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.

6 comments on “HyperNormalisation”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    For those who don’t have this kind of time I recommend searching out the youtube parody of his style “The Loving Trap” by Ben Woodhams.

  2. admin says:

    I just watched ‘The Loving Trap’, Ken. Sadly it perfectly proves Curtis’s argument in ‘Hypernormalisation’ – that peer protest is now toothless and irrelevant. Mr Woodham now seems to be chronicling his gap year on YouTube.

  3. Vivienne says:

    Coincidence! Only yesterday my son (teaches History and Govt & Politics) was extolling the virtues of Adam Curtis. Will start watching.

  4. Lynchie says:

    In addition to King Leopold of Belgium’s murderous policies in Africa, I’d reccomend watching “Global War” – Episode 3 of the BBC4 history series “The First World War”. Hundreds of thousands of Africans died in Africa as a result of the war between Britain with a few allies and Germany. Throughout the war the British tried and failed to stop the guerilla actions of General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who, with a force that never exceeded about 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Africans), held in check a much larger force of 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops. Lettow-Vorbeck returned home to Germany in 1919 to a hero’s welcome. Britain also used the Japanese to invade part of China to destroy a German base – an action which, the programme suggests, led directly to Japan’s imperial expansion and ultimately to the attack on Pearl Harbour. It’s worth noting that actions which – compared to the death and destruction on the Western Front – seem of minor importance can lead to significant changes in history which are otherwise ignored during Europe and the USA’s commemoration of The Great War.

  5. admin says:

    It’s interesting that anyone who brings these things to light is considered a contrarian, isn’t it? The facts are there for all of us to find but it takes hard work. Belgium and Japan have to this day successfully buried their criminal pasts. Mobutu was placed in power by the USA, who continued to support his reign of terror for decades. Ultimately we hold an image in our heads of a woman at 9/11 imploring the camera ‘Why do they hate us?’ The answer, sadly, lies in plain sight and can easily be traced.

  6. In typical style, Curtis sets off, traversing a mindbending sequence of historic, and not-so-well-known events, analysing cultural, social, and political agents, whom he describes as architects of a “fake version of the world”, into which we have all retreated. Through his works, he provides viewers with an insight into the motives, and devious practices, of the elites and tyrants, that have controlled the world, and continue to do so to this present day, however tenuously. He argues that this existential existence, brought about by neoliberalism, and the wholesale handing over of power from politicians to financiers, has plunged societies into a world of loneliness. There is no denying the ever-increasing gap in global wealth inequality, and the dramatic rise of suicide rates everywhere, from West Belfast to South Korea, the latter of which is described by radical Slovenian philosopher, and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek, in his penultimate book, ‘Trouble in Paradise’ (2014), as having the highest suicide rate on earth. Therefore, taking this into account, one could be compelled to accept the merit of such accusations. But, where did we, or they, go wrong?

    Except from my article on Hypernormalisation:

    To Trump, or not to Trump?


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