Is there anything left to say about Adam Curtis? Over the course of more than 25 BBC documentaries, depending on how you count — each an attempt to trace the workings of what he repeatedly, enigmatically calls “power” across the twentieth century to the wreckage of the present — the director has developed a sensibility so idiosyncratic that it simultaneously begs for and preempts parody. Along the way, he has inspired a small cottage industry of spoofs, none of which manages to be more effective at pastiche than an actual Curtis film, as well as a surprisingly high volume of magazine pieces, many of which simply list his tics: authoritative voice-over narration, reverb-soaked soundtracks, audiovisual collages prominently featuring images of historical disasters. If his style is self-evident, there is less agreement about his supposed politics. He has been branded a source of “revolutionary Marxist critiques,” a “reverse Marxist,” an outright conservative, a peddler of flimsy conspiracy theories. In consensus or in debate, the voices chatter on. When every trope has been cataloged, every political angle made equally plausible, maybe what everyone can’t stop speaking about we must pass over in silence.
Silence is exactly what we get in Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, Curtis’s latest series for the BBC’s iPlayer streaming platform. Curtis’s films up to this point have relied on the heavy-handed intervention of extradiegetic sound. The archival footage that forms their core — newsreels, shaky cell-phone video from war zones, grainy clips of viral dances — comes to us through a gauze, shrouded in pseudo-profound, doomsaying narration and gloomy clouds of atmospheric music. In TraumaZone, Curtis has abandoned both the ambient soundtrack and the sententious voice-over narration. All we get are the scenes themselves, helped along by the occasional contextualizing caption.
Why has Curtis gone mute? If you believe the filmmaker himself, the decision had something to do with the nature of his material. TraumaZone presents the collapse of the Soviet Union and the struggles of the fledgling Russian Federation in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Unlike his earlier films, which tend to be more omnivorous in their selection of sources, TraumaZone draws nearly all of its material from footage captured by BBC camera crews in the region — some of which has already found its way into finished films over the years, but much of which has languished unused in the network’s archives. As Curtis explained in an interview last fall:
As I watched the footage I decided that I shouldn’t use my voice or paste music over it. The material was so strong that I didn’t want to intrude pointlessly, but rather let viewers simply experience what was happening, because it was out of this — the anger, violence, desperation, and overwhelming corruption — that Vladimir Putin emerged.
And yet this is hardly a sufficient explanation. Curtis’s other recent films have also billed themselves as histories of the present, sprawling and baggy efforts to “trace different forces across the world that have led to now,” as he puts it near the beginning of 2021’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Neither will it suffice to say that Curtis is simply entering a mythic Late Period, with all of that phrase’s connotations — unplugging, finding religion, withdrawing from the world to commune with the beyond. Curtis’s silence is no doubt a form of retreat, though maybe more of the strategic than the ascetic or mystical variety. But a retreat from what, and to what end?
Curtis has been making films for the BBC for over four decades, beginning with segments on talking dogs for the consumer-affairs variety program That’s Life! (A bit of internet lore has it that Curtis produced one of that show’s most enduring segments, on a dog that snarls what sounds like the word “sausages” as its owner manipulates its mouth.) As he gained more creative freedom, his subjects expanded in scope. In 1992, the BBC aired Pandora’s Box, a Curtis series tackling nothing less than “the consequences of political and technocratic rationalism.” Pandora’s Box tries to deliver on this grand promise by cataloging some of the twentieth century’s most ill-fated reform efforts. The scenes are fragmentary, but they feel animated by some motive force — a carousel of stunted progress, if not of total regress. Here are Soviet engineers struggling to administrate an agrarian nation into the communist future! Here are RAND Corporation functionaries at the blackboard, drawing up new schemes for nuclear containment! Here is the CIA allegedly subverting a pan-Africanist movement! History comes alive, only to extinguish itself in a blur of scuttled projects.
