The Art of Documentary

At a time when the restrictions of consecutive lockdowns were really starting to be felt in the television schedules, it was wonderful to be presented with the most outstanding offering in some time from a programme-maker whose signature modus operandi is entirely unaffected by (and may even have been enhanced by) the circumstances of the past year. Adam Curtis’ series utilise only archival footage and music, the vast majority of it from the BBC’s collections, and his own voice-over. It is not difficult to imagine him assembling them in total isolation, though the end credits indicate a certain amount of collaboration.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World (BBC iPlayer) is, for me, the best thing he has done since his astonishing breakthrough series Pandora’s Box in 1992, although in the intervening years he has regularly delivered excellent and fascinating pieces, most notably The Century of the Self (2002) and The Power of Nightmares (2004), all for the BBC. It can sometimes be frustrating that his narrative seems to go off at unusual tangents, but this is only the case if you look at his series and single works as traditional documentaries, with set “rules” to follow, not if you look at them, as I like to, as works of art. It may seem strange to take this approach, especially as Curtis himself is pretty unambiguous that his intention is to present a documentary narrative supported by illustrative materials, but it is the way that those materials are assembled and presented that is unique to his approach and the choices he makes in the process of selection, assembly and the addition of music seem to me to be artistic and instinctive ones rather than logical and factually explicable.

This is most certainly true of Can’t Get You Out of My Head, and the use of the word “emotional” in the second part of the title is key here, implying as it does that what we are being offered is highly personal rather than objectively justifiable. This is his artistic style taken to its extreme, though, ironically, I also thought that the arguments presented in his narrative were more coherently developed over the course of the series (which almost followed a chronological progression as well) than in many of his previous works.   Sections of it came across like a favourite archive series of mine, The Rock ’n Roll Years (BBC, 1985– 94) with exhilarating and thought-provoking combinations of music and images. Curtis’ voice-over and writing style is also very distinctive – he loves chronological links and the phrase “at the same time” recurs like a leitmotif.

The most obvious comparison here is to Curtis’ 2009 contribution to an immersive artwork called It Felt like a Kiss, made in collaboration with Punchdrunk Theatre Company and Damon Albarn for the Manchester International Festival. Clearly this was intended as a work of art, but the film which came from it contains Curtis’ trademark archival film and music combinations, and a series of captions replacing the usual voiceover, which is still very recognisably Curtis (even at one point including “at the same time”). The film can be seen on Curtis’ BBC website page here:

It Felt Like a Kiss also showcases Curtis’ ongoing obsession with Lee Harvey Oswald, who is one of the characters focussed on in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, though he is mainly approached in the latter through a more in-depth exploration of the life and thoughts of his associate Kerry Thornley, both before and after the Kennedy assassination. Thornley is one of several characters whose lives are used as case studies to illustrate Curtis’ various theses and the occasional intersection of whose trajectories allow for so many “at the same time” moments.  Others featured include Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), Michael de Freitas (Michael X), black panther Afeni Shakur and her rapper son Tupac, transexual pioneer Julia Grant and Soviet dissident Edward Limonov. Curtis describes his aim in the series as to explore how we got to where we are now and, indeed, it covers a long historic span, mostly from the fifties to the present, though also, in one striking episode, delving back into the murky world of British imperialism in China. But this is history seen manly from the psychological perspective, particularly exploring the tension between individualism and the demands of society and so much is communicated wordlessly through the combination of archive and music, which, of course makes it almost as much a matter of the viewer’s interpretation as Curtis’ intention.

Curtis uses a wide range of archive material from around the world and never fails to find some amazing stuff, but nearly all of it is sourced from the BBC’s own collection (which, of course, contains material used in BBC programmes but not originally made by the corporation). The end credits include a list of “other archive sources” which is pretty brief and there are no other archive listings, so knowing where the material comes from is not possible, which is frustrating. In a recent piece for Sight and Sound, Curtis identifies and discusses a handful of the most striking extracts, but it would be really interesting (especially to an ex-archivist like myself) to be able to get information on it all. This could easily be digitally embedded or could be included in a commentary track, but I get the impression this may somehow undermine the mystique – do we need to know exactly what Curtis intended at every moment or should we be expected to accept the artist’s vision? I think this question goes to the heart of the issue of whether Curtis’ work is primarily documentary or artistic in nature and I find parallels here with the work of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, especially his 4-part epic Hitler: a Film from Germany (1977), which is similarly densely crammed with visual and audio references, some, but by no means all of which I get, but would still like a directorial explanation of, though I do worry that such a thing may spoil the effect.

Also in the Sight and Sound piece, Curtis explains how much the digitisation of the BBC’s archives has helped his work and made both finding and sourcing his extracts easier and quicker. This is a tremendous justification of the long and hard work done by my archival colleagues at the BBC over so many years and the Corporation’s commitment of resources to it. Their commitment to providing Curtis with an i-player platform for his work is also highly commendable (worth the price of the licence fee etc!) and Can’t Get You Out of my Head can be found here: