Credit: BBC
by M.G. Mailloux Film

Best Films of 2021: Can’t Get You Out of My Head

January 8, 2022

#13. “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

Emblazoned on trademark, stark title card, these words from late activist David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules bookend Adam Curtis’ massive 2021 essay film Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World. A sweeping eight-hour nonfiction epic split into six chapters, Graeber’s quote is a surprisingly neat summation of Can’t Get You Out of My Head (and, arguably, Curtis’ whole body of work), courtesy of a filmmaker who has danced around such explicitness in the past. But these are severe times, and Curtis, more popular now than he’s ever been in his 40+ year career, has found his work (particularly 2016’s Hypernormalisation) scrutinized to a fanatical degree recently, so much so that it might be more shocking were this latest not fashioned as a culminating work. 

Tracing out a narrative that runs through significant swaths of the 20th century and deep into the 21st (concluding somewhere around Joe Biden’s inauguration, one month prior to the film’s release), Can’t Get You Out of My Head tackles a near impossible question with a grand, convincing story that wrangles unruly history and transforms it into something not just digestible, but actively invigorating. Beginning from the broad, ubiquitous observation that contemporary culture is more politically divided than ever, Curtis then invites us to interrogate what that actually means and whether or not this phenomenon is passive or, to some extent, intentional. In search of these pressing answers, we’re introduced to major historical players like Gang of Four mastermind Jiang Qing, Illuminati conspiracy originator/prankster Kerry Thornley, activist/grifter Michael X, pharma villain Arthur M. Sackler, Afeni and Tupac Shakur, and so many more, their stories strung out across these six chapters in novelistic fashion, with some asserting themselves as “main characters” and others providing illustrative tangent. 

The resulting tapestry is impressive not just in scale, but in its elegant construction, with Curtis’ editing as skillful as ever, able to move between personalities and time periods without losing sight of his thesis or broader continuity (plus some expectedly iconic music/image juxtapositions, like Johnny Boy over Taliban training footage). Of course, these same tools and narrativization devices often form the basis of the arguments against these films (contextually tasteless, too much editorializing, etc.), but Can’t Get You Out of My Head answers its critics directly, recasting Curtis as “storyteller” as opposed to “documentarian” or “journalist,” his monologues more personalized and upfront about their subjectivity than in projects previous. Maybe a slight overcorrection for a filmmaker whose work was already plenty legible, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is, nevertheless, better for it, and Curtis’ most moving work to date, empowering in a way totally absent from the otherwise contemporary. It’s not just one of the best films of 2021, but perhaps the only film with a wholly credible understanding of the present, and an actual vision for the future.