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kottke.org posts about Adam Curtis

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2021

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World is the latest world-explaining documentary series from television journalist Adam Curtis. It’s available in the UK on BBC’s iPlayer and, unofficially as a fan upload, on YouTube; I’ve embedded the trailer and the first part above.

But what exactly is it about you might wonder, even after watching the trailer. Reading Sam Knight’s January 2021 profile of Curtis in the New Yorker might help you there:

For more than thirty years, Curtis has made hallucinatory, daring attempts to explain modern mass predicaments, such as the origins of postwar individualism, wars in the Middle East, and our relationship to reality itself. He describes his films as a combination of two sometimes contradictory elements: a stream of unusual, evocative images from the past, richly scored with pop music, that are overlaid with his own, plainly delivered, often unverifiable analysis. He seeks to summon “the complexity of the world.”

Lucy Mangan’s review for The Guardian was overwhelmingly positive:

The power dynamic, how it shifts, how it hides and how it is used to shape our world — the world in which we ordinary people must live — is Curtis’s great interest. He ranges from the literal rewriting of history by Chairman Mao’s formidable fourth wife, Jiang Qing, during the Cultural Revolution to the psychologists plumbing the depths of “the self” and trying to impose behaviours on drugged and electro-shocked subjects. He moves from the infiltration of the Black Panthers by undercover officers inciting and facilitating more violence than the movement had ever planned or been able to carry out alone, to the death of paternalism in industry and its replacement by official legislation drafted by those with hidden and vested interests. The idea that we are indeed living, as posited by various figures in the author’s landscape and (we infer from the whole) the author himself, in a world made up of strata of artifice laid down by those more or less malevolently in charge becomes increasingly persuasive.

Other reviews, particularly from those on the right, call his work incoherent and Curtis himself something of a propagandist. Admission: I haven’t seen any of Curtis’s work, save for the occasional clip here and there. I know some of you out there are big fans — should I start with this one, HyperNormalisation, Century of the Self, or….?

The Century of the Self

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2015

From filmmaker Adam Curtis, a four-part documentary series on “how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy”. Here’s part one:

And continue with the rest in this playlist. Here is a good review:

This is a powerful and arresting documentary series — I ended up watching all four episodes back to back in a marathon effort. It was that gripping. I had felt similarly about his more recent documentary about the rise of neo conservatism and arab fundamentalism and the similarity in their techniques for recruiting followers (and their mutual need of each other in that project) — but ‘The Century of the Self’ (TCS from now on), is much grander in its scope. It seeks to analyse the different conceptions of the self in the twentieth century, and how these conceptions were ultimately used by corporations to manipulate consumers into purchasing their products. Curtis takes large swipes at corporate capitalism in this documentary, but his target is even wider than this — he seeks to tell a story about the relationship between the differing conceptions of individualism and the capitalist, democratic institutions (corporations and governments) which organise themselves around these conceptions.

(thx, kyle)