Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

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Still from the trailer for Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation (2016)

It’s increasingly popular to speak of our world as ‘post-truth’ an idea lent credence by politicians from Vladimir Putin to Boris Johnson who seem able to be able to spin fantastic lies and almost entirely get away with it. History tells us that leaders have always told lies, indeed that it is an almost inseparable part of the job, but there seems to be a sense that this occurs to an unprecedented extent today, and that no one is immune from it, with even the apparently unimpeachable Jeremy Corbyn standing accused of it during the fracas dubbed ‘Traingate’. The accessibility of information today makes it easier than ever to call liars out for what they are, and it is a staggering thing to watch a political candidate like Donald Trump deny doing something that you can simultaneously watch happening in an adjacent browser window. This is not entirely positive however, for two reasons. Firstly because the ease of identifying lies ironically contributes to the malaise of apathy towards politicians, because it is now so easy to know the extent to which they spin, manipulate, and mislead, that it creates a sense that they are all irredeemably corrupt. Secondly, because politicians seem to respond more and more to this public capacity for fact checking not with greater truthfulness, but with barrages of information which seem intended to confound verification or render its conclusions moot. By making constant swerves in ideology, policy and rhetoric, politicians evade the consequences of being caught out. What I told you yesterday might have been a lie, but what does it matter, because today I am saying something quite different, and by the time you realise this too is a lie I will be somewhere else entirely.

This background is pertinent to Adam Curtis’s new film HyperNormalisation which assembles a complexly woven conspiratorial narrative from the cultural and political wreckage of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Using esoteric stock footage sewn together with his own narration and a dub soundtrack Curtis leads us from Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, via Syria and Iran, the growing power of the financial sector, suicide bombing, the demise of ideology, the rise of computer networks, the Arab Spring, and the rise of right wing populism in Europe and America (if some of the things on that list seems a little contradictory, well yes, they are). From this Curtis draws the conclusion that we live in a world which we all seem to know is deeply problem fraught and artificial but which we are hardly able to penetrate the unreal surface of, much less do anything to change. Seen through Curtis’s eyes reality and truth have become empty terms, readily twisted and manipulated by politicians and other powerful figures to support ever shifting agendas which have more to do with holding power than with any definable ideology. Buried in here are some interesting, deeply important ideas, not least about the role that networks and algorithms increasingly play in creating our own personal ideological echo chambers. The trouble with HyperNormalisation is that in its frantic rush to cover huge amounts of ground it simplifies and generalises to the point that it nearly becomes post-truth in it’s own right.

First it’s worth noting how the form and length of Curtis’s films have changed over the years, from the three single hour episodes of The Politics of Fear, to the two hours of Bitter Lake, and now the near 3 unbroken hours of HyperNormalisation. The shift to continuous films rather than episodes and this increasingly length hasn’t led as you might expect to deeper analysis, instead his more recent films seem to expand even further the grand narratives that he has always sought to create (even as he often seems to be trying to dismiss grand narratives in general) causing them to balloon even further, incorporating more and more widely flung causes, actors and consequences. For my money the older series format served Curtis’s work far better and allowed a closer focus on particular topic areas while still constructing a large overarching argument. Considering the enormous length of HyperNormalisation it’s interesting what doesn’t figure in the narrative, the refugee crisis is virtually absent from his brief discussion of the rise of populism, despite being a significant contributor to the rise of the right, and being the consequence of many of the events in the Middle East which he also discusses. Although one of his core arguments seems to be the loss of faith in alternatives and our inability to respond to the challenges of a late capitalist world Curtis gives only a fleeting analysis of movements like Occupy which intended to do exactly this, and never really reflects on the fact that groups like ISIS are hardly the nihilists we often try to paint them as, but in their own twisted way have an alternative vision of the world that they might imagine to be every bit as utopian as that of Occupy.

It’s been said that watching a Curtis documentary feels a bit like listening to a man in the middle of a Wikipedia binge, although I’d counter it’s more like someone getting their information from Uncyclopedia, the anarchic and irreverent spoof of Wikipedia. HyperNormalisation repeats some dubious claims, and frequently explains complicated ideas in staggering brevity. I don’t want to turn this piece into an extensive fact checking of this film, but a couple of things that stood out for me because I’ve looked into them before include the claim that the Iranian regime used zealous children to clear minefields with their own bodies as part of ‘human wave’ attacks during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The evidence for this is at best unclear, with very few primary sources to support it and some evidence that this idea was originally propagated as anti-Iranian war propaganda. Curtis trots it out however as if it were undisputed fact. Even as he often appears to criticise other thinkers and figures for promoting simplistic grand narratives which serve their own ends, it’s notable how little space there is in his own narrative for shades of grey, ambiguity, or self-reflection. Normally one would hardly expect footnotes in a documentary film, but in HyperNormalisation and the director’s other films they start to feel rather vital, and the lack of them problematic. Given that Curtis maintains a blog on the BBC site he has the perfect platform to expand on these omissions and provide sources for his claims, if he so wished.

