An Adam Curtis documentary might start with images like these: a group of men waltzing with invisible partners, the wealth of the British empire running through their tailcoats; shaky mobile-phone footage of a bomb in Afghanistan; a young Donald Trump in a helicopter, Manhattan spread out below; an aerobics instructor clad in ’80s pink and sticky lip gloss; a man shot in the head, bleeding in the dirt; a panda sneezing.
The footage might be tied together by a haunting Burial or Aphex Twin song. A title card in Arial font could declare something like THE OLD SYSTEM WAS DYING. Then perhaps Curtis’s disembodied voice, all elongated vowels and faint adenoidal superiority, would augur that “this was a fantasy.” For the many fans of the longtime BBC journalist, this combination—surreal, funny, disturbing—is part of what makes him revered. At the heart of Curtis’s appeal is his consistent assertion, both in style and in substance, that society does not make sense anymore.
Curtis began his career at the U.K.’s national broadcaster in the early 1980s, but his style emerged clearly with 1992’s Pandora’s Box. An exploration of the rise of technocratic politics amid the fall of the U.S.S.R., the series won Curtis his first two BAFTAs (his documentaries would go on to win two more). With this success—and his infinite access to the BBC’s substantial archives—Curtis’s oeuvre took shape, culminating in 2011’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which looks at the rise of modern technology, and 2016’s HyperNormalisation, about the West’s retreat from political complexity. His most recent series is this year’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a history of individualism.
In a particular kind of person—Millennial, leftist, overly online—Curtis inspires a specific fandom. His recent appearances on Red Scare and Chapo Trap House, podcasts of the Millennial “dirtbag left,” seem to have cemented his status among malcontent 20-somethings. An editor for Dazed wrote that witnessing Curtis’s popularity “among our generation” was “fascinating”; The Economist named Curtis “a cult-hero to young thinkers.” When an interviewer for the socialist magazine Jacobin remarked to Curtis that he was watched by “lots of disaffected young people,” the filmmaker said he didn’t know why he had this audience, but had heard that kids were holding “all-night” viewing parties for one of his documentaries in outer-London squats.
The key to Curtis’s style is an interplay of decontextualized music and archival footage that examines heady, seemingly disparate subjects such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of psychology, and pop culture. By threading a patchwork of references together, Curtis unveils the interconnectedness of society’s systems. His declarations can feel like revelations: emotional truths that one has long suspected but never uncovered. Yet his documentaries also veer rapidly between tragic and comedic, sometimes appearing intent on provoking a reaction from the viewer. Curtis’s filmmaking has an early-YouTube, Internet Archive aesthetic that almost replicates the strangeness of the web in the early to mid aughts: scraps of news clips, home videos, proto-memes, lurid celebrity gossip. He seems fluent in my generation’s dead tongue.
Curtis’s style is so distinctive that parodies of his work are common, particularly on Twitter. These include a bingo card (with boxes that read “Grainy film of oil sheikhs,” and “Ronald Reagan”), jokes about the “Adam Curtis voice,” and references to his penchant for declaring that “something incredible happened.” Earlier this year, when a fitness influencer in Myanmar went viral for filming herself obliviously performing aerobics as, behind her, military vehicles rolled into Parliament to wrest power from the government, I saw the same joke again and again on my social-media feeds: This is part of an Adam Curtis documentary.
This devotion might seem curious. Curtis is, after all, a BBC journalist in the most traditional sense: Oxbridge educated, older, male, white. He typically refuses to take a political stance in interviews, saying that he distrusts labels and ideologies. When I asked Alan Finlayson, a professor of political and social theory at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, about Curtis, he told me via email that he has always thought of the documentarian as “rather conservative.” “The general argument [of Curtis’s work] seems to be that history is made by individuals and not larger historical or social forces, that ideas are always to be suspected (especially those of philosophers and scientists), and we shouldn’t trust people with plans for improving things,” Finlayson said. Curtis’s lack of any real analysis of the failures of popular left-wing figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders has also attracted criticism, while his refusal to adhere to a single political philosophy has tended to infuriate leftist commentators. (Curtis recently asserted that he is a “progressive” who is “emotionally sympathetic to radicalism,” whatever that means.)
Curiously, when I asked Charlie Beckett, a professor and the director of the London School of Economics’ media think tank, Polis, what he made of Curtis’s popularity, his view was the opposite of Finlayson’s. Curtis “offers an explanation of the world that must be attractive to Leftists frustrated by their continuing lack of electoral appeal or political success in countries like the U.K.,” he told me in an email. “It’s much easier to blame shadowy corporate forces than political realities.”
But these contrasting interpretations are precisely what might explain Curtis’s popularity among young adults. His enthusiasm for tricky, often contradictory, ideas feels refreshing to those who came of age in a world of social-media moralizing, simplistic documentaries, and smug opinion pieces. With one foot in the early-internet, pre-9/11, pre–Great Recession world and the other in the contemporary mire of social media, unstable work, and a housing crisis, Millennials are acutely aware of senselessness. This generation has a nagging feeling that somewhere along the way, something has gone deeply, catastrophically wrong.
In this light, Curtis’s commitment to the weird—the juxtaposition of partnerless dancers, aerobics instructors, and grisly news footage—expresses the bizarreness of society. The way to effectively communicate a system that does not make sense is to do away with the pretense of sense itself. For Millennial leftists focused on uncovering and dismantling power structures that they feel have disadvantaged their generation, Curtis’s analysis of how society functions—or fails to function—is attractive. To some progressives, the establishment media frequently focuses on trivialities and elevated gossip instead of analyzing how overarching structures might be flawed. When I spoke with writer and critic Jon Doyle, about Curtis, he focused on the filmmaker’s use of typically unseen news footage—the cutting-room-floor clips in which anchors bluster and bumble, and eerie silences appear between interviewers and guests. “Everything is more chaotic, more banal, more confusing than we want to admit,” Doyle said.
Curtis’s work ultimately feels rare because he not only acknowledges the surrealism of the world but constructs a narrative about this strangeness. For people attempting to understand why society has ceased to function well, Curtis’s documentaries question the idea that we can expect nothing better, that everything is as it should be. And that’s why Curtis’s Millennial fans don’t mind if he focuses too much on the individual or the institutions, or whether his themes might skew leftist, or conservative, or smarter-than-thou. Even if Curtis offers no solutions, simply vocalizing the seemingly unspoken is enough.