The films that followed largely share this combination of all-embracing range and sour outlook. The Century of the Self (2002), one of the few places where Curtis was able to temper his large-scale ambitions with a modicum of focus, tracks the uses and abuses of Sigmund Freud’s ideas at the hands of everyone from public-relations shills to California cultists. Other films investigate the origins of the War on Terror (The Power of Nightmares, 2004) and the spoiled promises of Silicon Valley cyber-utopianism (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, 2011). Still others are about virtually everything, and so nothing much at all. 2016’s HyperNormalisation makes a vaporous and often confused argument about how ideology works today, by way of a muddle of tangents: New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis, the early history of A.I., the supposed failures of Occupy Wall Street, the rise and fall of Muammar Gaddafi; it’s all connected, man. The 2021 series Can’t Get You Out of My Head goes even bigger, painting world history since the mid-twentieth century as a grand struggle between “individualism” and the spirit of the “collective,” two kaiju-like forces forever locked in battle.
In these films, revolutionaries and reformers concoct programs for challenging the shadowy interests Curtis refers to as “the elites” or “those in control” or “the old power,” only to either fail spectacularly or see their work metastasize into something dystopian. (In this way Pandora’s box is not just the central figure in the series that bears its name, but a master trope throughout Curtis’s work.) Where the contemporary big-issue documentary typically presents a problem and then proposes a solution, whether it is buying more organic food or orchestrating a U.S. military intervention in Uganda, Curtis’s films lurch from imagined solution to intractable problem. Psychoanalysis imagined itself as a balm for the submerged violence of life in a rapidly industrializing world — only to see its techniques become base enticements to mass consumption. The World Wide Web was supposed to serve as a model for a free society unbounded by hierarchies, but instead transformed human attention into a commodity, creating an especially intimate new brand of unfreedom. Mikhail Gorbachev’s ambitious programs of perestroika and glasnost aimed to democratize the Soviet Union — and yet in the end laid the shaky groundwork for the state’s collapse. A solemn intertitle from Can’t Get You Out of My Head best sums up the default Curtis attitude toward efforts to better our lot: “THEY ALL FAILED.”
The kinds of people who like Curtis’s films include: graduate students, journalists, artists, comedians, leftists, liberals, libertarian-adjacent “free-speech” warriors, lonely men on the internet looking for answers to the question, Where did things go so wrong? (Even the harshest of his critics would have to admit: probably better to find Curtis on this particular quest than many of the alternatives.) Curtis’s commitment to a stance of free-think-y nonalignment guarantees that there is something for everyone in his films. For the leftists, there are arguments about the transformation of governments into mere guarantors of smooth business transactions; for the liberals, finger-wagging about the hollow aimlessness of left protest movements, as well as an emphasis on Donald Trump as an omen of global doom. For the libertarians, there are cautionary tales about failed social-engineering efforts; for any conservatives who may be watching, a strong revulsion for the 1960s counterculture and its legacies. Curtis’s stitched-together compositions are less collages than they are Rorschach blots: look into their murk, and you can find your own worldview confirmed.
In a real sense, murk is all there is in a Curtis film. In his most recent work especially, action takes place in hazy half-focus, as degraded images of everything from massacres to infomercials wash across the screen. All roll becomes B-roll. Bitter Lake (2015), the first Curtis film to be released directly to iPlayer, plunges wholesale into this mode. After a grand opening speech — a “world where nothing makes any sense,” the breakdown of the “stories” told by “those in power” — we get, instead of an establishing shot, a hallucinatory montage of what can only be called mood shots. Against a track by the ambient artist Burial, all tape hiss and autotuned keening, we see three scenes of dancing bodies in rapid succession: a smiling little girl in a wood-paneled studio, a heaving mass of tony waltzers, a group of men in a trash-strewn clearing. The montage throws a few more fragments at us, then we cut to a blurred field. The only discernible forms amid a cloud of blocky pixels are two red blobs, visual echoes of the desert sunrise that opens the film. The camera swings down and things come into focus. We are in a war zone. Soldiers watch as civilians flee; thick black smoke chokes the horizon. The two blobs, of course, are droplets of blood. A hand tries to wipe them off, but it only smears them across the lens.
