The real world does not exist. Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the new documentary from BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis, posits that all of time, politics, economics, entertainment, and indeed the very nature of human intelligence are all traceable back to single identifiable places of origin, but those origins remain impossible to understand. Over and over, we’ve force-fed ourselves stories that fit a recognizable pattern in order to make sense of history and what has led us to the present moment. Each time, according to Curtis, these patterns have emerged from works of fiction. This is a fascinating revelation, and as it turns out it does require eight hours to fully grasp the intricacies of how this could have happened. What’s unfortunate, and almost derails the entire project right at the last possible second, is where that insight eventually ends up. Turns out the answer to life, the universe, and everything is: it’s complicated. Really complicated.
We’ll never know the reasons for the sparks that inspired the ideas that led to writing of stories that have shaped the globe. We are trapped in a limbic nightmare of input-output that psychologists have struggled to define in any way that makes sense. We are simply slaves to our impulses, and those impulses are created and guided by sensory triggers that we, as fellow human beings also ruled by those same impulses, are powerless to fathom. We live in a perpetual darkness, erratically scrambling through a dreamscape that doesn’t become concrete just because we all agree on its parameters.
This lesson is intriguing but isn’t helpful in any material sense. It would almost have been to the film’s benefit to just leave all this out, since its main function is to connect this idea to the emergence of artificial intelligence. That could’ve come up on its own. But then we have the problem of this and every other dangling thread being so integral to the whole that entire chapters of the piece would also have needed to be dropped or refitted into something completely different just to get back on track. Any reasonable attempt at cutting it all together must have been a true horror show. It’s no wonder that this took five years to direct and eight hours to sit through, is what I’m saying.
Curtis has stated that his inspirations for creating the film were the dual, simultaneous catastrophes of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. He wanted to explore how otherwise sane and rational human beings could have ever been so snowed as to allow such things, let alone demand them. To get there, he follows several overlapping chronologies through the twentieth century. In particular, the lives of key individuals are showcased as examples of how the systems of power have created and destroyed revolutionary figures and ideas at will, inventing useful idiots to be molded and manipulated as sleeper agents of the state. Of these, only the late Afeni Shakur gets anything close to a win. She doesn’t get as much screen time as some others, but she’s the only one who comes through as being a “real” person and not just another raging robot eventually outed as a fraud or a gangster. Between Shakur and Chinese actress-turned-political leader Jiang Qing, we’re shown contrasting ways in which individualism can be useful or detrimental in the face of power, and how that individualism can seem at odds with or in service to the collective whole.
At the same time, other stories are presented of regular people with no greater ambitions than to lead peaceful lives, social minorities forced to fight every day just for being exactly who they are but in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some end up being more sympathetic than others, and the film is unflinching in depicting the levels of cruelty we are capable of when we allow fear – the natural and horrible outgrowth of that limbic nightmare – to rule our decision making. On top of all this, we’re led down concurrent rabbit holes detailing the histories of China, the American and British empires, the fall of the Soviet Union, slavery, the drug trade, mass consumerism, conspiracy theories, AI, climate change, fascism, chaos theory and the surveillance state. It’s a narrative structure that would be almost impossible to graph on paper, spiraling up and down the century and in and out of each branching storyline to alternating thrilling and (at times) bewildering effect.
To the film’s credit, it’s never boring. It’s actually a lot of fun. The fantastic final minutes of the fourth hour may be the best evidence that Curtis is an impressively talented filmmaker, but this montage-heavy music video approach is implemented consistently throughout the run of the film. He knows how to push those buttons and make us sit in awe at the audacity of some editing choices while leaving us to recoil in horror a minute later. It’s also the best use of the documentary form since Shirkers to tie its hyperactive presentation directly to its subject matter. But given that subject, we might also ask whether this design was a stroke of genius or a happy accident. The fact that this uncertainty also fits with the overall themes of the film only makes the question more intriguing. Either way, it’s a dazzling piece of work.
The most obvious flaw of the film, and an admittedly unfair one to point out, is that you simply can’t cram the entire nuanced history of all this stuff into eight hours. It’s a noble undertaking, and more often than not a successful one in assembling all its moving parts into a clear and concise shape. That it stops just short of actually investigating the specific topics that inspired its creation in the first place is probably its most unforgivable sin. Curtis never actually gets lost in the wilderness, but it’s only because his map makes sense to him and he’s a very gifted storyteller. You can draw straight lines and get just about anywhere, even if points A or B or Z can seem a little fuzzy at times. Looking back on the past from the present, things couldn’t have happened any other way, and therefore the world we now inhabit was inevitable. A major view of the film seems to be that this was only by virtue of each piece fitting exactly into place. The big cosmic and cinematic joke is that it was all random, though. There were a million possible realities that could so easily have taken the place of this one, but once the first domino falls that’s that. All this existential fear and paranoia that once hovered just on the edges of our world have been consumed and retrofitted to be the world itself. Our fears have replaced us, and it’s all been sewn by a never-ending procession of accidental Rube Goldbergs.
The most depressing side effect of Curtis’s onslaught of images may be the realization that he’s right, and the fictions we’ve maintained have also replaced something crucial to our individual and collective power supplies. No truth-teller, however elaborate or convincing in their argument, can ever hold the same persuasive potential again. Uprisings and revolutions don’t follow documentaries. If anything, these triggers are often found one single image at a time, such as the beating of Rodney King or the murder of George Floyd. In both those cases, the Black community didn’t need an eight hour documentary to understand the full context of these events. They knew their place in the story, and therefore what it meant and what had to happen next. It’s a strange element of the film that this fact isn’t explored just a little more thoroughly. And even then, those already immersed in any given struggle will be left to fend for themselves the second their allies have to get up and go back to work. There’s just too much other stuff to think about, the film argues. Who has the time?
The quote from anarchist philosopher and anthropologist David Graeber that opens and closes the film is an inspiring one. It could have served as the ultimate condensed version of this entire thing. But in the final stretch we get another, even more direct line into the film’s point of view. This one is from Tupac Shakur, whose short life and tragic death are shown in quick, heartbreaking order. “We’re not being taught to deal with the world as it is. We’re being taught to deal with this fairyland, which we’re not even living in anymore. And you shouldn’t need me to tell you this.”