Watchable on YouTube is a three-minute video by the English artist Ben Woodhams called The Loving Trap, which parodies the work of the British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. “This is a short film,” goes Woodhams’s voice-over, “about a documentary filmmaker who made critically-lauded programmes for the BBC […] Adam Curtis believed that two hundred thousand Guardian readers watching BBC2 could change the world. But this was a fantasy. In fact, he had created the television equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge with pretensions to narrative coherence.” Accompanying the voice-over: explanatory titles in sans serif font, old-timey footage of people dancing, shots of random crowds and buildings, clips from old public information films, a soundtrack of ambient chill-out tunes and post-punk. The Curtis style.
Parody, of course, turns style against itself. The Loving Trap means to out-Curtis Curtis, to expose what Woodhams calls the “incoherence” at the heart of his method. (It features a wittily vertiginous segue: having spoken solely about Curtis for two minutes, the voice-over concludes, “And as a result, Thabo Mbeki was swept to power in the next general election.”)
“Incoherent” is a word that, along with “ambiguous,” pops up frequently in both formal and informal responses to Curtis’s films. Certain miffed Tweeters found Curtis’s new BBC iPlayer series, the eight-hour, six-episode Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, “fun but incoherent,” or the product of “a somewhat unconventional but largely incoherent political worldview.” The Spectator found it “incoherent and conspiracy-fuelled” (takes one to know one, I suppose). And the Marxist intellectual Alberto Toscano, writing in New Left Review’s Sidecar blog, suggested that the “cognitive potential” of Curtis’s collaged fragments “remains at best ambiguous” (he means Curtis isn’t Marxist enough).
Incoherence. Ambiguity. These are curious responses, because, to my mind at least, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is very much about these things without itself being either incoherent or ambiguous, and it seems to me that people are mistaking Curtis’s ability to represent incoherence for the thing itself. It also seems to me that people are responding to Curtis’s work as if it did nothing except advance an argument—as if the six films that make up Can’t Get You Out of My Head constituted nothing but a sort of elaborately illustrated opinion piece, an audiovisual longread about the empty horizons of 21st century politics.
Curtis himself has abetted this reductionism, telling—for instance—a Vogue interviewer: “I don’t see myself as a documentary filmmaker; I see myself much more as a political journalist.” Well, trust the tale, not the teller, as D.H. Lawrence reminded us. Curtis may see himself as a political journalist, but to the rest of us it should be obvious that if he’s anything, he’s an artist, and if his films are anything, they’re works of art. They’re structured as dramatic narratives, for one thing: how many Curtis films begin with the phrase “This is a story”? And for another, they traffic in a wide range of emotional and intellectual textures and tones, ranging far beyond the usual purview of the op-ed or the pamphlet. Even Alberto Toscano is compelled to describe Can’t Get You Out of My Head as a “gesamtkunstwerk” (or total artwork), before he sets about ignoring the art and attacking the politics.
Art—to make a sweeping generalisation—is that which tends to resist paraphrase. This is what makes the enterprise of criticism so difficult, and why critics often settle for reviewing the argument instead of the art. And it is certainly the case that the political arguments of Curtis’s films are narratively sophisticated without being especially intellectually sophisticated—in other words, they are the most paraphrasable aspect of his films. Can’t Get You Out of My Head—case in point—develops into perhaps its final form an argument that Curtis has already advanced in The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007) and Hypernormalisation (2016).
This is the argument about our foreshortened future: about the pervasive sense, as Fredric Jameson has put it, that the West in the 21st century confronts “a locked social geology so massive that no visions of modification seem possible.” Jameson coined this phrase in 1990—by which I mean, Curtis’s argument is neither uniquely his nor especially new. What makes his films count is their extraordinary aesthetic complexity—their capacity to thrill us, move us, surprise us. Above all their capacity to perform the operation that Jameson calls “cognitive mapping”: that is, to give us a sense, however tendentious, that we are encountering an artwork that represents contemporary reality in toto.
“We are living through strange days,” Curtis tells us, at the start of the film. “Across Britain, Europe, and America, societies have become split and polarised, not just in politics, but across the whole culture. There is anger at the inequality, and the ever-growing corruption, and a widespread distrust of the elites. But at the same time, there is a paralysis, a sense that no one knows how to escape from this.”