Sometimes, the relation between these kinds of aimless, vibey montages and Curtis’s sweeping pronouncements is loose and associative. At other times it scans more as strong-arming. Several hours into Can’t Get You Out of My Head, after an aside on conspiracy theories set to apparently unrelated footage of abandoned malls, Curtis tells us about a Google A.I. that had begun to miscategorize all sorts of images as dog faces. A characteristically bizarre metaphysical lesson is extracted from this bit of trivia: “It was a world,” we learn, “where anything could be anything because there was no real meaning any longer.” Cue the montage! As sentimental music plays, dog faces hurtle toward you in psychedelic sheets, eventually dissolving into a blitz of clips regurgitated from the past several installments of the series. You can feel Curtis, like the creators of the A.I. that can apply only one interpretive frame to the data it is fed, straining to make you see his grand themes everywhere.
Curtis’s narrative specialty is the stock-taking statement. The films he has made since 2015 tend to begin with inventories of contemporary disasters. “We live in a strange time,” Curtis declares at the start of HyperNormalisation. “Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world. Suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, even Brexit,” the disembodied voice continues as footage flashes across the screen: boats pitching over, bombs going off in the middle distance, sweaty faces on television. “Yet those in control seem unable to deal with them, and no one has any vision of a different or a better kind of future.” Can’t Get You Out of My Head opens in much the same way: “We are living through strange days. Across Britain, Europe, and America, societies have become split and polarized, not just in politics, but across the whole culture…. Yet at the same time, there is a paralysis, a sense that no one knows how to escape from this.” The project of these films, too, is the same: to “tell the story of how we got to this strange place.”
These statements signal a totalizing ambition: a desire to think theoretically, or at least at the level of systems. And yet for the most part, Curtis does not totalize by inventing concepts that would help us cut through the haze of the present situation. Instead, he tries to convey a sense of totality through ambience. As the musician Brian Eno, a fixture in Curtis’s soundtracks, wrote in the liner notes to his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “an ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.” This is an appropriately fuzzy definition, but it is not hard to feel its resonance with Curtis’s project. (One YouTube commenter has gone so far as to declare Curtis “the Brian Eno of documentary makers.”) In Curtis’s films prior to TraumaZone, history unfolds not as a result of human agency, but through the occult working of influences — in that word’s original astrological sense as “an ethereal fluid held to flow from the stars and to affect the actions of humans.” Everyday people appear as helpless dupes or homogeneous masses, virtually never as historical actors. Curtis’s woozy mood sequences attempt to trace these sinister forces across vast distances and spans of time, but they ultimately render the causes of our present predicament less clear than ever.
Theory without concepts, history without causality, murk: this is an especially degraded kind of ambience. And yet Eno’s notion of ambience can also be understood as a historically specific sensation, a sense of how it feels to live under a certain set of conditions. A feeling, that is, that doesn’t belong to any one person “in their head,” to use a common Curtisism, but that seems to hang in the air and envelop people en masse. It is this concrete sense of experience, rather than the pulse of abstract energies through the cosmos, that TraumaZone sets out to conjure from its opening frames. Tellingly, at the top of each episode, the title of the series is followed by another line of text: “What it felt like to live through the collapse of communism and democracy.” TraumaZone opens in a wash of snowy roadside and steel-gray sky. A narrow highway stretches out to the misty horizon; we are moving forward on shaky wheels. All we hear are muffled strains of the radio and the rattle of the road. Where does the road lead? Well, to Vladimir Putin. For Curtis, the titular “TraumaZone” — which, it has to be said, both resonates prosodically with Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic Thunderdome and sounds like a hot new flavor of exposure therapy — is the noxious political milieu that apparently made the current Russian regime inevitable. The conclusion is foregone; we should be able to sense that the endpoint is speeding toward us in the footage itself, without any narrative intrusion.
