This is a review of Hypernormalization by Adam Curtis, a documentary released on BBC iPlayer on October 16th and available for a year from release date.
Adam Curtis is to the YouTube watching, video-sharing, torrent-downloading generation what Richard Wagner was to the denizens of the neo-Romantic, modern opera, Teutonic-polytheist era. Round about the turn of the century, the docu-digital Wagner created works which explored the interface between, on the one hand, personal autonomy, self-realization, and individualism, and, on the other hand, the shifting paradigms of politics and power. In these classics, Curtis expanded on themes he had touched upon in earlier documentary series like The Mayfair Set and The Living Dead. These earlier works were more tightly focused in the issues they investigated and employed a traditional narrative, similar to what is found on most mainstream documentaries. He returned to this style somewhat in his 2004 documentary series The Power of Nightmares, where he investigated the rise of the Neo-conservative movement in the US and the Islamists and Jihadists in the Muslim world. This was more or less a relapse, however, and Curtis has developed an offbeat, ‘non-linear,’ and impressionistic form of documentary movie-making, particularly with works like The Century of the Self, The Trap, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, and Bitter Lake. This impressionism was always evident in the editing of Curtis’ films but has now come to also define the storyline of his documentaries. Perhaps, most of all, the dominating feature of Curtis’ documentaries is his serene and regal voice that walks the viewer through from start to finish.
Last week, Curtis released Hypernormalization on the BBC iPlayer. The documentary comes in at about 165 minutes long and weaves together several different threads. It is classic Curtis and develops his innovate style. Isolating any distinct thread may be done at the risk of ‘de-emphasizing’ any other theme. At the risk of doing so, the movie meditates on the idea that (1) economics and technology has filled the vacuum left by a withdrawal by politicians from the arena of traditional decision-making, with (2) politicians reduced to a management role although, (3) politicians still cobble together something of a traditional role by defining the world in terms of mythic dichotomies of absolute good and absolute evil.
In Hypernormalization, we witness the evolution of American politico-economic life, largely through the lens of the rise of modern social media and Donald Trump. At the same time, Syria, Henry Kissinger, and Iran are our points of reference for the development of Middle Eastern politics. Colonel Ghaddafi comes to play the role of a comic super-villain in all this, albeit one who never threatens to grab the limelight from the main players. As is often the case with Curtis, something about the Soviet Union makes an appearance, a reminder to us of how humans can allow their idealism to run into dystopia.
As ever with Curtis, there is the dredging up of classic footage and choice use of more recent beauties. Patti Smith pointing out something called ‘graffiti’ in the 1970s, an artist air-drawing the alphabet with kitchen utensils, off-camera shots of Donald Trump breaking into a worried frown after doing an obligatory Cheshire cat grin for the camera: these were some of the classic images portrayed. We then had Nigel Farage warning us about a minority in the Muslim community, a London woman crying over the spike in British xenophobia, and Donald Trump boasting about paying off politicians as examples of more recent fare.
During his career, Curtis has mastered the art of soundscapes. Whatever it felt like watching this on the BBC iPlayer, I can only imagine the feeling if you were watching it in a cinema. He used many of the Brian Eno greats and Shostakovich numbers that have featured in his earlier films, as well as some new tracks that were often sparse and eerie. His choice of music helped to portray our glitzy new world as far more empty and gloomy than the Soviet Union ever was.
As for the editing, it’s already been noted how Curtis has come to favour an impressionistic style. I thought that he greatly fine-tuned this technique relative to his previous film, Bitter Lake. Hypernormalization‘s predecessor always had the feel as a series of rough cuts that were never quite smoothed into place. By contrast, this new documentary doesn’t leave you wanting to look away or ask “when will this scene ever end”?
As for the downsides, there were really three major ones for me. First of all, there was the lack of a strong and coherent narrative. We see all these images and ideas emerge before our eyes but it is Curtis’ duty as a visual story-teller to interpret this for us. After all, he is the one who has done the research and the one who has read and watched material that didn’t make it to the screen, and he is also the one who ultimately has to let us know what he is thinking. Secondly, related to this first point, there was a lot of useless footage which did not enhance the film although it was interesting in its own right. Lastly, Curtis has seemingly shied away from asking experts in some field (a field obviously relevant to the film) about their opinions. This featured in The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares. There was some old footage of experts who discussed Henry Kissinger but a few new voices wouldn’t have hurt. I don’t know why Curtis has shied away from doing this as it adds great weight to his own voice.
If Century of the Self represented Curtis at the height of his powers, then this is somewhat a return to Curtis circa the early part of the millennium, albeit falling short of the vintage stuff. While the movie has major flaws, the production and technical mastery of images and sound is impressive. If the next Curtis release manages to resurrect the aspects that were present in earlier movies, but which have been absent for some time, aspects which converted some of Curtis’ documentaries into celebrated masterpieces, then the result could be something special indeed.