Chris Jury finds Adam Curtis's latest film to be memorable and compelling, but also irritatingly obscure.
The term "hypernormalisation" is taken from Alexei Yurchak's 2006 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, in which Yurchak argues that for many decades everyone had known the Soviet system was failing, but as no one could imagine any alternative, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the "fakeness" was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed "hypernormalisation.
Hypernormalisation is the latest film by iconoclastic documentary filmmaker, Adam Curtis. It was released on October 16th 2016 and is available only on the BBC iPlayer. It is a history of the neoliberal age (1975 to the present day) and seeks to causally link some of the defining features of the era such as financialisation, corporatisation, managerialism, computerisation, the use and abuse of cyber networks, disruption in the Middle East, Islamist extremism and the failure of the left to provide a coherent and credible alternative.
Being ambivalent about Curtis’s work, I approached the film with mixed feelings. His films are undoubtedly extraordinary and unique and his heterodoxy is impressive. Bitter Lake and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace are powerful and thought provoking. However, the more of his work I watch, the less convinced I am by his obscurantist, 'art house' aesthetic which often has the effect of making his films seem like banality dressed up as conspiracy theory. (There are some hilarious parodies of Curtis online).
There is a lot in the thesis of the film that anyone on the left will identify with. Curtis suggests that as an economic and political philosophy, neoliberalism seemed to offer the possibility of a 'a world without politics' - a much simpler world in which the free exercise of market forces would resolve all politicalissues in the most democratic way possible, i.e. through the aggregate of people's commercial choices. Thus Curtis argues that neoliberal politicians in the West stopped trying to change the world for the better: instead they set about trying to 'manage' the world as a stable system without politics. Stability and the avoidance of risk became the point of politics, and politics became about managing a post-political world. To do this Western politicians adopted the managerialist public relations systems of commercial corporations, and at the heart of that approach is what Henry Kissinger called 'constructive ambiguity' – in other words, lying.
So for 35 years we have been relentlessly told by Western politicians that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, and that anyway it is a hugely successful system generating huge amounts of wealth that are 'trickling down' to everyone, bringing about a general increase in living standards and overall happiness. However, for most of us this positive 'spin' has been at odds with what we have actually experienced as the neoliberal decades have passed. What the vast majority of us have actually experienced since the mid-seventies is longer working hours, increasingly precarious working conditions, stagnating wages, a dysfunctional housing market and the decimation of the welfare state that was created to support us in times of need.
Curtis proposes that this gap between political rhetoric and lived experience has led to a profound 'cognitive dissonance' in the West, as politicians and a compliant media present the world in an endlessly positive way that people's own experience tells them isn't true. Curtis puts it very simply when he says, "the stories politicians and their collaborators in the media tell us about the world no longer make sense."
Curtis suggests that this credibility gap between public rhetoric and lived experience has led to a process of 'hypernormalisation' whereby, "politicians and citizens are resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning society," and that this has now got so bad that it is analogous to the last 20 years of the disintegrating Soviet Union.
This is a version of an argument that is very familiar to those of us on the left - and I've just summarised it in less that 500 words. In Hypernormalisation it takes Curtis 2 hours 46 minutes to make it. It needn't have taken that long except that to explain this well-established narrative of neoliberal failure, Curtis tells a myriad of apparently unrelated stories that the film's structure implies are linked.
The stories he chooses to tell include Syria and Hafez al-Assad, Libya and Muammar Gaddafi, Henry Kissinger's foreign policy in the MiddleEast, Donald Trump's bankruptcy, New York City's 1975 bankruptcy, the history of suicide bombing, the history of Hizbollah and Hamas, the role of computers in financialisation and corporatisation, and Gawd help us, a conspiracy theory that proposes that UFOs were invented in the 1950's by the US military to disguise Cold War weapons testing. Fake news gone mad!
