It means we live in a time when anything can happen at any given moment, and what’s more we’re so used to it that we cope by turning away from the world’s issues, knowing we can do nothing about them, and look inward instead to body and mind.
It’s also the title of Adam Curtis’s new documentary for the BBC. Curtis (whom I’ve briefly met through a writers’ group a couple of times) is a curiosity. Here’s how Wikipedia describes him.
‘Kevin Adam Curtis (born 1955) is an English documentary film-maker. His favourite theme is “power and how it works in society”, and his works explore areas of sociology, psychology, politics and history. Curtis describes his work as journalism that happens to be expounded via the medium of film. His films have won four Baftas and he has been closely associated with the BBC throughout his career…He believes the Western world is haunted by the past, with no vision for the future, and that it has become pessimistic and backward-looking.’
However Curtis is something more special than his description, an explainer and a connector looking at the big picture of international society in very entertaining layman terms. Using old footage, music and newsreel clips to illustrate his theses, he has given us histories of the Freud family, the global arms trade, the rise of Islam, computers, UFOs and the press. His worldview is bleak and his latest, ‘HyperNormalisation’, is no exception.
At 2 2/3 hours it’s an epic, taking up strands of a story that links William Gibson, Donald Trump, Kissinger, Putin, suicide bombers, Syria and Libya, 9/11, Jane Fonda (!) and the present political powerlessness of the 21st century. His approach is sure-footed, and Curtis has a journalist’s eye for a good story. Only at one point does he appear to jump the shark, throwing in an account of fake UFOs that he has explored before when it doesn’t really have a place here (it’s still a good story).
The cumulative effect of Curtis’s narrative is an overwhelming feeling of ‘Oh Dearism’, the very idea he created in an earlier documentary – the sense that things are too big and out of control for us to do anything about other than shrug and say ‘Oh dear’. The other sense we get is that we’ve been lied to, over and over again, openly and cynically.
There is, of course, a risk of glibness. Curtis can be weaponised as offering a dangerously simple message, and perhaps it’s a double-edged sword to have Russell Brand on your side. The comic, not best known for his joined-up thinking, is a big fan. More recently Curtis’s subjects have grown more expansive, but he can also be a fine-detail journalist. The best way of using his documentaries is as a springboard to further study.
The only thing I find missing from his documentaries – all of which I’ve seen and loved – is a historical perspective that would prove this pattern extends back much further than WWII. For example, at the start of the 20th century King Leopold of Belgium initiated one of the most appalling long-term atrocities ever inflicted on Africa by blatantly lying to the world powers about what he was doing. History belongs to the cynical opportunists, and always has done.
Curtis goes a step further by showing us the new world order of Trump and Farage, how by constantly shifting ground, changing their minds and openly admitting prejudices they can blur all the moral lines until we don’t know what to think. His start-date for this shift into unreality is 1975, and it’s hard to see an end in a world where the wealth gap widens the more you protest because ‘angry people click more’, and you only ever address your little peer group.
I’ve always been surprised that Curtis hasn’t written any books. Instead he has a unique and rather wonderful relationship with the BBC, who are able to screen his documentaries because they’ve nurtured his career and can get rights clearance on such a vast number of clips (although there are a few bootleg DVDs knocking around online in the USA). This new film, and the previous one, ‘Bitter Lake’, are both available free on iPlayer, where, unusually, they remain in place rather than going to BBC Worldwide after 30 days.
Unfortunately those in other countries will need a system like Overplay to view them, so here’s a different report with extensive clips on Curtis. Try to see ‘HyperNormalisation’ if you can; I’d love to discuss it with someone here.