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

2015 Telluride Film Festival
Vivien Killilea/Getty ImagesCurtis at the Telluride Film Festival on September 6, 2015.

TIME caught up with Curtis over Zoom. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

TIME: Can’t Get You Out of My Head is one of your best works, I thought. Are you happy with it?

Curtis: I mean, I’m never happy. My problem is I edit the films myself. So I get very close to them. All I knew is I wanted to do something somewhat different this time: make something more emotionally involving, more like a novel. This was more about the interplay between ideas and what happens when they get inside people’s heads, and how they change and morph into something else. I was nervous about that. But I think it’s worked.

A lot of the characters, not all of them, but a lot of them, are people that your average person may not have heard of. You have Mao Zedong. But you also have Kerry Thornley, a countercultural author who intentionally propagated conspiracy theories in the 1960s to show their absurdity, but ended up believing some of them.

Well again, that’s like a novel. One of the problems with a lot of historical journalism is it tends to go for the characters you already know, and because you already know them, even if you’re being told something different, you don’t really notice it. It’s a bit like when you’re shown a picture of the Mona Lisa, you go, yeah, that’s the Mona Lisa, and you don’t look at it at all. So I tend to choose characters who are fresh and interesting, and also complicated, ambiguous. A lot of them are not very nice. But on the other hand, at certain points in their lives, you can sympathize with them.

BBCMao and his wife Jiang Qing, an actor and revolutionary propagandist who features prominently in the series

When I heard about the fact that you were making “an emotional history of the modern world,” I have to admit, my first reaction was: oh no, is he gonna do a reactionary take on identity politics? But no — having watched it, that isn’t the case.

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I have no problem with identity politics. The left retreated from economics in the 1980s, because the right got into power everywhere. And in response to that, the left did some extraordinary things with identity politics, which actually did liberate lots and lots of people. I think it’s an amazing achievement. I think my criticism, which I think is clear in the films, is that they lost control of economics, and it ran out of control, and money took control.

Your documentaries are known for their evocative archive footage and music. And, I hope you don’t mind me saying, the meandering arguments. Is that a conscious stylistic choice to appeal to people’s emotions, as much as their sense of reason?

Well I don’t think it’s documentary. I’ve never thought of myself as a documentary maker. I’m a journalist. And really, all I know is that we live in an age in which people’s emotions have been given primacy. Feelings have been given prominence in the society in a way that in previous societies they haven’t. Therefore, the journalism has to reflect that.

I grew up realizing that people didn’t validate each other through politics any longer. They did it through the music, they liked the films they liked. And it was a way of communicating emotionally: I’m like this.

All I did was realize that you could take that into political journalism. And I would argue that a lot of political journalism never did that. It actually became colonized by the think tanks, who are the opposite. They’re completely utilitarian. They’re unemotional. And a lot of political journalism strangled itself. Because it missed that trick of just connecting emotionally with people.

This is your first film in almost five years. Is there any specific event or any trend since 2016 that stuck in your mind when you decided to make a history of individualism?

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The thing that really got in my head was not so much Trump or Brexit, but that the people who hated Trump and hated Brexit weren’t really dealing with the elephant in the room, which was that all those people voted because they were angry.

I just thought to myself, if I ran an opposition party immediately after Trump, I’d be going out there saying: in a way, you’re right. But you voted for the wrong person. He’s going to con you, which Trump did. Because actually the truth of the last four years is that Trump completely failed. He didn’t do any of what he said he was going to do domestically. He said he was going to get rid of the corruption in Washington. It spread. He said he was going to rebuild the infrastructure of America. He did nothing and it is still falling apart. He said he was going to bring the factories back home. He didn’t. And the opioid crisis increased. He said he was going to end the futile wars abroad. He didn’t. By any measure, he was a total failure. And in a way, he’s another of these examples of these people coming up with this great wave of anger behind them. Because there are a lot of people who are very angry. And you can still see from the voting patterns in the most recent presidential election, in 2020, that they’re still there. Yet, nothing actually changed. What I was astonished by was that there was this sound and fury. But actually, no one was doing anything.

The only person who did, interestingly enough, right after Trump was first elected was

The British filmmaker Adam Curtis may work for the BBC, a bastion of the British elite, but over a decades-long career, he has cemented himself as a cult favorite.

He is best known as the pioneer of a radically unique style of filmmaking, combining reels of unseen archive footage, evocative music, and meandering narratives to tell sweeping stories of 20th and 21st century history that challenge the conventional wisdom. “I’ve never thought of myself as a documentary maker,” he says. “I’m a journalist.”

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On Feb. 11, Curtis dropped his latest epic: Can’t Get You Out of My Head, an eight hour history of individualism, split up over six episodes. Subtitled “An emotional history of the modern world,” the goal of the series, Curtis says, was to unpack how we came to live in a society designed around the individual, but where people increasingly feel anxious and uncertain.

It’s a big question, and Curtis attempts to answer it by taking us on a winding journey through the spread of conspiracy theories in America, the rise of international finance at the expense of state power, the death of organized labor, the evolution of Chinese state capitalism, and the corruption of the utopian dream that the Internet might set humanity free. If a series that traverses such wide territory sounds like it might be jarring, Curtis marshals lucid argumentation, good tunes and a sense of real urgency to achieve the opposite: a hypnotic viewing experience that you’ll struggle to, well, get out of your head. It’s available on the BBC’s iPlayer app in the U.K. but viewers in the U.S. can visit Curtis’s YouTube page.

Vivien Killilea/Getty ImagesCurtis at the Telluride Film Festival on September 6, 2015.

TIME caught up with Curtis over Zoom. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

TIME: Can’t Get You Out of My Head is one of your best works, I thought. Are you happy with it?

Curtis: I mean, I’m never happy. My problem is I edit the films myself. So I get very close to them. All I knew is I wanted to do something somewhat different this time: make something more emotionally involving, more like a novel. This was more about the interplay between ideas and what happens when they get inside people’s heads, and how they change and morph into something else. I was

Source:: Time – Entertainment

      

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