Despite this seemingly arbitrary eclecticism, there is some great material in here. There is a truly terrifying clip of Ronald Reagan doing a Presidential broadcast in which he states "into the hands of America God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind. God bless America." The history of suicide bombing, "the poor man's atomic bomb", is told with great clarity and explains the turmoil in the Middle East in a new way that makes absolute sense to me. There is a great bit where Curtis explains that in the past "journalists thought their job was to expose lies and assert the truth" but that in this new world of 'hypernormality' their job is to maintain economic, social and political stability.
He neatly criticises American radicals in the seventies and eighties because they gave up trying to change the world and succumbed to neoliberal,individualistic logic, turning to self-expression rather than collective action.
The stuff on the ideological conflict in the nineties between technoutopian idealists and cynical political and corporate technologists is also great. The story of Trump literally gambling in a gangster-owned Vegas casino to try to save his company is jaw-dropping. Hearing about Larry Fink's computer company Black Rock and his supercomputer, Aladdin, is fascinating. There are several places where the 'banality of evil' is magnificently illustrated, for example apparently Bashir Assad's favourite band is ELO...which explains a lot, doesn't it! I also like the idea that since Reagan, US foreign policy has been reframed as if the USA were dealing with 'arch-criminals' and that Sadaam, Gadaffi, Assad etc are to be explained as no more than Bond villains.
His description of the weaknesses inherent in 'clicktivism' is convincing as he explains how in the 2016 US election liberals expressed their anger at Trump in cyberspace, where it had no effect because algorithms ensured their posts were only seen by people who agreed with them. And how these ubiquitous algorithms used by social media corporations mean that waves of mass public anger don't change anything any longer, because on social media no-one outside the group of fellow angry folk is even aware of the issue.
He succinctly and correctly in my view, criticises Occupy and Tahrir Square, demonstrating that these movements ultimately failed because they had no vision of the future and a managerial view that politics are process, and that "you can organise people without the exercise of power." And the references to Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, and Ulrich Beck's 'runaway world' theory are also interesting and powerful... and so it goes on...
Which illustrates the problem. This scattergun approach to references and material doesn't so much give insight as give the impression of a deranged conspiracy theorist who seems to somehow be linking suicide bombers with UFO's. He isn't doing that by the way, but it's not clear what exactly he is doing either.
As in a parody of an 'art film', analogies and images are arbitrarily juxtaposed. It's as if he has bunged in anything that comes into his head and assumed it must have meaning and coherence because the disparate ideas came from the same head. At times the images are almost irrelevant to the voiceover and yet there is so much eighties footage it often feels like an avant-garde, student documentary from the eighties or the early nineties. There are long sections with no voiceover where horrible pop music plays over obscure library footage and images. There is a certain fascination in the novelty of these clips and images as I've certainly not seen most of them before, but what they are supposed to mean is anybody's guess.
This is political documentary expressed as 'art film'. Style overwhelms substance so much that at times it is like some irritating French or Italian film from the late fifties with a masturbating nun and a random lunatic round every corner. And the broadness of the references and connections made in the film give rise to an incoherence not dissimilar to the worst of 'art film' and in turn this seemingly arbitrary, approach means the film is always threatening to descend into a conspiracy theory parody of itself.
Ultimately, I would argue that the film fails both as a film and as a piece of heterodox propaganda because it is guilty of exactly the things it criticises others for - it is a political documentary that discusses political issues without political analysis, and an 'art film' that is ultimately more about self-expression than it is about collective political action.
So in summary, for anyone on the left of UK politics Hypernormalisation is worth a look and there is some fascinating material in it. But you will have to be prepared to forgive the film's weaknesses (not least its length) and recognise that although it suffers hugely from style-over-substance and has an irritatingly obscurantist, 'art film' aesthetic, it does nonetheless provide some memorable and compelling insights.
Finally, it is worth saying that it is a miracle that in this day and age the film got made at all, and the fact it was made by the BBC is even more astonishing. On Wikipedia it says the budget of the film was £30,000. This is a tiny budget for a feature length documentary but more money than most of us could spend on making a film such as this. So I thank the BBC for continuing to support Curtis. For me it’s a bit like the recent work of Ken Loach, there are weaknesses in the work, but it's great that it can be made and distributed at all.