodernism ripping chunks off the bad. They may be critical, but they otherwise fit snuggly within the general order of things. They provide just the right amount of pressure and confrontation — no more, no less.
This is my problem with Curtis. As much as I enjoy the tales he tells, he has come to resemble the BBC’s last man, looking over its entire history, able to peruse its archives with impunity and use them against the present orthodoxy. And yet, whilst he is very capable of poking holes in the illusions around us, he seems incapable of breaking through and actualising his own critiques. It is a fate that has afflicted every cultural product of the 2000s — eventutally. There comes a time when your own archival mastery of the end of history becomes less an intervention in our stagnation and more a symptom of the very problem under consideration. In rooting our predicament so firmly in our past, we come to understand how things have always been this way. Capitalist realism is no longer a specific critique of a specific era — the dying years of New Labour and the Bush administration — but a predicament foreshadowed for centuries. Perhaps that’s true, but what does excavating the breadcrumb trail reveal to us? That we live in a world of diminishing returns of the same? We are left always lagging behind ourselves, applying critiques to the recent past but never to the conditions of the present.
Perhaps this is all just splitting hairs. A misdirected cynicism from the deep stagnation of lockdown. Perhaps none of this truly matters. So what if Curtis is Marmite. Who cares about that undulating, grotesque blob we call “public opinion”? Our media landscape is better off with Curtis in it. Just sit down and listen; you might learn something.
But never before have the questions Curtis asks been so relevant to his own thesis. After all, when we consider what Curtis is asking in his latest series — to quote the BBC’s promotional materials: “whether modern culture, despite its radicalism, is really just part of the new system of power” — surely we must consider whether his crowning as the one politically-daring documentarian at the BBC is something of a poisoned chalice? What is it about Curtis that allows him to occupy his more-or-less unique position? What is it about the new system of power he describes that precisely allows him to (continue to) exist within it? What is it that allows him to make the same kind of film about our ideological stagnation for more than twenty years? What if the thing we can’t get out of our heads is Curtis’s narrative drone over stark title cards? What if all he’s become is the personification of our own impotent political consciousness, endlessly trawling the depths of Wikipedia at the end of time, looking for a URL that will hyperlink us out of our misery?
If we want an documentary less complicit in its own critique, perhaps Framing Britney Spears offers us a more constructive and less existentially dreadful lesson. It is a new feature-length documentary, produced by the New York Times, on the #FreeBritney movement — an online activist group that began as a disparate group of online fans concerned about their favourite popstar’s domestic welfare, which ended up raising awareness around “conservatorships”, one of the most opaque legal measures deployed by the American justice system.
Beyond that, the documentary offers us something similar to Curtis’s own series: an “emotional history” of our pop-cultural development. On the one hand, it shows us how, following the age of the Celebrity, our worst tendencies have been democratised, vindicating Curtis’s cynicism — the hounding that drove Britney to a mental breakdown is also experienced, to varying degrees, by many online today. But just as many more of us are experiencing the scrutiny once reserved for the most famous amongst us, we are also able to hold many of our most opaque institutions to account in new ways. It is intriguing to contrast her story, in this regard, with that of the “cancel culture” whiners. Our inability to deal with such issues, such as the distinction between scrutiny and harassment, is perhaps indicative of that same persistent emotional immaturity.
We might note, too, that the documentary has faced many of the same criticisms as Curtis’s. It’s evocative and powerful, telling the story of our own sadism, but it supposedly lacks journalistic rigour. Nevertheless, the words of one of the paralegals echoes throughout — “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Two quests for knowledge face off against each other, separated by twenty years, each coming to fuel our best and worst tendencies.
On the one hand, the documentary frames Spears as a pop-cultural conundrum. She is both innocent and seductive, powerful and preyed-upon, hero and villain, sweetheart and succubus. One journalist notes how her initial rise and fall coincided with the Monica Lewinsky affair. (In fact, one of the documentary’s main strengths is that shows how Britney’s story intersects with some of the major political events and questions of her — and our — lifetime, albeit without labouring the point for an hour at a time.) The point is brief but it has a resounding clarity. Britney Spears became a scratching post for the American public to work through its own cultural dissonance regarding the place of women in society. Today, for better or for worse, we do much of that work on each other.
As the documentary progresses, the #FreeBritney movement becomes a lightning rod of its own. Though it may remain focussed on the prospects of an individual, it is reflective of our broader emo-cultural development. It reveals a fandom — one of those most maligned of pop-cultural communities — making a clear and positive impact on the world beyond their immediate concerns. This is the progressive side of social media’s democratisation of information technologies. It shows that, although it is not uniform in its advancements, cultural power is shifting — even if we’re still not sure how best to wield it.
In this sense, Framing Britney Spears offers some answers to the more troubling questions we have about ourselves. Can’t Get You Out of My Head shows how those very questions have encouraged their own mental health crisis. But only one documentary, in both its presentation and its content, feels truly of its time, making strides into unknown emotional territory — and, for all its strengths, it’s not Curtis’s.