by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 19
February 2021

The Borgesian brilliance of Adam Curtis

The documentary maker's films stand out for their art — not journalism
by Aris Roussinos
Screen grab from ‘Can’t get you out of my head’

There are few better arguments for the licence fee than a new Adam Curtis documentary, and his latest offering, the six-part Can’t Get You Out of My Head, available now on the iPlayer, exemplifies why. It is impossible to imagine such a strange and discursive project, so intentionally tangled and impenetrable, on commercial television. For all the corporation’s flaws, only the BBC would broadcast such a work, in its own way a quiet form of British soft power.

Yet as with any Curtis documentary, there are dissenting voices. His films, so immediately recognisable as the auteur’s work, are easy to spoof. Instead of changing his style with each film, he has heightened it to the point of absurdity. His arguments are so circuitous, the links he draws so implausible, that his work is easy to dismiss as nonsense. It is tempting to say of his films of ideas, like Dr Johnson said of a dog walking upon his hind legs, that “it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

And yet… To attempt to critique the logic of his arguments is to misunderstand him. It is simply not true in any meaningful way to claim, for example, as he does, that Cecil Sharp’s collecting of English folk songs enabled the rise of ISIS. Attempting to parse his narratives for “truth” is just a category error: his films are art, designed to provoke, and shock us into seeing our world differently. Our rulers are corrupt and misguided, he warns us; all our institutions are failing: we need to forge a new path, and by doing so we will create new horrors.

Curtis’ medium is in fact his message: a sprawling, discursive, analogue Borgesian fiction constructed from film and VHS tape, marking his rejection of the digital world. The sudden jump cuts, the intentionally uncomfortable juxtapositions of footage and music, the shifts in tone, the leaps from grand ideas to grainy, blood-soaked footage are crafted to be discomfiting, alienating, disorientating. He constructs grand, absurd, all-encompassing theories of everything to deconstruct the failed ideologies we are trapped in, conspiracy theories that dissect conspiracy theories; an absurdist, he highlights the failure of liberal postmodernity from his improbable perch at BBC3.

The clues to his purpose are in his script: his characters, jihadists, fascists, murderers, outsiders, fellow dissidents against late modernity, are sympathetically portrayed. They are imprisoned by the “dreamlike myths” of modern politics, “trapped in a perpetual now, haunted by fragments of memory;” their memories are a “mass of fragments, nothing linked them, they made no sense;” His style is central to his purpose: his films are a bricolage, “extraordinary dreamlike stories built out of fragments of truth and fiction,” assembled from the misfiring synapses of modernity. Like the characters he follows, Edward Limonov or Dominic Cummings, his work is designed to shock the system into crashing down.

Like anthropology, Curtis’ films are crafted to make the familiar strange: it’s only fitting then, that his latest work is bookended by two quotes from the late anthropologist and anarchist thinker David Graeber, and culminates in his observation that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

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  • Curtis films are complete nonsense nevertheless I enjoy watching them. Maybe it is the soft comfortable tone of his voice, the wisdom of an all knowing narrator, who keeps you under the strange attraction of these conspiracy mythologies. The thing about his films is: everything is true, until you study the phenomena yourself and become aware that nothing of this holds any scrutiny, but never mind. Nevertheless I enjoyed them watching and I learned a lot from these films, most of all how propaganda really has to work.
    His success is simply explained. He tells conspiracies from a left wing perspective, criticising the “old power”, colonialism and racism and hence is not constrained by any problems of logic and consistency. One has to say “colonialism” and all measures of critical thought have been washed away with one single movement.
    He manages to make left wing hegemony feel good about itself and that’s a rare quality, since left wing hegemony is bitter, self-loathing and constantly close to depression. Curtis is really good in assuring the viewer that despite all the flaws and nonsense, you are on the right track. He makes the audience feel good.
    Especially now, the Trump drug is running out of supply and the cold turkey kicks in. So, Curtis produced another of his feel good horror documentaries at the right time. I need my fix.

  • Our world (or worlds) is literally a fiction – that is all I think Curtis is trying to show us. I have a nice sensible fiction with no (or none that I notice) loose ends or contradictions, that reassures me and makes me feel safe. Curtis creates a sometimes persuasive alternative account – the point is not to accept his insanely elaborate story, but to question my own (equally insane, equally elaborate but mostly unrecognised for what it is – another story)

  • I think Curtis’ films reward a more ‘metaphysical’ view of reality. They are indeed works of art and in this they are able to hint to truths beyond the mundane and rational. For this, many misunderstand and downright revile him for his creative license but I think this is just a lack of appreciation for what he’s doing.
    All of his films feed into a master narrative about the mythology of the 20th century and sitting there picking apart the facts will only lead to frustration.
    Many also now dismiss Curtis as a no good left winger. But despite his progressive leanings, he has consistently been critical of the failure of the left, over the 20th century to change the world for the better. And his films are littered with examples of failed left wing movements.
    No, he’s not perfect and there’s a lot he gets wrong. But maybe all those who dismiss him and his films so flippantly, should question why they still find them so interesting to watch..

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