The scenes captured through this footage range from the self-evidently historic (leaders meeting or waving to crowds) to the mundane (people waiting in line at a grocery store) to the environmental (toxic sludge dripping from a pipe as families swim nearby). We proceed more or less chronologically, beginning with the textures and tints of late Soviet material culture: cauldrons bubbling in a cake factory, interiors either dim or fluorescent-bright, picnic spreads by the lake, water running a slimy green-brown in the bathrooms of a Moscow hotel. There is a war on in Afghanistan, and we see young, freshly buzz-cut recruits being shipped off. Monuments are everywhere; people generally either ignore or deface them. Remarkably, the elites do not enter the picture until several minutes in. They spend much of their screen time standing inert, looking listlessly out the window, already fading into the background.
Through some light context provided in captions, we learn that the USSR is in crisis. Managers are looting state industries and selling goods for personal profit. Movements for national independence are spreading across the Eastern Bloc. Things in Afghanistan are going disastrously. The components of this crisis all find visual expression: we see cars rolling out of the Togliatti factory, to be sold by gangsters for private profit; a soldier bleeding out on the roadside; nationalist demonstrators in the streets. For the first few hour-long installments of the series, you get the impression that the all-devouring non-culture of multinational capital is beating furiously at the door. Men in suits watch fashion shows; pageant contestants sing a Coke jingle. The first McDonald’s opens in Moscow.
And then the door is ripped off its hinges. A junta briefly seizes control from Gorbachev; we see the hands of the new acting president, Gennady Yanayev, trembling during a press conference. Gorbachev returns weakened. Boris Yeltsin becomes president of Russia; the Union collapses and is officially dissolved. Yegor Gaidar pushes for a rapid transition to a market economy via Polish-style shock therapy. Food prices skyrocket. Citizens take to the streets in desperation and try to sell their belongings. War rages in Georgia, Chechnya, Armenia, Azerbaijan. Tanks roll down streets. Yeltsin, who often appears profoundly drunk, nearly loses power; he shores it up with brutal force. The mafia emerges as a historical actor. Enemies are executed. Eventually, Putin emerges in all his functionary blandness, promising more violence to come.
TraumaZone is not devoid of argument. The arc it traces goes something like this. Gorbachev tried to reform the USSR by ceding more power to local authorities. This decentralizing program resulted in the rise of a new oligarch class, whose interests Yeltsin’s democratic government would go on to serve after the dissolution of the Union. Over the course of the disastrous economic transition, and in the face of apparently endless wars and unchecked corruption, citizens lost trust in democracy. The oligarchs handpicked Putin to succeed Yeltsin, cementing their class rule. At times, Curtis leans on captions to narrate these twists and turns. For the last several minutes of the series, which cover Putin’s rise, there is a near constant stream of captions that virtually beg to be read out loud in Curtis’s voice: “He would be their creature…. He was a simulacrum of a modern Western politician that would allow the corruption to carry on undisturbed[,] and nothing would change.”
In a sense, this is a typical Curtis story about the failures of historical reforms. Certainly perestroika appears here as yet another Pandora’s box, the unwitting catalyst for the disasters to follow. But his new method forces him to tell this story chiefly through juxtaposition. Smiling apparatchiks extolling the virtues of central planning are intercut with interminable lines at seemingly empty grocery stores, fleets of plutocrats’ limos with starving people bundled up against the cold. Stray bits of this exact footage have appeared in previous Curtis films. And yet in the past, these sorts of clips were rigorously subordinated to just-so stories about the rise of “technocratic rationalism” and the crumbling of the “fake world” of “the elites.” In TraumaZone, these same clips take on a more ambivalent quality and a more provincial significance. Even when superimposed with heavy-handed captions, the images testify not to a grand arc of decline, but simply to a texture of experience at a specific place and time.
TraumaZone is not the first Curtis project to focus on a particular place. Bitter Lake is about Afghanistan, though its hallucinatory mode of presentation makes it feel somewhat dissociated from its subject. But TraumaZone is the first Curtis series to be guided less by a theoretical (or conspiracy-theoretical) ambition than an ethnographic one. The series’s most affecting segments follow characters over the course of either a significant life event or a typical day. We meet an elderly woman on her way to visit her sister in the countryside. Over a spare dinner, they wonder how they will survive the winter on their scant supplies of food. We meet a precocious child who panhandles to support her family. Other characters give us a window into the life of late Soviet and Russian institutions. Through a woman on trial for stealing a party official’s belongings, we see the workings of a court; through a woman imprisoned for killing her abusive boyfriend in self-defense, we get a glimpse of a correctional facility. At one point, we follow a woman on her way to get an abortion. She does not want one, but she is unable to afford a flat that would fit another baby. Incredibly, the camera crew is able to enter the doctor’s office and capture a terse exchange before the procedure begins. Nothing in these scenes is reducible to the metaphysical struggle between individual and collective. They are simply fragments of unprocessed experience — which, after all, is one way of defining trauma.