This is the argument. The experience of watching the films is something else again. To watch them is to submit to Curtis’s argument in dramatized, reified form. The subtitle—“An Emotional History of the Modern World”—is a clue to Curtis’s method. He will not simply describe our paralysis, our locked geology, as a journalist or a theorist might. He will show it to us, dramatically. He will make us feel it. To ignore the powerful emotive charge contained in these films is to misread them fatally. To watch Can’t Get You Out of My Head and see only prestidigitated fragments—the magic of montage—is to default to an emptily political reading, the accursed habit of our historical moment.
To call Curtis an artist isn’t to claim that his work should be understood solely in aesthetic terms. Nor is it to suggest that the political arguments advanced in his films don’t merit scrutiny. They certainly do. But it’s important to say that when Curtis calls himself a political journalist, he’s only spoken half of the sentence that properly describes what he does. The complete sentence might go: “Adam Curtis is a political journalist who makes elaborate works of didactic art.”
Didactic: not propagandistic. The difference is the difference between teaching and persuading, between the pedagogue and the demagogue. The teacher gives you materials to think with. The propagandist tells you what to think. Curtis is very much a teacher. This may be why college-educated liberals like his films so much: they are used to being lectured to. The precise, paternalistic voiceover, the delight in obscure events, the frequent recourse to footage of neglected institutional spaces: this all evokes a fusty scholarly ambience. And in fact, as a young man, Curtis dropped out of an Oxford PhD programme in order to work in television. He started out making frothy human-interest segments for That’s Life!, the long-running magazine show hosted by Esther Rantzen. But once a teacher, always a teacher, as no teacher likes to be told.
Curtis’s move to documentary film at first produced a handful of conventional (though unusually good) pieces about science, politics, money. £830,000,000, his 1996 film about Nick Leeson and the collapse of Barings Bank, is excellent, and still informative about what Christian Marazzi has called “the violence of financial capitalism.” These are works in which didacticism understandably predominates: they impart facts soberly, they are the respectable end-products of diligent research. But Curtis, marrying the archive to the editing suite in the church of his own taste, was an artist who had found his metier. With The Century of the Self (2002), the Curtis style coalesced: the massed archival footage, the sophisticated montage effects, the hidden histories disinterred, the placid voice-over intoning its stark declarative sentences. The didactic burden of Curtis’s work now expanded to include his own ideas and opinions; the political-journalist-as-film-artist had arrived.
Across his seven mature films, Curtis has evolved a distinctively individual style of didactic art, a kind of instructive popular modernism drawing on montage, music videos, verité documentary, interviews, corporate propaganda films, TV news stories, the history of ideas, and the history of cinema. His films are divided into parts and called “series” for broadcast or streaming purposes, but really each one is a single greedy artwork, gobbling up experience, textures, tones, styles, individuals, movements, moments hungrily. They are lushly-textured lecture-stories, narrativized arguments proposed via virtuoso choreographies of sight and sound.
To say, as Ben Woodhams does in The Loving Trap, that Curtis’s films prove that “style always triumphs over substance” is to ignore the fact that, in these films as in all true works of art, “style” and “substance” are the same thing, divisible only by critical fiat. Then again, we are not used to responding to didactic art as art. Confronted with a work of art possessed of obvious didactic intent, we tend irritably to respond to the burden, the moral content, and to jettison whatever is sensual, emotive, beautiful. Nervously, we separate style from lesson, and critique the lesson.
Our suspicion of didactic art is an inheritance of 19th century Aestheticism. To attempt to educate via art was, for the Aesthetes, an unpardonable vulgarity. (Oscar Wilde: “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”) But there is nothing wrong with didactic art as such. Some of the most involving mainstream art of recent decades has been explicitly didactic in purpose: David Hare’s play about the Iraq War, Stuff Happens (2004); David Shields’s collage-essay about Donald Trump, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention (2018); Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018); Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015); Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014); Adam McKay’s Vice (2018); HBO’s Chernobyl (2019). A work of art can easily bear a lesson, a message, a burden of fact, and retain its aesthetic integrity. Better still if the message, the preachment, is intrinsic to the work’s aesthetic substance, and vice versa. What we tend to reject, quite rightly, is simplistic preachment—Soviet portraits of Stalin; Brecht’s one-note, hectoring satires of gangster capitalism—or didactic art in which the stylistic ambition is meagre.
Like everything Curtis has made since The Century of the Self, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is an overwhelming sensual and intellectual experience, an essay on politics that is also, inseparably, a brilliantly engineered entertainment. To sit through its six episodes is to experience a work of art that is alternately lush, oneiric, austere, startling, thrilling, amusing, persuasive, shocking, glib, beautiful.
