The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres
Saturday, 25 May 2024 04:35

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres

Dennis Broe reviews The Way. Above image: Owen brandishing King Arthur’s sword - Mandalorian much?

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” about-to-be-fired news anchor Howard Beale screams in a television rant, urging everyone to go to the window and yell the same thing.

This scene from the film Network, much honored and claimed to be prescient, in fact represents simply mindless, ungrounded fear, vaguely articulated, not drawn from the specific material aspects of people’s lives and thus open to a kind of manipulation that can easily be converted into simple resentment and will become the basis of today’s populism.

Unfortunately, these ungrounded impulses, now 45 years on in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Reagan, Thatcher et al.’s austerity and neoliberalism, are the basis of the BBC series The Way. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis helped conceptualize the three-part series, and there’s evidence of his strengths (eg in tracing advertising industry manipulation in The Century of the Self) but also his glaring weaknesses (eg in the more recent anti-revolutionary, rabidly anti-populist documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head).

The Way blends a loosely constructed family fiction around the Welsh steel and former mining town of Port Talbot with documentary footage of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, and a mythical otherworldly aspect that summons King Arthur’s pulling the sword from the stone, the lifting of the series title phrase “The Way” from the Star Wars’ Mandalorian code of conduct, and Scottish folklore of a proselytizing Red Monk who kickstarts a town rebellion.  

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Howard Beale’s populist rant in Network 

Into this soup of inluences is thrown the actual condition of the steelworks, with an Indian owner, in the series Japanese, who is always on the verge of closing the plant. The problem – and this is a Curtis mainstay – is that the characters are utterly deceived by a passive mediatized lifestyle. Owen, the lead character, who “can’t remember the last time I felt anything,” is, as his love interest describes, “a drug addict in recovery dealing drugs” to which her response is “I don’t care, it’s not my business.”

This passivity and foolishness influences their actions, as workers in the town strike the plant before it can close, though no immediate closing is threatened. Owen tosses a lead pipe which ignites the carnage with the police, which of course echoes the bone thrown across the ages in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time it signals the utter breakdown of civilization rather than its terrifying advance, as in Kubrick’s film.

Wales is sealed off from “Britain”, and thus episode two begins with the family’s own odyssey as they attempt to march to safety in a now open police state. In the series, much hostility is summoned but it remains vague (“The British don’t revolt, they gripe”) with the actual problems of deindustrialization and a devastated economy expressed in generalized slogans.

These slogans do not directly confront the power structure and the massive redistribution of wealth that began in 1980 with the launching of the neoliberal era, just after Network premiered. In that film, people start throwing their televisions out the window, when they mighthave done better by storming the television station and taking over the means of production of the media.

Writers Guild of America 2023 writers strike rev

The 2023 Writers' Guild strike 

The ungrounded populism expressed in both Network and The Way does accurately convey the very real grievances felt by the population – but behind each lies the firm conviction that workers are too coddled and deceived by omnipresent media to be able to do more than threaten irrational action. But this mindset was just recently disproved by the massive strikes in the entertainment and service industry in Los Angeles, and which continue throughout the U.S.

These campaigns and strikes in the U.S. have specific demands, and represent a growing understanding and awareness by workers, not only of their situation but of how to use today’s media for their own purposes. This understanding is not present in The Way.

If the Port Talbot steel plant, along with another plant closes, Britain will only be fashioning steel from scraps and leftovers, rather than making it. The Way, with its muddled mix of genres and its deceived chaotic individuals is also fashioned from scraps – that is, the leftovers and the detritus of the entertainment industry and the subjectivity of its victims, who in this telling offer only confused resistance.  

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution
Saturday, 25 May 2024 04:35

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution

There are always calls from the right to defund the British Broadcasting Company but they are now being joined by calls from the left as well, as one of the casualties of the genocide in Gaza is the BBC’s own vaunted “objectivity.”

That questioning was on display when BBC staff members wrote a letter published in Al Jazeera stating that the BBC coverage of this current eruption of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was biased. The network spent a good deal of  time humanizing Israeli victims while failing to provide any context and information on the 75 years of occupation before the October 7 attack, thus rationalizing the Israeli response as “self-defense.”

These cracks in the armour are also apparent in the BBC’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a 2021 six-part documentary television series (now available on YouTube) by the prodigious filmmaker Adam Curtis. Curtis, in what he calls an “emotional history of the modern world”, attempts to trace the roots of the populism which is so much with us today. His reach is wide, encompassing the Mau-Mau in Kenya, Black revolutionary heroes and gangsters, the transformation and gentrification of London’s Notting Hill, Madame Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the technological revolution which the documentary sees as resulting in mind control.

The reach is wide, but unfortunately the grasp is narrow. This is the Christopher Nolan school of filmmaking – that is, Nolan’s rapid-fire cutting and shooting through history at a pace that makes serious grappling with any moment of that history difficult. It’s Nolan’s scattergun fictional style, applied to documentary.

1971 Hold aloft the red lantern

Curtis finds all forms of revolutionary activity in the 1950s through the 1970s lacking, but his focus on the singular and the bizarre without much context. and almost devoid of an economic analysis which might underpin and ground his “emotional history”, ends up promoting the “chaos” which his elite gaze on the material seems to be so adamantly fearful of.

The montage, the clashing of various aspects of the counterculture as well as his tracking of the growth of digital surveillance and the various musics – reggae, rap, punk – which he uses as a backbeat to his story, suggest a new approach to documentary. However, there is one element that remains of an old and conservative style, and that is Curtis’ own all-knowing narration in a voice that in its supposed ability to grasp this totality remains the stentorian “voice of God.”

He treats populism as an end in itself, not as a symptom and coping mechanism of a wider breakdown of western capitalism. Under neoliberal capitalism, more and more wealth is being redistributed upwards over the time he is discussing, leaving people more and more desperate and searching for solutions that often include demagogic leaders – the best the system allows to be thrown at them.

When he does glimpse of the thought behind the detached veneer of his narration, the results are frequently disappointing. Thus, the Black Panthers were incendiary violent revolutionaries gullibly deceived by police informants, when in fact the Panthers’ greatest and most lasting contribution was the institutionalizing of their program of school lunches for poor children. The Cultural Revolution is seen as mass deception organized by Madame Mao, a disgruntled actor seeking revenge on the Shanghai film artists who had slighted her in the 1930s. In Curtis’ view the Revolution, which brought education to many poor rural Chinese in a country that was vastly illiterate, was only an unleashing of one-woman’s “resentment” that linked to a whole society’s anger at the past. The imperialist West is not blamed or even mentioned as a primary factor in generating this anger. (By the way, the footage of Peoples’ Revolutionary Operas is thrilling.)

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Jim Garrison, who attempted to bring to trial those who he claimed had participated in the assassination of a president, and whose efforts Oliver Stone and the myriad researchers working in the shadows to bring this hidden history to light, is labelled as delusional. Curtis dismisses the possibility that elites participated in a violent coup at the heart of Western democracy as “complete fantasy.”

Behind the imperial voice, the objective and all-knowing veneer, Curtis’ documentary is not a history of populism but instead a history of elite fears of both revolution and populism. Can’t Get You Out of My Head in its frantic pace generates a whole lot of heat, but in the end, not much light. As such, it strikes another blow against the BBC’s false “objectivity.” 

Hypernormalisation
Saturday, 25 May 2024 04:35

Hypernormalisation

Published in Films

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.
- Wikipedia

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...

Hyper 2

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.