The success of TraumaZone is the success of a work with downsized, or at least redirected, ambitions. Perhaps Curtis has been listening to the growing group of critics accusing him of dealing in sensationalized conspiracy theories coated in a thin sheen of intellectualism. Certainly he seems to have listened to the criticisms of HyperNormalisation’s relentless pessimism — hence the David Graeber quote that bookends Can’t Get You Out of My Head: “THE ULTIMATE HIDDEN TRUTH OF THE WORLD IS THAT IT IS SOMETHING WE MAKE, AND COULD JUST AS EASILY MAKE DIFFERENTLY,” leavening that series’s fundamental doomerism with a light optimism of the will.
But even more than this, it may not be unfair to say that the whole trajectory Curtis started with Bitter Lake and continued through Can’t Get You Out of My Head had exhausted itself. In that seemingly epochal year 2016, HyperNormalisation spoke to a certain climate of dread in the affluent liberal democracies of the Global North. It was the film we deserved, if not the film we needed, at the onset of the supposed “post-truth” era, with its fixation on the business of political image management and its pessimism about our ability to awareness-raise ourselves out of disaster. More significantly, in its simultaneous stagnant vagueness and shrill urgency, it managed to capture and reflect back a general mood of political disempowerment. As Owen Hatherley writes in one of the most perceptive assessments of Curtis’s work, HyperNormalisation is by and large “content with adding to the helplessness” — or at least with aestheticizing it, rendering it not a problem to be solved, but an atmosphere to soak in.
Curtis has a keen barometer for public mood. The diffuse unease that felt so fresh and revelatory to many in 2016 — this, recall, was still the tailend of the era of vaporwave — has, to a large extent, become old news. Not just old news, but self-evident, embedded so deeply into the texture of day-to-day life that it would make little sense for most denizens of today’s media environment to seek out a film that distills these sensations and presents them back to us afresh. Maybe Curtis came independently to the same conclusion that the editors of The New York Times Style section recently drew: after a few years of widespread efforts to capture these vague and free-floating feelings of hopelessness, perhaps the time has come to declare “no more ‘vibes.’” Or at least to get significantly more specific about the sources and histories of the vibes we are dealing with.
With ideas so broad and hollow that they had virtually collapsed, and with atmospheric textures that had all but lost their defamiliarizing effect, what else could Curtis do but retreat into silence? It is a move that plays to Curtis’s strengths as a filmmaker — strengths that his most recent films had submerged. Curtis has always been a better archival ragpicker than theorist or polemicist. At its most successful, TraumaZone gestures toward a second, potential Curtis. What if, instead of ideologically incoherent screeds like HyperNormalisation and Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Curtis had made a series of ethnographic narratives — or, to borrow an apparently confused but fitting phrase that one online commenter uses to describe TraumaZone, a series of “ambient novels”? What if Curtis had long ago traded the degraded sense of ambience — as murk, as an inky confusion that only makes the permanent crises of the present feel both inexplicable and intractable — for a fuller sense of it: as texture of experience at a specific point in space and time, as technique for expanding our range of sensations rather than numbing us? It is not for nothing that Eno writes about ambient music as a tool for opening up “space to think.”
Of course, we will never know what those potential Curtis films would have been like. But even if the earlier films are right that “no one has any vision of a different or a better kind of future” — and that is a monumentally large “if” — TraumaZone at least points one way forward for Curtis himself. Like so many before him who were also drawn to the bizarre, the mystical, and the numinous, he should choose quiet.
Mitch Therieau is a writer and PhD candidate at Stanford.