Time and time again, Adam Curtis has demonstrated an inimitable ability to delve into the heart of an issue – be it the manufactured and simplified story of militant islam as espoused by western powers in Bitter Lake, or the failure to harness the utopian potential of early technology in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace – and sketch out the complex histories, mechanisms and important figures that underpin these particularly postmodern narratives. HyperNormalisation, which was released on BBC iPlayer on Sunday night, is Curtis’ latest attempt to trace the multifaceted malaise that seems to pervade overstimulated life in the 21st century.
In the most simplistic of terms, HyperNormalisation is a film about the uncertainty and confusion that permeates our modern moment. Curtis references the rise of conservative right-wing politics (in the form of Trump and Brexit), the bewildering geopolitics and history that underpins the war in Syria, the migrant crisis, and the seemingly random and indiscriminate bomb attacks happening across the world to paint a deeply disconcerting picture of the chaos, uncertainty and confusion that defines the 21st century. Importantly however, the political parties and leaders that are trusted with the power to guide us through these events are rendered inept and even paralysed by the complexity of it all.
Indeed it would appear that our reaction to this uncertainty has been to retreat “into a simplified and often completely fake version of the world…but because it [this fake world] is all around us, we accept it as normal.”- journalists, politicians, academics, experts, artists, musicians and we ourselves – the general public – all seemingly exist in this strange, manufactured space. Curtis’ film not only asks ‘Why?’, but through his characteristic authoritative narration and inspired archival footage, he traces the route of how we got to this place, and examines the forces that might just pierce “through the wall of our fake world”.
Clocking in at a little under three hours, HyperNormalisation covers a staggering amount of terrain – from Patti Smith and the 60’s counterculture to Vladimir Putin and the new theatrical, avant-garde politics; from palaces in Damascus to prozac-filled Wenatchee and the sprawling potential of cyberspace; from Colonel Gaddafi to Assad, to Kissinger, to Reagan, Tahir Square and the Arab spring to Wall Street and the Occupy movements – you get the idea… Whilst at times this skittish narrative can be hard to follow, and indeed the runtime requires a certain degree of patience, this narrative style is astoundingly reflective of the similarly confounding, interconnected world we live in, and Curtis’ commanding, yet lucid narration ensures that the film retains its overarching focus and argument.
In many ways, HyperNormalisation builds off of the content of at least three of Curtis’ previous documentaries; namely, The Power Of Nightmares, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and Bitter Lake. The rise of neoconservative politics, the war on terror and the simplified narrative of islamic extremism, the utopian potential of emerging technologies and the reduction of complex ideologies and global, political relationships into a binary of ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, is all revisited in one way or another in HyperNormalisation. What sets this new documentary apart however, despite its concern with a postmodernism of sorts, is its ability to sketch out a type of tentative ‘grand narrative’ as it were. This is to say that, though Curtis is clearly cognisant of the thousands, if not millions of narratives that inform our social, political and idealogical history (as well as present), he deftly connects these numerous strands and unites them in a bid to adequately explain and explore the chaos and confusion of our era.
The written works of Pynchon, DeLillo and numerous other postmodern authors demonstrated an awareness of, if not a concern for, how the numerous arms of a new mass-media led to the general public being inundated – paralysed – bombarded with – or tranquillised- by vast quantities of information; sitcoms, soaps, advertisements and 24-hour rolling news channels. Fast forward a few decades to our age and now not only do the traditional forms of media hurl all types of information at us, but with the advent of smartphones and social-media feeds, we actively contribute to this swirling vortex of increasingly dubious ‘information’. Now of course there are certain benefits of such ease of communication that shouldn’t be forgotten, but what can’t be ignored is the ease at which, in this era of boundless, infinite and complex information, one can be overwhelmed.
Arguably, Curtis’ documentary demonstrates his uncanny and enviable ability to wade into this swirling vortex of information in order to extract a pattern of sorts, and this is precisely why its so gripping. If you’ve ever had one of those fleeting moments of clarity where you’ve seemingly been able to look behind, underneath and into things to catch a momentary glimpse at a ‘grander’ design- well, Curtis’ documentary is that moment, sustained. This is not to say his film proposes an elegant answer to our present disorder, but rather, it endeavours to make that disorder and our strange, ‘Post-Truth’ situation a little more intelligible. Dismiss it as intellectualised conjecture if you will – and undoubtedly some will- but HyperNomarlisation is undoubtedly informative and, despite its relative bleakness, surprisingly entertaining.