One last example of this comes even in the film’s title, adapted from writing by a ‘soviet writer’ (apparently Alexei Yurchak, for some reason unnamed by Curtis in the film, perhaps because that description of him seems again rather disingenuous). Yurchak emigrated to the United States in 1990 as a graduate student and later wrote that the late Soviet experience was one of an uncanny or hyper normal reality, where everything was clearly going wrong, but where this was hidden under the guise of a functioning state. Yurchak’s argument is again a little more complicated than this, and still by no means the definitive account of life in the late Soviet Union. By coincidence I’m currently mid-way through reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, an epic oral history of the period from a Russian perspective, which makes it clear how generalised Curtis’s claims about the views and feelings of Soviet Union’s people often are. Generalisation feels like the order of the day however, and HyperNormalisation frequently declares that entire groups of people felt the same way, invariably confused, disillusioned, frightened, etc. This jars most noticeably when you realise the groups he’s referring to include you, the viewer, and you know that you felt nothing of what he is describing. These examples might seem like small things, but when a near three hour film is built so heavily on these sorts of claims, it starts to make you wonder how far the entire edifice of HyperNormalisation is built on misconstrued information. Much like contemporary politics however the narrative moves on so quickly, bombarding you with new imagery, names, and ideas before you have time to think that what you’ve just seen is perhaps less straightforward and interconnected than the film wants to suggest.

Curtis’s raiding of the BBC archives for intriguing footage is one of the things that makes his films distinctive, a strategy resulting in visually compelling collage documentary style which juxtaposes the fascinating, strange and disturbing. It’s can be a source of frustration though for anyone trying to pay close attention, as this footage often has little to do with what’s being discussed and can feel more intended to paper over the numerous argumentative leaps in HyperNormalisation (for an interesting experiment just listen to the film’s narrative while ignoring the images and see how compelling you find it). Sometimes the juxtapositions are funny, occasionally clever, but often just a bit crass. A blending of grainy video recordings of the execution of the Ceausescus with clips from a Jane Fonda workout video in order to illustrate the death of collective faith in ideology and the rise of a superficial individualism is a little of all of these things. I also can’t help but think Curtis’s inability to resist a good bit of footage also somewhat accounts for the film’s flabby length. Chris Applegate’s Adam Curtis Bingo gives you a good of what to expect, all the familiar tropes are here, from moody aerial footage of massive cities, to footage of people dancing, to more pointless raiding of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. In terms of the latter Curtis does the same thing he did in his previous film Bitter Lake, exploiting a clip of a key plot twist towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the benefit of his own film, in the process basically gutting Stalker of one of its most powerful moments, ruining it anyone who hasn’t seen it. He also pushes a reading of the film which fits the HyperNormalisation narrative to a tee, but which anyone who knows Tarkovsky’s films and writing will probably find jarringly mechanistic.

Curtis’s films are often hit and miss when it comes to endings, which partly accounts for his (frankly unforgivable) use of the climax of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to end Bitter Lake. Unlike a traditional documentary, which you might expect to mount towards some sort of concluding argument, HyperNormalisation just seems to end, much like one of Curtis’s jarring mid-sequence cuts. The film peters out with a mixture of typically weird footage, including the prom sequence from Carrie and a clip of three young girls dancing badly in a backyard. It feels a bit like Curtis has run out steam and browser tabs, realised that it’s 3am and that he has to be up early for work in the morning. Like his other films HyperNormalisation is a strange, even contradictory beast, on the one hand speaking the language of a sort of concerned left wing radicalism at the same time that its tone and conclusions are oddly nihilistic. On the one hand employing some very traditional aspects of documentary, while at the same time being a sort of oddly anti-documentary documentary. In these ways and more they are fitting works for a post-truth era, because in a way they are themselves prone to the same tendencies of simplification, obfuscation or in some cases I suspect outright inaccuracy. Curtis’s desire to connect together the complex networks that define our world is a valid and extremely interesting ambition, but it feels as if he’s all too ready to water down these ideas in order to build what can start to feel like the left wing equivalent of Loose Change, a massive, compelling pseudo-conspiracy which on closer inspection is not so tightly argued or evidenced as it first seems. Curtis’s defenders will argue that his valid points justify his sometimes invalid means, but that argument is itself so post-truth I find it incredible to hear intelligent people suggest it. Can’t one precisely imagine someone like Trump or Putin saying something similar? I know my cause is just, so what does it matter what means I employ to achieve it? As HyperNormalisation reveals, the means matter entirely as much as the end, because ultimately the choice of any particular means can entirely shift the nature of the end.

7 thoughts on “Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

  1. “It feels a bit like Curtis has run out steam and browser tabs, realised that it’s 3am and that he has to be up early for work in the morning.”

    You excel yourself Bush that’s hilarious 🙂

  2. Curtis is certainly prophetic. Trump has won, as HyperNomalisation comes close to predicting. The film needs a major edit, it’s twice as long as it needs to be, but let’s not throw away the insight Curtis is attempting to explain because of the method he uses to explain it. The insight is powerful. It should be built on, explored, talked about. We are missing values-driven leadership, trust in government, respect for life on our planet. The root cause of our inability to address these issues must be understood so that we can be more effective solving them. Curtis makes a valuable contribution to understanding why our society lacks the will to make positive change happen.

  3. I found it appalling, cherry picked material to back a misleading argument. What I have now come to expect from Mr. Curtis There are so many holes and contradictions in his argument that it falls apart very quickly. Uses the process of selective journalism much alive at the BBC. Together with sweeping statements like “everybody”, “nobody”, “”the politicians”, “the left”, etc. From what I can see the MSM seem to think it’s great an offer no real critique. Best I found was at:-
    http://www.theatreofnoise.com/2016/10/bbc-as-echo-chamber-review-of.html

    • An unattributed photograph on Reddit isn’t evidence of anything. And if you don’t want opinion don’t read my blog.

  4. Just rewatching it on my day off, but may well switch off. Interesting that some of your commentators are rather defensive and take that who are you to criticise line that is familiar to readers of the Guardian CiF. I think that’s indicative of how much AC is weaving a belief system for the self-styled alienated and apolitical types and how much they need it. As you imply, he is guilty of doing what the Trumps of the world do all the time – simple answers and mashed-up evidence. I wish he’d called it a day with Bitter Lake.

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