Adam Curtis and the
Importance of Big Stories
March 11, 2021
How did we get here? For over two decades now, BBC journalist Adam Curtis has been quietly making large, unwieldy, and often very brilliant documentaries trying to provide an answer to that question. To put it bluntly, his films are big stories. Often over three hours long, featuring large casts of real people both famous and obscure using interview or archival footage, he weaves counter-narratives of history that focus more on human emotions than mere fact, while making huge leaps across time and space examining the forces of power that intersect with and act upon the individual.
2002’s four-part “Century of the Self’’ explored the development of public relations and individualism in the 20th century. It begins with Sigmund Freud’s theories on Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, then moves on to his nephew Edward Bernays’s pioneering work in the modern arts of advertising and public relations. Curtis argues that this creates the Western ethos of personal identity through consumption. He made several more documentaries for the BBC, and as they became curated by YouTube, his viewership grew.
His 2016 documentary, “HyperNormalisation,” builds on his previous works’ fixation regarding modern individualism and how power controls it in an interconnected and complex global order. It chronicles the rise of finance as the true center of power after the 1970s and the diminution of the politician’s role to “manager.” This transfer of power created a semi-synthetic reality where the politicians were mere characters in a play with no clear plot, strutting and fretting as finance was left to do the real work undisturbed until the housing crash of 2008. After the crash, the public distrust of politicians begins, leading to Brexit and former president Donald Trump.
His new documentary, the six-part “Can’t Get You Out of my Head,” available on YouTube, proposes an “emotional history” of the 20th and 21st centuries. Spanning decades, Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, black revolutionary Michael X, political activist Afeni Shakur and her son, the rapper Tupac, and many others are emblematic of the intersection of the individual with history and power. It tells how they all succeeded and how they all failed at changing the world, for better or worse.
These are threadbare descriptions of Curtis’s style, which often features a unique aesthetic that borrows heavily from science fiction. Ambient synthesizer muzak is juxtaposed with endless amounts of footage not always linked to the story, more often evocative of the uneasy and sinisterly playful mood Curtis is setting. Fascinating, hypnotic, funny, and frightening in equal amounts, this collage hangs together with Curtis’s narration in a calm, British accent.
However, in “Can’t Get You Out of my Head,” Curtis risks stumbling into self-parody. In the end, his idiosyncratic vision of history and his method of representing it continues to fascinate and provoke. Curtis often seems like a crank tying strings of yarn to pushpins on a corkboard, finding connections which may or may not be there. But his hours of archival footage often give his large claims startling validity, transforming dry history into something that resembles a massive novel.
Equal parts disturbing and beautiful, Curtis’s films can be tough medicine, or at times downright implausible. But for many viewers, when so much of our culture is reflected through nostalgia, remakes, or sentimental escapism, Curtis’s films make a case for him being one of the few authentic storytellers of our strange era. He doesn’t just tell stories, he tells big stories. And he tells them with gusto, art, and genuine narrative gifts.
Too often we shrink from the overwhelming complexity of the world, but we always need a story to make sense of it. These can either be frivolous distractions or they can fundamentally shape our reality. History is a big story. The world’s religions are big stories. Big stories are written by Homer, Tolstoy, and now internet conspiracy theorists. Adam Curtis’s films, sometimes unbelievable but always beautiful, are noble attempts at shaping our chaos into something grander. If only more artists could tell us about ourselves with such style, humor, and intelligence. If we can’t create, we can at least watch.