Beautiful perhaps above all. A random catalogue of images and sequences, jotted down in my notebook as I watched: Courtroom footage of Madame Mao’s trial. “Brains of gifted communists” sitting in jars in the Moscow Brain Institute. An aeroplane flies past a full moon. Vast umbrellas slowly open in a Saudi Arabian courtyard. The Statue of Liberty at night. Riots. Empty shopping malls. A freight train, lumbering along the horizon at sunset. Accompanied always by the music cues: the theme from John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), a Curtis favourite; “Do Nothing” by the Specials; the Mekons; Ennio Morricone; Burial. (The most typically Curtis sequence here: Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red” playing over footage of jihadis in Peshawar.)
And accompanied always by Curtis’s voice, with its donnish diction, its lulling confidence, telling the stories of individuals who, living through the age of individualism, tried all by themselves to change the world. The Russian writer and right-wing dissident Eduard Limonov. Jiang Qing, better known as Madame Mao. Michael X. The Black Panther Afeni Shakur and her son, Tupac. The Baader-Meinhof gang. Bob Geldof. B.F. Skinner. Sundry other outcasts, psychologists, pranksters, revolutionaries.
Curtis follows individuals because “in the age of the individual, what you felt, and what you wanted, and what you dreamed of, were going to become the driving force across the world.” What the disparate members of his cast have in common: they believed in “the power of grand stories” to “change the world.” Curtis believes in this power, too: otherwise, why would he keep making films about it? But a key tension animating his work derives from a profound ambivalence about this power. We can, he insists, tell stories that shape our world for the better. But his work keeps reminding us that every single time someone has tried to do this, it has failed, with ironic results. Curtis’s inability to resolve this tension is one source of his work’s enormous creative energy: its obsessive permutation of the same story, over and over again.
Curtis’s favourite rhetorical trope: But this was a fantasy. In reality… These words occur so often in Curtis’s voice-overs that, after a while, they stop looking like a mannerism and start looking like a basic principle of style—and the crux of an argument about where we are right now. Curtis wants to tell us about what happened when those individual desires “met the much older forces of power—often power that was decaying, and desperate to keep its ascendancy.” He wants to show us how these decaying forces of power have marooned us all in an “exhausted” world: “a world where anything could be anything, because there was no real meaning any longer.” And he wants to leave us not just knowing but feeling that all of our stories have ended; that we now occupy a dangerous and alluring interzone between fantasy and fact, and that our unstable world is once again ours to shape as we choose. (The series is topped and tailed by a quotation from the late David Graeber: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.”)
In this, Curtis brilliantly succeeds—and we should remember, I think, that it isn’t really his purview to tell us where to go; only to remind us that we can go somewhere. It’s one of the things that didactic art does best: show the world to us in such a way that we can begin, once more, to think about it anew.
No artist currently at work shows us the world more completely than Curtis (or perhaps I should say, no artist gives us the impression that we have seen more of the world; as Jameson would remind us, the totality of things-as-they-are cannot be represented, only figured, as metonym or metaphor). Montage, in his work, adapts itself to the classic realist hunger: to subsume the world in the work of art. Thus his “emotional history of the modern world” both embodies and evokes the signature feeling of our time: that the billions of fragments of information with which we are confronted on a daily basis do not add up to anything; that the systems that are supposed to create stability and prosperity for us are in fact bankrupt. Our societies are “exhausted, empty of any new ideas.” Of course, Curtis has been worrying away at this idea for over a decade now; with each successive film the argument grows clearer and its presentation more sophisticated. In Can’t Get You Out of My Head, he has, I think, reached a kind of terminus. It’s his best film; it also feels as if he has taken this particular subject pretty much as far as it can go. The closing minutes of the final episode—a deliriously elegiac sequence of rapid cuts, flashbacks, and echoed musical cues—offer an astonishing synthesis of Curtis’s disparate narrative threads. They also bring us right up against the dead-end of now, positing various (and variously frightening) futures that might obtain in the aftermath of Covid.
The experience offered by these closing moments is inescapably political. It is also inescapably aesthetic—that is, moving, exciting, beautiful. In the best didactic art, lesson and texture are inseparable. Superbly harmonising his materials, producing utterly distinctive effects, Curtis is the best didactic artist currently at work.